Homes' allure lingers

Visitors: After they move in, buyers of model houses find the details that attracted them still lure browsers.

April 07, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

People who live on Gaither Hunt Lane are used to strangers walking right into their fancy homes. They want to take a look around, check out the kitchen and closets, feel the drapes.

The folks who live on Rippling Water Walk have the same problem.

Both streets were built to showcase model homes for big subdivisions in west Columbia. Once the new neighborhoods went up, the models were sold, and families moved in. But months and even years later, the public thinks the welcome mat is still out.

"For the first year, at least, we had people pulling into the driveway -- I mean vans, a Realtor showing people," said Greg Rudomanski, who has lived on Gaither Hunt for more than two years. "And they get out and they're all standing together on the grass, and I say, `Who are these people?'

"And I go out there and say, `Can I help you?' And they say, `Are you the agent?'"

Residents on Rippling Water Walk have resorted to posting signs in the yard: "Not a Model Home."

One of Rudomanski's neighbors on Gaither Hunt has a subtler approach. Robin Saunders takes toys her three sons are not playing with and puts them in the front yard. She also makes sure the place is locked.

"People would try the door all the time," said Saunders, who bought her house almost two years ago. "Even now, sometimes, I don't answer the door."

Once they find out the house is occupied, some dogged home-shoppers ask for a tour anyway. One couple who arrived on Saunders' doorstep said they had been in the house when it was a model and just wanted to see -- and feel -- the drapes again.

"They wanted curtains very similar to these and they wanted to just come in and touch our curtains to get the exact feel," she said.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that people are drawn to these houses long after the "Model Open" signs come down. Land developers and homebuilders go all out to attract people to model homes, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into decorating and landscaping. Thousands of people a day flock to the models.

It is hard to shut off the siren song after the houses have been sold, especially if they have trouble shaking the model look. Two models on Gaither Hunt were built cater-cornered to Route 108 to better turn heads along that busy street. Their odd angle will always say, "Come check us out."

Some of the most lavish model homes in the Baltimore region are in Howard County because Columbia-based Rouse Co. maintains design control, builders say. Instead of selling chunks of land to builders and letting them put up a model home or two, Rouse creates "parks" with models from several companies in one spot.

The lure goes beyond one-stop shopping. Through architectural planning, lavish landscaping, plush decorating and the kind of streetscape sleight-of-hand found at Disney theme parks, Rouse and the builders create something of a suburban fantasy land.

It's a place where front lawns are not blemished by unsightly necessities such as driveways. Landscaping hides garages from view. Curving brick pathways wind from one front door to the next. Park benches, picket fences, arches and gates frame the yards.

Bits of this block-long Brigadoon fade when the houses are sold: The pathways are ripped out because people do not ordinarily want their front walk linked to that of their neighbor's. The benches, fences and gates go, too. Driveways are built because they are as useful as they are ugly. Some trees and shrubs are removed because in real life homeowners can't grow them in front of garage doors and still park inside.

To avoid a mishmash of housing styles, colors and materials, Rouse sets a theme and approves designs to make sure the houses complement one another.

"When we started building model homes, what we would do is just put a row -- five, seven, whatever it might be -- of houses on a street and that would be the model-home area," said Harry "Chip" Lundy, president of The Williamsburg Group, a Columbia-based builder. During the past 15 years, he said, the Rouse parks have evolved into streetscaping marvels.

"Rouse has done a magnificent job of creating a park, a theme," he said. "It's a feeling that the potential buyers get when they come into a model-home park. You're walking on a brick walk. There may be a bench, there may be an arbor, there may be some landscaping. If you went to a theme park, it's just not the roller coaster you go down. It's the entire surroundings that make it attractive."

Lundy's company is one of eight in Rouse's latest park, in a North Laurel development called Emerson that will have more than 400 single-family houses, about 550 townhouses and 1.8 million square feet of commercial space. Construction of the eight models will begin in the next two weeks.

Teams of designers, landscape architects and builders are revving up for a pedal-to-the-metal race: raw land to House Beautiful in 12 weeks or less.

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