As the real estate market starts to recover from its epic crash, home builders are betting that many buyers will want new houses that are different from the big suburban tract homes that proliferated during the boom.
They're building houses intended to use no more electricity than they produce, houses with separate quarters for aging parents, and houses that are more compact and closer to jobs, shopping and restaurants.
These models target first-time buyers, growing families and down-sizing baby boomers all expected to be among the next wave of homebuyers.
"Coming out of this downturn, people don't want more of the same," said Gordon Jones, Northern California president of home building giant Lennar Corp. "They're saying, 'We're not going to make the same mistake again. We're going to buy the right home for how we live and how we see our family living in the future.' "
For Lennar, that means multi-generational housing. The company's NextGen model has an attached apartment with kitchen, laundry, garage and outdoor courtyard for older parents, adult children who need to move back home, or extended-stay guests.
Lennar bills it as "a home within a home."
Since rolling out the model earlier this year, the Miami-based company has sold 34 of its NextGen homes in the Sacramento region, including at its communities in El Dorado Hills, Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Roseville and Sacramento.
Starting prices range from $317,000 in Sacramento for a 2,800-square-foot model to $519,000 in El Dorado Hills for a 3,500-square-foot version.
Recent buyer Ryan Wallace said he and his wife opted for a NextGen house in El Dorado Hills so his parents, who live in British Columbia, could come for longer visits to see their children and grandchildren in Northern California.
"It allows them to have their own space and space for us as well," Wallace said.
Their move from a 1,400-square-foot home in Sacramento to their Lennar home at the Shenandoah at Blackstone community more than doubled their living area to accommodate a growing family.
Kari Chicoine and her husband are heading in the opposite direction downsizing after their children left for college. They're moving from a 3,300-square-foot house in El Dorado Hills on 1.3 acres to a roughly 2,000-square-foot home in Folsom with a small courtyard.
Their future house, still under construction, is at The Collection: Trails at Folsom, developed by The New Home Co. The project opened in July and is already the fastest-selling new home community in the region with 21 sales in 11 weeks, according to a recent report by the North State Building Industry Association.
It includes 71 smaller lots densely grouped around a park and playground. Houses range from about 1,900 square feet to 2,200 square feet and are priced from $345,000 to $384,000.
The appeal of the project is that the airy, modern homes with combined kitchen, dining and living areas use space efficiently and require little maintenance, said Chicoine.
The couple plan to have a fireplace and fountain in the courtyard, she said.
"With the upkeep of 1.3 acres and cleaning, we never had time to do everything we wanted to do," Chicoine said. In their future home, with no lawn to mow and fewer rooms, "We can put our effort into making it our little personal Shangri-La and have time to travel."
The other important factors, she said, is that The Trails development is adjacent to a system of bike trails that traverse Folsom and sits across the street from a large shopping center with dozens of stores and restaurants.
"I can walk to Raley's. I can walk to Massage Envy. I can walk to Folsom Lake," Chicoine said.
Kevin Carson, president of The New Home Co., said the developer polled focus groups and found that lowering utility bills through energy efficiency was a prime goal for homeowners in coming years. So were features such as more windows, downstairs bedrooms and proximity to jobs and shopping.
The New Home Co., a startup that opened in 2010, is focused on meeting those needs, he said, with infill projects in Davis, east Sacramento and Folsom.
The Sacramento region, Carson said, can no longer support developments in outlying areas such as in Yuba County. Homes that sell will be close to jobs and schools in the core areas of Roseville-Rocklin, Folsom-Rancho Cordova, and downtown Sacramento.
"Home building is a dated industry. It really hasn't kept up with the times," he said. "You can't just keep building houses and expect to have neighborhoods."
People will also opt for smaller homes in the future, he predicted. "The economic downturn changed the mentality. People are not biting off more home than they can afford," he said.
Also on the horizon in Sacramento: urban infill projects that take energy efficiency to a new level.
At Third and V streets in downtown Sacramento, developers are putting the finishing touches on a home that they say will be a net-zero-electricity house meaning it uses no more electricity than it produces with roof-mounted solar panels.
It's intended as a model for a larger project called Northwest Land Park, to be built on an industrial site near Interstate 5 and the Sacramento River on the edge of the older, leafy Land Park neighborhood.
The first phase, which could see construction start as soon as next year, will include about 200 homes from studio apartments to stand-alone houses, said project manager Kevin Smith.
The plan is to eventually build about 800 homes with 2,000 residents, he said.
Super-insulating walls, energy-saving appliances and LED lighting are meant to give the development "green" cache. Recycled glass counters, high-tech wiring and highly efficient use of small spaces will add to the appeal, he said.
Northwest Land Park's proximity to downtown jobs and urban amenities such as restaurants and shopping are intended to draw first-time buyers and downsizing baby boomers tired of suburban commutes, Smith said.
"It's an infill product," said Smith, "for smaller households of empty nesters and young urbanites."