Back during the boom years, when people would camp overnight to buy into a new community, the model home lost some of its impact as a selling tool. Some builders did not even decorate their models. Others used the models only to market their upgrades. Now that the pace of sales has slowed, however, builders and interior designers say the model home has become more important than ever in marketing an entire community.
One sign that model-home merchandising is making a comeback is the growing popularity of "vignette" decorating, or dressing up certain rooms rather than an entire house. When builders are stuck with leftover houses to sell, they try to entice buyers by making the most popular spaces, such as the dining room and family room, seem more livable by adding furniture, tapestries, knickknacks or even fake fruit. In essence, it is a quickie styling job to get a house off the market.
And it can work — a well-decorated model can have great impact, said Dave Kolakowski, a real estate agent who works with home buyers at Buyer's Edge in Bethesda, Md. "It's always a very emotional thing," he said. "When they walk in and see it done, it's a huge difference. It's what gets them excited."
Jerry Bashore, vice president of Model Home Interiors in Elkridge, Md., said he usually does one or two vignettes in a year. In the past six months, however, he has done one or two a month. Meanwhile, JoAnn McInnis, vice president of the Great Falls, Va., interior design firm Carlyn and Co., said she is getting more calls from builders who want their model homes redecorated. "They were done without necessarily the intent to sell as hard as they needed to," she said.
The theory behind the renewed emphasis on model-home decorating is this: A shopper will be more willing to buy a home if it is decorated than if it is not, even if the buyer has no intention of furnishing the home that way.
What interior designers try to do, McInnis said, is "create house lust."
If you walk into a model home, you may find a child's bedroom with an intricate mural of a cartoon scene, a basement that resembles a sports bar with a pool table and a full-size bar, or perhaps an exercise room with state-of-the-art treadmills and stair-steppers.
Decorating has also become a powerful tool in the resale market. Real estate agents and designers said they do more "staging" of homes to make them more attractive to potential buyers. In some cases, staging can be as simple as removing clutter and rearranging furniture. In other cases, agents hire staging companies to bring in furniture and artwork.
Builders meticulously study their target audience to determine what decor will elicit the best response. With the public seeing so much home design in the popular media, builders and decorators recognize that expectations are high.
"The audience these days is very sophisticated. They watch all the design shows," McInnis said.
Builders use surveys and focus groups to create a profile of potential buyers. They record race, income, hobbies and family size. They find out what magazines would-be buyers read, where they like to vacation, what their children like to do for fun, where they shop, what they drive. Are they dog people? Are they cat people? Do they like to eat out or cook at home? Do they read the magazine Jane, which would indicate they're probably young and urban, or Coastal Living, which would probably make them baby boomers?
The builders hand their research to the designers, who find the furniture, paintings, curtains, bedspreads and knickknacks they think would appeal to those buyers.
If it's a first-time buyer they're going after, the designer won't make the house look too expensive, said Phyllis Ryan, president of the model-home division of Annapolis, Md.-based Interior Concepts.
"I think the biggest mistake is to create an image in the interior that the particular buyer cannot identify with," she said. "You don't want to put an affluent-looking interior to the first-time buyer. They'll think it's out of reach."
Sometimes, Bashore said, his decorators will use furniture from less expensive retailers such as Ikea in houses aimed at younger buyers.
If it's a baby-boomer clientele, the designer might focus on the rooms where owners can entertain, such as the dining room, the lower level or the patio. There could be chilled wine coolers with a full-size bar in the lower level or lounge seating on the patio.
Prices for decorating model homes range from $15 to $40 a square foot, according to designers and builders. Sometimes it can cost as much as some people spend on an entire house. Winchester Homes will spend about $250,000 to decorate one of its regular models.
"When there are a lot of people looking and more opportunities, you have to put more into making the home memorable," said Cynthia Herberg, director of marketing for Winchester Homes.
Bashore plans to put a coffee bar inside the master bathroom of a model in Upper Marlboro, Md. In front of the coffee bar, he will place a bistro table with a marble top and chairs.
"Bathrooms do play a big part in home sales," he said. "The idea of having coffee in your bathroom with an elegant tub and elegant surroundings is going to be lovely."
In one community in Fredericksburg, Va., the builder determined that the potential buyer was older than 35 and would probably entertain at home, so Bashore created a jazz-club theme in the lower level, complete with a bass and a drum set.
Would a buyer actually want a coffee bar in a bathroom or a jazz club in the basement? Probably not, Bashore conceded. But that's not the point. The point is to be remembered.
"I thought, let's be different," he said. "I've never seen it done before."