New model homes are geared to market

Model homes are being minutely decorated to appeal to targeted buyers. Open bottles of beer and bowls of peanuts grace the rec room of one townhouse.

April 24, 2005|By Natasha Lesser | Natasha Lesser,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It all looks so real, and so inviting: the overflowing mug of cold beer, the takeout Chinese food - snow peas and shrimp with rice noodles, the green tea ready to be poured. The table is elegantly set, and you can practically taste the food. If only you lived in this Columbia townhouse, this could be your life.

Except that it's all fake, even the food, which is made of plastic. The townhouse is a model home, one of five in the new community of Snowden Overlook. It has been carefully designed by the builder, Ryland Homes, to appeal to "active adults" 55 or older.

In communities across the region and the country, builders and agents are putting enormous effort into these elaborate fantasy scenarios.

Using sophisticated demographic research, builders are creating intricate scenes, inventing whole families to give potential buyers a palpable feel of what it would be like to inhabit such a house.

The goal is to offer potential homeowners an ideal version of their lives - if only they buy a home in this particular development. There's no dust, no piles of paper, no headless Barbie on the staircase.

"The builders create a feeling of, `Here's what's attainable,' " said Stephen Hoch, chairman of the marketing department at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Models are essential sales tools, Realtors and developers say, because many potential buyers have trouble seeing beyond bare walls and unfurnished rooms.

"You have to recognize that many people have a poor sense of visual imagination," said Hoch. "If you ask a Realtor, they always say it's tough to sell a house that is empty."

The model townhouses at Snowden Overlook are definitely not empty. Every room is decorated with a particular story line in mind.

The community is aimed at people in their 50s or older who are downsizing after their children have grown up and moved out. Houses range from 2,400 to 3,400 square feet and start at $460,000.

Many buyers are retired or are nearing retirement, so one upstairs bedroom is laid out as a hobby room, set up with a photography portrait studio; another room, done in a Hawaiian theme with twin beds with pillows that say "surfer girl," is meant for visiting granddaughters. A basement rec room has a '50s diner theme: bright red and yellow walls, chrome bar stools, and pictures of hot-rods on the wall.

Model-home designers take a calculated approach to adorning their creations. Most builders do extensive market research on how to outfit the model homes to appeal to a specific target audience.

"The whole fully evolved lifestyle of that customer is really evidenced in the choice of furnishings," said Kira McCarron, chief marketing officer for Toll Brothers, a national builder of upscale homes that is active in Maryland.

Some companies do research on their own, using census information and other market data. Others, like Beazer Homes, turn to companies such as Claritas, a market research firm.

Using Claritas' PRIZM system, the marketing managers at Beazer can type in a ZIP code and get a detailed profile of who is living in the area, their income level, types of occupations, how they entertain, what kinds of cars they buy and what publications they read.

"We typically even go so far as to create a specific buyer profile, meaning names and ages and hobbies," said McCarron. "For example, we might say that the husband is an executive and the wife is an architect, and they have two children. And the daughter, who is in seventh grade, is into horses. And the son is an accomplished clarinetist."

Using this profile, a designer decorates the model home (builders often put together several to appeal to different demographics).

Some builders, like Beazer, have their own internal design firms; others, like Ryland Homes and Toll Brothers, hire outside firms that specialize in model homes, such as Builders Design in Gaithersburg, Model Home Interiors in Beltsville, and Merchandising East in Ellicott City.

Even furniture companies like Pottery Barn have gotten into the act - it has a division that specializes in decorating model homes.

For each demographic, model-home designers create a completely different look. For a house aimed at young 30-somethings with a small child, the look might be streamlined yet comfortable, along the lines of Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel.

For older buyers, the style tends to be much more traditional and elegant. Often these buyers are looking for smaller homes, but they don't want to feel as if they've given anything up.

So the models might have dark wood, fairly formal furnishings, and rich fabrics and colors such as reds and golds to show that a smaller space can still feel like home.

At Toll Brother's Stevenson Estates community in Pikesville, a 3,400-square-foot, single-family four-bedroom house is intended for a family of four - two successful professional parents and two teenage kids, one boy and one girl.

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