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Beautiful modern house, outdoor(TNC)—When Lama Kabakibi first saw the sunny atrium in the center of a Franklin Lakes, N.J., contemporary house, she was hooked.

“It just gave so much light to the house, an airy feeling,” she says. She loved the modern profile of the home—a big stucco box, punctuated by cylinders—that veered sharply from the flavor of the neighborhood colonials.

“It didn’t look like all the other homes—that was the appeal,” says Kabakibi, who bought the house 23 years ago.

But now that she and her husband are retiring to Florida and are trying to sell the house, she says, “We have a huge challenge in front of us.”

That’s because many buyers are lukewarm on contemporaries, reserving their warm, nostalgic feelings for home styles that are, well, homier—colonials, Cape Cods, Victorians and other traditional architecture.

Though contemporaries have never been mass produced and are much less common than traditional styles in this area, they were a “favorite for architect-designed homes” from about 1950 to 1970, according to “A Field Guide to American Houses,” by Virginia and Lee McAlester. New Jersey has some notable examples, including the Thurnauer house in Teaneck, designed by architect Edward Durrell Stone.

The houses have an abstract feel and are often characterized by a strong sense of breaking out of the traditional “box” of a house. One example is the “shed” style, which became popular in the 1960s and 1970s—homes that “appear to be assembled from two or more gabled and shed-roofed forms joined together,” according to the “Field Guide to American Houses.”

“The effect is of colliding geometric shapes,” the authors wrote.

Cool—but certainly not what everyone is looking for in a home. Rita Lutzer, a Re/Max agent in Saddle River, N.J., has an $825,000 listing for a Ramsey wood contemporary home built in the 1970s, part of a rare subdivision of contemporary homes. She has sold a number of homes in the subdivision. But it’s not always easy.

“I find that maybe five out of 100 will buy one, but those five are in love with them at first sight, and will only buy that style of house,” says Lutzer.

Kathy Robinson is one buyer who fell in love with a contemporary. Looking for a change after 18 years in a town house, the 51-year-old business executive found the perfect fit in a 3,200-square-foot Mahwah home built in 1962. The house, with a stone, wood and glass exterior, reminded her of her recent stay at the peaceful Post Ranch Inn — a place that’s all wood, glass and ocean views—in Big Sur, Calif.

“I actually didn’t know this type of architecture had a name,” Robinson says. She was looking for “a Zen kind of feeling—very clean lines.” When she saw the Mahwah house, the first thing she noticed was the scent of the reclaimed wood that covered the floor and walls. Then she heard the crackle of flames in the courtyard fire pit.

And then, she says: “There’s this amazing view.” More than 50 windows overlook a wooded, 4.4-acre site. In contrast to the stereotype that contemporaries can seem cold, “this feels very homey,” she says.

“It’s a place to recharge your battery,” Robinson says. “When you walk into this house, it feels you’re being enveloped in something, rather than something that’s very stark.”

The home is shaped like a U around a central courtyard, with different wings for the living spaces and the bedrooms. Because of the glass, you can see from the bedrooms through the courtyard and the living area to the woods beyond, she says.

Contemporaries typically offer open floor plans, soaring ceilings, two-story fireplaces, and large windows that brighten the interior.

John Reilly, an area agent, has found that buyers will sometimes tour a contemporary not necessarily because they like the style, but because they’re curious or because it’s well-priced. (Because of the smaller buyer pool, contemporaries are often priced below homes of a similar size and location.) Once the buyers step inside, he says, they’re often “pleasantly surprised.”

Reilly, who has a listing for a $449,000 contemporary, says the homes are notable for their “use of space and light.”

“There’s a lot of windows; you don’t have to turn the lights on all day,” he says, adding that the high ceilings make the rooms seem larger.

“You feel like you’re part of nature (because of the windows); that’s a big plus,” says agent Joshua Baris, who has contemporary listings in two area locations.

Agent Hedy Weiss chose a contemporary style when she had a house built in Franklin Lakes, N.J., in the late 1970s.

“I could have built a traditional home, but I didn’t want it,” she says. “I loved the open space, the high ceilings—something unique and special.”