Houses with fireplaces have a stronger pull for buyers than homes without them.
One reason is decorative. Whether they work or not, fireplaces provide a focal point for the room or even the whole house. They exude warmth. They provide a sense of hearth and home – especially important since Sept. 11, 2001.
Another is utilitarian. Although fireplaces no longer are the only source of heat in most houses, they provide a welcome alternative during storms that can knock out service for days.
There are areas of the country where you can't sell a new house without one. One of these is California, where Gopal Ahluwalia, director of research for the National Association of Home Builders, says, "you probably don't need one more than three days a year."
But, he says, "lifestyle is guided by the conditions of the economy. When you have money left over, you want to spend it on things you don't need."
With the economy struggling to recover, will fewer buyers of new houses be opting for fireplaces, or will owners of existing houses be wary of adding them?
Not necessarily, the experts say. A fireplace can be paid for over time in a 30-year mortgage, and lower interest rates reduce that kind of burden even further.
The fireplace has been standard in new construction for at least 15 years, if not more. What has changed is not the size of the fireplace, but the number of fireplaces and their locations.
"The concept of fireplaces has changed," says Kira McCarron, marketing director of Toll Bros, which builds luxury houses in almost 20 states. "The shift from masonry to prefab designer boxes has put fireplaces in bathrooms, dining rooms and bedrooms, as well as living rooms and family rooms."
Fireplaces can be seen on walls of entertainment rooms, below big-screen televisions, "so that you have your choice of what you want to see," she says.
The increase in locations results from advances in technology: development of gas fireplaces and the ability to vent them through a wall to the outside without a masonry chimney, and the use of flexible pipe for bringing the gas to the units.
Right now, it's about 50-50 wood versus gas, with wood in the living room and gas anywhere else.
Burning wood raises environmental issues.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, wood-burning appliances and fireplaces can emit large quantities of air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, organic gases, and particulate matter.
Many of these compounds can cause serious health problems, especially for children, pregnant women, and people with respiratory ailments. Several have demonstrated cancer-causing properties similar to those of cigarette smoke. In many urban and rural areas, smoke from wood burning is a major contributor to air pollution.
The advent of vent-free fireplaces also has helped increase the number of units per household because of the flexibility of installation.
But vent-free appliances raise safety concerns. The units are banned in some states and even in states where vent-free fireplaces are permitted, the final say rests with the municipal or county government.
Both unvented and vented heating appliances must be properly maintained to reduce the risk for associated health hazards, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Safety concerns were at the top of contractor John Burke's list when he put a vent-free fireplace in his house.
"There had to be a constant supply of fresh air in that house to guarantee safe operation," Burke says. "Fortunately, the house was old and drafty, and there was never an issue."
However, the unit he bought had both a carbon monoxide monitor and an oxygen-depletion sensor. If the level of oxygen in the room with the fireplace reaches a dangerous level, the flame shuts off immediately.
"Never leave a gas fireplace running when you aren't in the room," Burke says. "And make certain that you shut it off when you go to sleep for the night."
The typical cost of a standard gas fireplace is $600 to $3,000, without installation. Electric fireplaces run about $1,200 to $1,500, but usually generate enough heat to take the edge off one or two rooms.
With fireplaces in older houses, the issue is chimney lining, says developer Mark Wade, who rehabs many older city houses. Most home inspectors recommend that stainless-steel liners be installed in old chimneys.
But it can be expensive, says Wade. Typically, a stainless steel liner installed from fourth floor to the basement can cost $3,000 for about 1 1/2 hours' work.