Pet owners seem to spare little expense to keep their furry and feathered family members as happy as possible. Learn how designers, homebuilders, and developers are working to cater to your clients’ best friends.

When you talk with clients looking to find the right house, condo, or apartment, you probably inquire about their cooking and entertaining needs, how important outdoor living is, and whether elderly relatives may move in someday.

But there’s another question that savvy real estate professionals should pose: Are pets part of your family equation? In more and more cases, the answer is yes. In the American Pet Products Association’s 2017–2018 National Pet Owners Survey, 68 percent of U.S. households owned a pet, which works out to about 85 million families. Ownership is up from 56 percent in 1988, the first year the survey was conducted. While 48 percent of all households now own dogs, 38 percent have at least one cat. Fish, birds, reptiles, small mammals, and horses represent smaller numbers.

Doting With Dollars

The amount of money Americans spend to keep their pets happy is also on the rise. In 2015, pet owners spent almost $61 billion on food, toys, furnishings, and other pet goods, a 25 percent jump from five years before, according to APPA. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources seems to suggest that this type of spending is more resistant to economic shifts, such as the recent recession. And there’s reason to believe demographics will support this trend long-term, particularly as pet-centric millennials move into homes. Last year, a story in Adweek suggested the fact that many millennials see pets as “starter children” offers an opportunity for brands.

As with other home improvements, costs to fashion pet-friendly spaces depend on the size of a room or area, level of finish, and labor costs. However, most animal lovers would never put a price tag on their choices since to them pets offer priceless benefits, from loyal friend to exercise partner to therapist, according to Lawrence Robinson and Jeanne Segal.

Multifamily Leads the Way

As competition for tenants grows in many cities across the country, developers and managers of apartment and condominium buildings have concluded that catering to pet owners pays off. The first step is reducing or eliminating restrictions on pets, from number permitted to pet size, and then lowering or eliminating special fees for pet owners. But it’s also about the amenities that can be incorporated on site. Developers, architects, and planners began seeing pet parks as a major trend about a decade ago, around the time of the recession, says architect Bill Ramsey, principal with KTGY Architecture + Planning in Oakland, Calif. He notes that other pet-related amenities were slower to follow: “The grooming stations didn’t gain much momentum until after the economy rebounded and are still on the edge of being a novelty. The more upscale the community, the more likely you are to see them offered as an amenity.”

MIMA dog city

© courtesy of Scott Francis for Related Cos.

Related Companies, a real estate firm based in New York, has had a pet-friendly policy since it opened its first building in 1986. The company distinguishes itself by offering wax and booties to dogs at all its buildings in winter, and its MiMa building on New York’s West 42nd Street has a separate dog terrace with a pool in the shape of a bone. Seven years ago, Related established its first Dog City location, providing pet care services for clients concerned about their pets’ well-being when they weren’t home. They offer baseline services, such as nail clipping and access to special play areas and pet clean-up space, for a yearly membership fee of $250. Spa services, walks, puppy nannies, veterinary care, and socialization services are provided in packages and on an à la carte basis. Director of Operations Leya Ogihara says the company looks to tailor offerings “with bespoke attention to each individual dog’s needs.” She notes that Related Companies is currently developing a program that will specifically cater to cats.

How Homebuilders and Designers Prioritize Pets

The increase in pet perks in the multifamily segment led to widespread social media buzz and news coverage, which in turn, spurred many homebuilders to jump on the bandwagon, according to Chad Collins, founder of Collins Design-Build, a custom builder in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. “Clients started bringing me images of what they were seeing on Pinterest and Houzz, so we began to include pet features in our single-family houses.” He began asking new clients about their family pets when meeting them for the first time. “We ask about the number and size, and future pets they hope to get,” he says, noting that around 95 percent of his clients own a pet. “Pets represent a member of the family, especially once children are grown and move away.”

The most typical feature Collins sees pet owners gravitate to is a designated grooming room near the kitchen, back door, mud room, or laundry area. A pet shower, generally measuring up to 5 feet by 5 feet, is placed either at ground level or slightly elevated for smaller animals. A typical pet wash station features a vinyl pan base, tiled walls, and wand-style showerhead. Other features may include a dryer, cabinetry with built-in water and food bowls, toy storage, bed, wall hooks for leashes and collars, a “doggie door” offering access to the yard, and window strategically placed so a pet can see outside. Homebuilder Randy Thelen of Thelen Total Construction in Elkhorn, Wis., estimates that a typical built-in pet shower may run about $1,000.

Atlanta-based Pineapple House Interior Design often places doggie doors between interior rooms and screened porches, to take advantage of this common design feature of Southern homes. “That way dogs and cats get to look out all the time to see squirrels, birds, and cars and know who’s pulling up but are safe inside,” says Cynthia Pararo, chief operations officer. One design from ICI Homes, a custom homebuilder in Daytona, Fla., offers a “cat hotel” room with climbing walkways built from concrete columns with wood trusses and shingle “roofs.”

Custom cat walk

© courtesy of

Many cat walks are readily available through online resources or at pet stores at minimal cost, says Peter Cohen, who owns the custom homebuilding company Trillium Enterprises in Santa Barbara, Calif. To build multiple custom walks can be far pricier. Cohen says that one job he handled cost $35,000. In his own home, he has multiple tunnels, bridges, scratching posts, and 300 feet of walkways for the 24 cats he’s rescued. For owners wary about resale, Stan Williams, CEO and owner of Stanton Homes in Raleigh, N.C., says cat walks can often be used by catless buyers as bookshelves or an area for displaying collectibles. Some also like to include a “catio,” a small enclosed screened porch that often juts out from the home above the ground, so a cat can enjoy fresh air but remain safe indoors, says Peggy Lynch, vice president of professional development and compliance for the Richmond Association of REALTORS® in Richmond, Va.

Some design professionals are accommodating pets other than dogs and cats. Spring Creek Design, a design-and-build firm in Honey Brook, Penn., has designed a bunny room and pig barn. “The bunnies were given a corner bedroom with two windows, since they like light,” says Liz Smutko, the company’s brand manager. The barn has two indoor stalls, housing one pig in each, and comes with mobile fenced-in areas, so the animals can be rotated through and grass and soil cleaned and repaired as needed she says. Finally, Lynch has seen many cases where chickens are coming home to roost in glamorous coops. “People are finding it a good way to teach their children about nature and show respect for animals,” she says.

Features That Make Living Easier

Keeping up with a pet takes work, but features can be built and materials selected to pare maintenance. According to a 2015 study conducted by Houzz, the best floors for most pet owners are hardwood, such as oak or mahogany. Homeowners might consider a distressed or matte finish with a sealant if scratches are an issue. Tile and stone also work well. Collins tries to steer buyers away from carpet, which can make removing pet odors tough. Also encourage your clients to favor microfibers with tight weaves for upholstery, says Tracy Lynn, principal designer and owner of the Tracy Lynn Studio in San Diego. Thelen recommends installing a central vacuum cleaning system with multiple outlets so sweeping up pet hair is easier. If animal-related allergies are an issue, Collins recommends an eco-friendly energy recovery ventilator, which continually exchanges stale for fresh air.

Home layouts can also be optimized so animals can comfortably hang out with their human owners. Spring Creek Design’s Smutko found that she and her husband were constantly needing to walk around their 60-pound German shepherd, Tess, in the kitchen. When the firm redesigned the room, she requested a larger aisle between the work island and sink. “We wanted Tess to be with us, but without being stepped on,” she says. She selected a hard quarter-sawn floor that would withstand Tess’s claws.

Technology and internet-enabled products can also help. Smart cameras and lights allow homeowners to keep tabs on pets and ensure they’re comfortable when alone in the house. New electronic collars can activate pet doors so that homes remain secure. Winter Park, Fla., architect, builder, and licensed interior designer Phil Kean incorporated that technology when he designed the New American Home in conjunction with the National Association of Home Builders. He also used an artificial turf called K9Grass that is designed specifically for dogs and eliminates the challenge of muddy paws and dead spots on the lawn.

Staging Rethinks a Pet’s Role

Listing agents have long had to manage the role of pets in selling a home, including removing smells, accessories, and even the pet themselves in the showing process. Many agents still follow that pattern but other prefer to downplay, rather than hide, all evidence from potential buyers. “I might leave a single leash hanging by a door because that might make a pet owner think of their animal and bring a smile to their face while not upsetting someone who doesn’t like dogs,” says Kimberly Cantine, an associate real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Village Green Realty in the Hudson River Valley. Real estate salesperson Barb St. Amant with Atlanta Fine Homes, Sotheby’s International Realty, in Atlanta, prefers to cite the creature comforts available in online descriptions to stir interest in a listing rather than showcase them visibly.

staged laundry room with dog amenities

© courtesy of Toll Brothers

Model homes and condos are a different breed. Custom homebuilders and developers are showing how much more important this niche has become by creating the illusion that a pet lives on the premises of their show homes. Toll Brothers, a custom builder of both single- and multifamily housing based in Horsham, Penn., stages swank models with plush pet beds and fancy dog showers that feature designer tiles. ICI Homes designed a “pet condo” under a stairway, a place that typically represents dead space, in one of their model houses. The area measures 4 by 4 feet, has a large opening with a gate, and room for a bed, bowls, light, and electric outlet. “The outlet can be used to plug in one of the newer self-cleaning litter boxes,” suggests sales assistant Sabrina Bosarge. Staging expert Kristie Barnett, founder of Expert Psychological Training in Nashville, Tenn., says builders aren’t risking much with these add-ons because they can easily be reimagined when needed—a shower can be used to rinse off small children’s feet or water plants, and a space under the stairs can become a play area or storage space.