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Where homes, home-buying are headed

At the beginning of a new year, one not only considers what changes might come in the next 12 months, but it’s also a time to think a bit further out and ponder what the world might be like a decade or more down the road. So it goes with our first column of 2014.

Initially, we thought it would be interesting to throw out some predictions of where the numbers might be for real estate by year’s end. But such predictions usually amount to little more than some marginally educated guesswork. Nevertheless, in a column where we like to analyze the ups and downs of our industry, it’s a bit too tempting not to take a shot at where we’ll go in the near term. For 2014, our housing forecast is short and simple — everything will be up.

Virtually all of the metrics we consider important to measuring real estate look as though they’ll be headed higher. The amount of new construction and number of existing homes sold should be up, and prices are also expected to increase. However, on the downside, mortgage rates will almost certainly begin to rise as the Federal Reserve begins to tighten up on the money supply. And finally, for a public weary of riding the roller coaster, the good news is that we don’t believe 2014 will bring the type of booming growth that eventually leads to bust. Slow and steady is more of what we expect.

Now that we’ve got the short-term projections out of the way, let’s get to some of the blue sky theorizing with respect to what real estate might be like five or 10 years from now. Whenever we think about future buying and selling tools, as well as the design of houses themselves, it’s helpful to look back on where we’ve come from in an equivalent amount of time.

For instance, it’s hard to believe, but the first iPhone was introduced just seven years ago, on June 29, 2007. When we moved to our new home earlier this year, a thorough cleaning of the basement uncovered the very first cellphone we ever owned. It was one of those old Motorola phones, which cost thousands of dollars and was roughly the size and weight of a brick. Plus, all it did was make and receive calls, with a cost per minute that made you get right to the point. Today, the expense of talking on a cellphone is miniscule, and the cost of a basic phone is so little that they can practically give them away in a box of cereal.

It’s that type of rapid change that gives you cause to push the envelope when peering out into the future. Here’s what we see happening with home design and house selling in the next 10 years:

Although the design and architecture of a home hasn’t changed dramatically in recent years, there have been some subtle shifts that we expect will continue and perhaps accelerate in the coming decade. The very first homes people built weren’t much more than a one-room box with no separation between the kitchen, bedroom and living areas. Then, as the size of homes grew, the focus was more on compartmentalization, and individual rooms were created for specific purposes. Now, it looks like we’re headed back to an era where people want singular spaces that can be used for a multitude of purposes. Things like the formal living rooms are disappearing altogether as the preferred layout for living harkens back to the log cabin days where the kitchen, living and dining spaces are all in one big room.

Down the road, we expect that technology in a home will further allow big spaces to morph from one use to another. With wireless applications, the use of special lighting and the ability to put paper thin television screens nearly anywhere you want them, we’ve already seen how space can be altered to serve many purposes. No longer is it necessary to have phones by a jack in the wall or big, bulky televisions planted in a dedicated corner of the room. In the not-too-distant future, you won’t paint your walls, you’ll plug them in. Then, your cocoon can become a completely flexible design, where you’ll make the television appear wherever you want, open a virtual window or electronically create an opaque partition for privacy.

As with today, kitchens will not just be for cooking, but they’ll continue to be the hub of a home’s social environment. But improvements with cooking technology will make things like the stove and fridge less obtrusive. Increasingly, those items, like televisions, will blend in more with the overall atmosphere.

An aging population will also be conducive to the concept of single-space, multipurpose living. Instead of moving to a different room or even another part of the same room to watch television or work on the computer, a simple voice command can bring those things to you. For couch potatoes everywhere, it’s a dream come true.

As homes change, so will the process of selling them. Already, buyers do a great deal of their house hunting on the Internet. In the next several years, the ability to shop that way will be further expanded. There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, “Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I’ll remember, involve me and I’ll understand.” For real estate, we will be moving toward an online experience that will not only better show a house, but it will also create a certain level of interactive involvement for home buyers, helping them better understand how they and their stuff will fit into a new property.

A company called Matterport is producing a new generation of 3-D cameras and stitching software that will allow a buyer to fly through, above and around a house with a perspective that comes close to being there. And beyond that, you can also change out appliances or furniture in a house to see how it will look with your individual style and belongings. Add things like Google Earth or video produced by drones to the mix, and you’ll have a pretty good understanding of what a house and its surroundings are like without ever really going there.

We don’t imagine it’ll be long before real estate offices will provide a special room with LED walls that can put you right in the middle of a house or in the backyard of a home you’re thinking about buying. With this kind of technology, the short list of homes that you’ll actually go see will become even shorter.

All that being said, we’re still a long way from replacing the real-life experience of actually being there. Even though the pictures and video get better all the time, it’s still difficult to fully capture the sights, smells and sounds of the places we call home. Technology will no doubt improve faster than we think, but the human element will always be an indispensable part of buying or selling a house.

Bob and Donna McWilliams are practicing real estate agents in Maryland with more than 25 years of combined experience.