Makeup for a model (home)

Fantasy: Model homes that are luxuriously furnished, including fake love notes and other "human touches," are big sellers.

June 27, 1999|By Rachel Brown | Rachel Brown,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Walk into a model home of a new upscale development and a potential buyer will feel as if they have walked into something out of the pages of Architectural Digest.

An immaculate kitchen. Perfectly made beds. Wallpaper beautifully hung and blended with the proper paint tones. Ralph Lauren furniture. Perhaps, Laura Ashley fabrics.

You get the feeling that you're not looking at just a model house you feel as if you are home.

Builders and developers have been furnishing model homes for more than 20 years, but over time it has evolved from merely filling empty rooms to showcasing a lifestyle and it's now a science and an art unto itself.

The first furnished model homes were filled with basic furniture to show buyers things like where the couch would fit and where the television would go, said Kathy Fine, president of Fine Interiors Inc. in Pikesville.

"It was pretty generic-looking," she said, adding that now there are personal touches throughout a home. "The bed will be turned down, there will be a coffee cup on the night stand, eyeglasses on an open book -- it's all designed so you can visualize yourself curling up there."

Georganne Derick, president of Merchandising East in Laurel, agreed that furnishing model homes is much more involved than just picking out furniture and said it extends to customized window treatments, bedding and accent pieces -- even stocking kitchen pantries.

"Buying a house is a highly emotional transaction," Derick said. "Our goal is to make people fall in love with a home, so we try to hit emotional hot buttons."

For example, in a single-family house, Derick will plant pretend notes from children to parents. "They might say things like: `Mom, you made my day by coming to Show and Tell' or `Dad, it meant a lot that you came to my game,' " she said. For a townhouse for a younger couple, she might leave love notes between husband and wife.

Phyllis Ryan, vice president of marketing for Interior Concepts Inc. in Annapolis, said she tries to focus on everyday lifestyles of families and couples. "You're creating a real home -- you want people to walk in and believe that a real family lives there."

Fine said she also adds real-life touches, such as a few dresses and ties in the closets, but pointed out that too much realism is not a good thing.

"There are no newspapers, no junk mail," she said. "This is your house at its very neatest -- there's no clutter and your husband's shoes aren't in the middle of the floor."

All of the model home experts said they would never use scaled-down furniture -- a practice that was once employed to make rooms appear larger. "That's a thing of the past," Derick said. "Good designers relate to the sense of scale appropriately -- we don't deceive the public with small-scale furniture."

Lynne Hagan, co-owner of Builder's Advantage of Crofton -- a sales and marketing consulting company to builders and developers in Baltimore and Washington -- said she advises her clients to provide at least one furnished model for every 15 houses they have to sell. "The competition in this area is so great," Hagan said. "It's just expected that builders will provide a furnished model."

Richard Azrael, president of Chateau Builders Inc. in Columbia, has been in real estate for 32 years and has been furnishing his models for the past 25 years. "It just makes the sale of the house that much more visual," he said. "People can see how they'd live in the house."

Azrael said he keeps his models open until most of the homes have sold, usually with only 10 to 15 percent remaining. "The model is often the best seller," he said. "If people want to buy it before we're finished with it, we have to say no. It hurts, but the model is show business. The better the show, the better the chance you have of selling your homes."

Cindy McAuliffe, vice president of marketing for Grayson Homes Inc. in Ellicott City, explained that her company has been furnishing its model homes for 15 years. "People buy what they can see and feel and touch," she said. "Furnishing a model is not cheap -- it's an expensive investment, but it pays off."

According to Derick, more than 80 percent of the leading builders and developers furnish their models. "The nationwide statistics say that builders can expect to sell their homes 20 percent faster if they furnish a model," she said.

The rule of thumb is to spend 25 percent of the selling price of the house, Derick said. "In our market, price is a factor of square footage," she said. "So, if you're selling a house at $100 per square foot, then you should plan to spend $25 per square foot on furnishing it."

Another way of arriving at this spending formula is to figure out what would constitute 10 percent of the buyer's salary and take that number times five. "This is the five-year dream," Derick said. "It shows what someone might realistically achieve in the home after being there for five years."

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