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When money talks, builders, like everyone else, listen.

But what does the well-to-do buyer want when he or she is shopping for a house?

It's tough to say. The wealthy fit into the same generational categories into which the rest of America has been placed by demographers, which means that wealth means different things to different age groups.

What the rich have in common is that they demand quality. And they, not builders or designers, define quality, a far cry from the days when clients tended to believe everything you told them.

This new elite is savvy and sophisticated, well-traveled, and stays in the best hotels and eats in the best restaurants. They've seen a lot of design, and they know what they want. Yet they are family-oriented, entertaining more at home, and are looking to simplify their lives.

The houses of the rich, say those who cater to them, are casual, elegant and sophisticated. Rather than having their houses completed within a certain time frame, a lot of wealthy clients are asking to have the houses built in phases.

They are cost-conscious, not because they can't afford really nice things, but because they don't want to go overboard with it, according to the experts. Less has become more.

As with all new-home buyers, rich ones want to have their hands held. A design team -- architect, builder and designer -- is important to them.

The goal of this design team should be to make the process fun. The buyers need to be educated so that they know they are involved in this process, so that the next time they build a house, it will go quicker and faster.

This new elite, which depends heavily on the stock market for its wealth, has taken a big hit over the last couple of years. Yet they appear to be spending their money differently, rather than cutting back.

They want efficiency, functionality and usable luxury. They want real spaces, not showplaces.

Their houses have become more user-friendly.

A few years ago, the monumental stair was a big deal, the scale was overwhelming, and the perception of value had to hit you in the face when you walked in the front door. This meant that meant visitors had to be able to see into every space, except the master suite, within two seconds of arrival.

Now, the byword is intimacy. Ceilings are lower, and the scale of rooms is cozy and inviting.

What designers are being asked to look for by wealthy clients are committed-purpose spaces.

How do you make a living room a committed-purpose space? A couple of great reading chairs and a reading light, a bar immediately adjacent to it that creates a place where people want to gather, and finishes that might have a little bit of rustication to them.

A beamed ceiling in a living room creates a sense of friendliness without being overdone, one expert says. Extra warmth can be achieved, for example, by applying gray stain to doors in an area with gray painted walls.

Designers are translating the demand for quality and simplicity into what he called "stay-at-home interiors." That often means creating $5 million infill houses by bulldozing houses built in the 1970s and '80s.

Wealthy home buyers generally appear to want custom houses but do not want to go through the design-build process. Instead, they want to have it all done for them, and come in and buy it, which turns a house truly into a product.

Casitas are popular among these buyers because they provide a place separate from the main residence to house weekend guests. Casitas -- "little houses" in Spanish -- are a newer version of the apartment-over-the-carriage-house concept.

Houses are becoming a series of environments rather than rooms. But these rooms have to relate to one another so they can create a presence for the house, designers say.

One California architect, Steven Dewan, creates access through the house using a circulation spine, by which the visitor moves through the space through a series of axes to experience all the zones of the house, both formal and informal.

The design must guarantee an indoor-outdoor relationship. If the house has a central courtyard, every room has to relate to it. You want to blur the transition from interior to exterior, and one way to do it is to use the same material inside and out.

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