Builders seek ways to draw homebuyers New ideas, features offered as competition rises in weak market

Objective is differentiation

Sales down for condos, townhouses, up for single-family homes

October 26, 1997|By Robert Nusgart | Robert Nusgart,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

With Baltimore-area new-home sales continuing to creep along, it seems that some builders are literally going back to the drawing boards to come up with new ideas to spark buyer interest.

Housing Data Reports, a Washington-based research firm that tracks new-home sales, stated in its September report that single-family home sales were up slightly for the year, by 3.7 percent, but that townhouse and condominium sales were down 12 percent and 19 percent, respectively, in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

HDR President Anna Pitheon says builders, therefore, are carefully monitoring what is attracting buyers and what isn't.

"The market is so competitive right now that you can't afford to make a whole lot of little mistakes," she said.

Patriot Homes enjoyed brisk sales through the first half of 1997, making the company the No. 5 builder in the Baltimore area. But Patriot President Rick Kunckle agreed that the market has slowed.

"I don't think in this market you can rest on your laurels," Kunckle said. "I think we are constantly searching for new ideas and new product. Things keep changing.

"I have not heard of anyone who says that the market is strong."

Consequently, Pitheon said, it doesn't take much to set a builder back.

For example, she cited a new Baltimore County law that prohibits directional signs used liberally by builders to attract business.

"You can't get [directional] signs on the weekend and, to boot, you're in a trailer. Those two things, combined, are enough to squash the [sales] momentum for at least a quarter," she said.

Pitheon said she is impressed with the new designs she has seen in the past few months.

"There's definitely more attention this year. Last year, I was just bored by the market. Product didn't just seem that innovative or interesting," she said.

"We are looking for a way to differentiate our styles from our competition and offer something new and different," Kunckle said.

Pitheon cited several examples of how builders are trying to increase interest.

Among them:

* Kitchens that are being redesigned for growing families.

* Smaller living rooms and bigger family rooms.

* Master bedrooms that provide sitting areas.

* Bathrooms designed for couples.

She said the builders she talks to are all looking for the one little thing that's going to give them an edge.

Pitheon said Mid-Atlantic Builders of Prince George's County found a new way to make the master bath more appealing. Since the working wife and husband need to share the space at the same time, Mid-Atlantic has done away with the side-by-side dual sink and designed a bath with a "his counter and her counter."

Kunckle added that Patriot has tinkered with the color scheme of its kitchen appliances, changing from the traditional white-on-white to one that adds more pizazz.

"The appliances are in bright colors -- metallic green, metallic blue, red and bronze," he said.

He said Patriot's new designs allow for higher ceilings for family rooms and the creation of an interior wall for a fireplace and an entertainment center.

"You can face the fireplace and watch TV at the same time," he said.

Pitheon noted that builders who reduced the number of standard luxury features are now putting some of those back.

So, as builders go into the final months of 1997, they are hoping that these changes will take hold and possibly spur sales into 1998.

"If everyone was getting four sales a month on their communities, everyone would just be fat and happy and people wouldn't continually innovate and reinvent the American Dream," Pitheon said.

"But the market is not generating four sales a month for every subdivision out there, and when you're a builder you've got to build."

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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