Friday, April 1, 2011

Model Homes – Relearning What We Know

There is a slow (especially in the SF Bay Area), rebirth of the housing industry. While starts are way down and the future for new housing, during the next six months, is less than exciting, there is one thing I’m noticing: We have forgotten how to develop a model home experience for the customer.

This loss of collective knowledge and experience may be through the decimation of staffs, the loss of design studios, the costs of going to trade shows, or even trying to save money. But it’s critical to the seller and buyer relationship that they be relearned and applied.

Model homes, at one time, were an art form; interior designers, architects, and landscape architects worked closely with the builder and their PR people to create the most exciting and stimulating buying experience for their customers. In the past, during the glory days of the first decade of the twenty-first century (five long years ago), it was not unusual for a customer to visit maybe a dozen model complexes while looking for a home. How the complex (townhomes, condo, single family homes, and neighborhoods) appealed to the buyer was critical to the buyer and the product’s success. I can’t tell you how many complexes I’ve seen that were borderline (and even worse) disasters, projects with inconvenient access, sites where the customer drove through a muddy project, dead flowers in the planting beds and pots, dead lawns, dirty windows; the list is endless. These change the buyer’s experience and impression, for the worse, about of the project and the builder.

Over the years I have collected a list of things that a model complex must do and achieve to be successful. Outside of the first item, there is not a particular order, but all are important:
  1.  Remember that the buyer’s experience must be the most important concern. The buyer cannot be inconvenienced, embarrassed, or inadvertently placed in danger. (Parking inside the construction site comes to mind – and it has been done).
  2. A clear path, through the use signage and wayfinding, must start at the project’s entry and proceed to the front door of the sales office. I always see the circulation arrangement as processional from the entry on the street, to the parking, to the sales office, to the models, to the sales office, back to the parking, and finally the exit. These connections should be as simple and convenient as possible. The parking near the sales office is the most critical.
  3. A safe and easily accessed parking area must be defined. Be careful with how remote you make the parking, again convenience is important. It must be striped, paved, and clean. No gravel, dirt, and construction parking will be allowed.
  4. Be sure to include the proper number of handicap stalls. While difficult to accommodate, this can catch you later if not strictly followed. The required numbers vary based on model complex size – but you must have at least one closely and safely located near the entry.
  5.  The path to the sales office must be a safe hard surface. Be careful with how rich you make the paving, the buyer may think this is standard and may expect it in front of his house, signage may work – like: “Not Included with Home.” But be careful with how many “Not Included . . .” you use, the buyer will be put off.
  6. Trap fencing is necessary to manage the buyer. This means getting them to the sales office in a quick and direct way. It leads them to the sales office and your smiling, helpful staff, and then manages their travel through the complex and requires them to return to the sales office for a post-walk through meeting with your beaming staff. I suggest that trap fencing be at least 48” high, minimizes climb over escapes to get out, make sure you have a locked gate for maintenance staff.
  7. Watch steps and stairs. Try to not have any steps to and from the sales office. Steps may be required inside the models (most are two story anyway), but if you are offering accessible units – they MUST be accessible. And no one-step situations – they beg for lawsuits. 
  8. Depending on your marketing season and the complex’s duration, watch and anticipate site lighting needs. I have spot lighted facades, lit stairs, highlighted trees (uplighted mature olives are spectacular), and signage. Consider this in your marketing and budgets.
  9. Landscaping. No one expects to see full sized trees, but the buyer does expect to see a richly developed landscape. Nothing says it better than flowers. Hanging baskets, flowerbeds, rich ceramic pots overflowing with petunias, colorful edges all add to the richness of the complex. BUT DON’T USE THEM IF YOU ARE NOT COMMITTED TO THEIR WEEKLY MAINTENANCE. Dead and spent flowers are like spaghetti stains on a white shirt, they project an image that’s lazy, unkempt, and inattentive. The buyer will translate this to what they are buying, “How thorough is the builder, if he can’t even take care of the landscape?”
  10. Weekly landscape maintenance is important. Select a firm that knows more than ‘mow and blow.’ In California we are heading toward conditions where lawn may not be permitted in model complexes, what will you put in its place? It takes years for a good bed of groundcover to fill in, it’s here where the landscape architect can be very helpful, but don’t expect miracles, the solutions are tough and potentially expensive. In most cases less landscape is better.
  11. I suggest that most plants be evergreen. Groundcover should be planted three times denser than their normal in-ground spacing, shrubs must be a minimum of 5 gallons (larger if possible), annual flowers should be 4 inch pots (not 6-packs), trees as large as possible and affordable – and evergreen unless the sales program will last only one summer-fall season. After that, deciduous shrubs and trees don’t contribute anything.
  12. Handicap bathrooms are now required. If you cannot provide an ADA accessible toilet in the sales office, make sure the portable is as nice as possible – do not go cheap (and make sure they aren’t the same graffiti infested boxes you find on the job site). Remember, they do need to be serviced often and need to be near the road for pumping. Screening works well, but watch how it integrates with the complex.
  13. Secure outdoor furniture with out of sight cables and locks. I remember a Jordan furniture grouping and teak chairs stolen from the back of a complex (about $6,000 plus) they were lifted over an eight foot high soundwall. I suggest that you use nice but inexpensive furniture and ignore what your interior designer requires; Cost Plus and Pier One are good sources. They will be stolen if they look too nice. The same goes for barbeques and outdoor kitchens – watch what you install.
  14. If you are theming the unit (ie. seniors, young family, empty nesters), then the exterior should reflect that demographic. We have put small play structures, greenhouses, spas, waterfalls, barbeques, and swimming pools in the back yards to improve the experience of the buyer. It is a matter of budgets, so choose wisely.
There are many other items to consider, and these don’t even include the interior. The primary reason for spending thousands of dollars on the exterior model complex is to encourage sales. Anything that gets in the way of this mandate must be removed, discarded or replaced.

Remember, as your mother always said, “You have only one time to make a first impression.”

Stay tuned . . . .

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