By Kimberly Miller The Palm Beach Post.
The new home sales center, once a supermarket of paint colors and cabinet designs, now sells something more, something less tangible than granite countertops.
Condensed in tricked-out double-wide trailers with free coffee and scones, the American ethos of opportunity, and tennis, oozes from carefully designed showcases worthy of an Epcot exhibit and so secret that developers are often loath to share the details.
Sunrise, Fla.-based builder GL Homes politely declined to discuss, or demonstrate, its super-charged, proprietary technology that allows buyers to manipulate visions of their potential home on a touch-screen model of the community, even though the public can freely wander its sales centers.
A Colorado designer said she was barred for years by a developer from taking pictures of sales centers she set up for fear the competition would copycat. The builder relented recently, defeated by shared images on the Internet.
From the wattage of the lights to the scents in the air, sales centers for new homes have evolved, orchestrating a feeling of not just what your new home will be, but who you will be when you buy it.
"The building side of the home industry wants to make buying a home a journey where you are creating the dream," said Lita Dirks, CEO of the Denver-based design and consultancy firm Lita Dirks & Co. "It's an atmosphere where the buyer can make it happen, in the spot they want it to happen and at the moment they want it to happen."
Developers have jumped back in the home-building business in the past two years, buying up land and gussying up sales centers that were quiet during the recession.
In January, GL Homes debuted its sales center at Valencia Cove, a new 55-plus community west of Boynton Beach, Fla. Toll Brothers is working on a revamp of its Jupiter (Fla.) Country Club sales center, which opened at the peak of the market in 2006 but has seen most of its activity in the past two years.
The introduction of technology has been the key change in home center design, said Linda Cohen, vice president of marketing for the Pennsylvania-based Toll Brothers.
Homebuyers can find so much out about communities online, such as designs, pricing and the site plan of the neighborhood, that they don't need as much procedural information from the sales center.
Where once the walls may have been covered with only printouts of floor plans and bulleted design details, now there are accessories that try to evoke an emotional response.
"Today, when people walk in, we're promoting a lifestyle," Cohen said. "We have photos of the amenities that we offer, photos of the schools, maps of points of interest, grocery stores, where they want to shop."
While buyers are still likely to come across the massive Monopoly board-style 3-D community renderings, called "topo," or topography tables in the business, Toll Brothers is also adding "interactive site plan tables" where buyers can see videos about the community and pull up maps, all while digitally designing a home and choosing a specific lot.
Cohen said Jupiter Country Club will have three such electronic tables when its sales center redesign is complete. The "topo" map will be removed.
"It only serves one purpose, showing the map," Cohen said.
Todd Harff, president of Creating Results, a marketing firm that focuses on senior consumers, disagrees. A design by Harff's Virginia-based company for a sales center at a 55-plus community won top honors at this year's International Builders Show. It included the topo map.
Harff said baby boomer buyers, while familiar with technology, still gravitate to a topography table, which can act as an anchor for socialization, like an island in a kitchen. Salespeople can still use technology, but they are guides through the process rather than the buyer directing themselves.
"With the 55-plus, we recognize they will still need some traditional displays," said Harff, who also uses brighter lighting in 55-plus sales centers to increase the feeling of vitality. "But even in our younger communities, we find there's something just familiar about standing around a topo table that leads people to spend time there."
And lingering is what builders want. Cafes and front porches with sitting areas are typical features of new sales centers. More subtle additions include added scents that match the lifestyle being sold. A beachside community may have ocean overtones in the air, while a property with lots of trees may add a pine fragrance.
Other innovations include having buyers sign-in on iPads, which salespeople can then use during tours of model homes to jot down what the prospect likes about each design. At the end, a personalized brochure can be printed out for the buyer while the builder gets feedback electronically about likes and dislikes.
"One of the great things is builders can personalize what they do with the homebuyer," said Doug Sylvester, senior director of products for the company BDX in Austin, Texas.
Sylvester, whose company designs computer kiosks and other innovations for sales centers, said technology started to creep in several years ago but has been on a fast-track in the past 12 months.
That's about the time frame for when GL Homes introduced its proprietary computer program at The Bridges sales center. The high-end Bridges community is west of Delray Beach, Fla.
Designed in-house by GL Homes, the software allows buyers to see how their preferred home design will look and fit on specific lots with a 360-degree view of the home and community.
GL Homes Division President Marcie DePlaza said other builders have offered to buy the software, but GL Homes isn't sharing.
"When you go into other places, you'll see things similar to what we've done, but the 360 spin of the house, that's what they really don't have," she said. "All talking about (the program) does is bring more builders into our offices."