A Novel Approach for Condo Development Show Homes

I have an affliction for window shopping when my family visits a new city. The first day we follow the standard tourist circuit and get caught up in all the trinket selling traps. Day two might involve walking off the beaten track stumbling upon a market place or quirky neighborhood. By the third day with postcard opportunities exhausted all that is left is to do is to go shopping. Whilst my wife hits Main Street, I hit the new condo show homes.

[Outside the US condo’s or condominiums are also referred to as ‘for sale’ apartments or flats]

A show home is a representation of the condo to be built accompanied by a sales office and marketing display. It may be located in a portable building on the construction site, inside an on-site building pre-demolition, in rented space near the site or even a purpose built standalone building. As construction nears completion show homes are typically relocated to a fast-tracked unit in the development.

Some show homes replicate – via a mock-up – an entire unit down to the fruit bowl on the dining room table, for others the mock-up is limited to a kitchen. Marketing displays often include information about the development, 3D computer animations, plans, artists impressions and scale models.

Whether it is waterfront apartments in Buenos Aries to the Trump skyscraper in Chicago, condo’s overlooking San Diego’s ball park to inter-generational subdivisions in America’s southwest, or the latest offerings in Lisbon’s Vasco de Gama, I am tire kicker #1 when it comes to real estate agents ranking their walk-in traffic.

The show homes main purpose is to help secure sales in advance of and during construction. Pre-sales are often a prerequisite to project funding.

Of course, if the market is hot, show homes tend to take a back seat. I have been involved in projects where a 10 m2 portable building with a few pictures on the wall and an eager agent with contracts on hand did the trick. Sometimes condos will sell by simply putting up a sign. Some developers leave it to a model and brochures in the real estate agents office. Yes, Twitter, Facebook, websites, brochures and investment seminars may suffice when demand far outstrips supply. However, on large projects in competitive markets, to maximise selling price, a well thought out show home is a must.

Excuse the unfortunate pun, but my ‘novel’ approach for the show home is to tell a great story. Let’s look at 14 ways a great story can help maximise development sales:

  1. First Impressions Count
  2. Pack a Powerful Introduction
  3. Structure the Story, Choreograph the Experience
  4. About the Author: Establish Credibility
  5. Set the Scene
  6. Pictures Tell a Thousand Words
  7. Build to Impress
  8. Don’t Leave the Reader Confused
  9. The Twist
  10. The Sizzle
  11. The Drama
  12. Grammar and Punctuation
  13. The Sequel
  14. The Book Signing

1. First Impressions Count
The saying ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ unfortunately arises because most people do; whether it’s a book, a person or a new development. First impressions count so pay particular attention to the entrance to the show home.

Signage, especially way-finding is important. If a prospective buyer cannot find their way or become disorientated they may feel that the show home experience is disorganised or mismanaged – not a good feeling to start off on for the investment they will be asked to make.

People focus attention on signs (at least the first time they see them) so it is important to keep them clean, graffiti free and well maintained – whilst you are doing that not a bad idea to have the branding integrated into even the most mundane signs (like ‘park here’). I can’t recall ever thinking, hmm this development has too many signs, but it can be disconcerting when there is poor signage.

Apply the same degree of professionalism to the exterior entrance as you do to the interior of the show home – it is after all the first thing a prospect will notice. One poor example was where I had to walk through a half completed dirty lobby, up less than inviting unfinished stairs with construction materials lying around before we got to the display inside.

If the building is under construction and the show home is located within then ‘construction activity’ conveys to the prospect that the development is really moving forward. This infers sales have been good and can instil a higher call to (purchase decision) action. However, this should not preclude providing a clean and well signposted experience. Few people comment that a space is too clean!If the entrance is approached by car, consider the first impression the driveway and parking area creates. Tidy landscaping (one of the first things to let slip when sales are slow so just in case design to be low maintenance) and a smooth surface help. Entrance doors should be easily located and accessible from the parking lot.

Consider from the drivers and passengers seated view the branding of the development. Brand influence can start before a buyer opens the car door.

2. Pack a Powerful Introduction
A good story grabs the reader’s attention in the first chapter.A pivotal psychological moment and for some it represents a feeling of anxiety, is when they open the show home entrance door.Thoughts can range from; am I going to be greeted by a fast talking snake oil salesman with a pen in one hand and a contract in the other?; to a feeling of excitement of getting a glimpse of our potential next home; to sever skepticism that anything in the showroom I am about to view will influence our buying decision.

The ‘door opening’ should be a carefully considered moment, and the introduction should set a powerful positive tone reinforcing all the right reasons to purchase.
Examples of power introductions:
– For one high end development I visited there was actually a doorman – an immediate positive reinforcement for those seeking an exclusive and luxury condo purchase.
– I simultaneously experienced a weird combination of one of the worse and best introductions for a large master planned community. The show home experience started off with a rude assistant who barked at us as we came through the door and abruptly walked us into an auditorium. We sat their thinking, wow with that attitude how to they sell anything here. Then the ‘movie’ started, a highly professional advertorial on a curved screen that introduced the whole master planned community (without even discussing any details of the houses for sale) in its panoramic and heartstring pulling glory. We emerged ready to buy and itching to find a specific home to sign up to. Of course the staff had still lost all interest on our exit so we went for low to high back down to low in that particular intro.
– The entrance to a high rise projects showroom was in a similarly high office building adjoining the site. It was a full fitted out reception with a softer residential approach – complete with friendly receptionist who asked me to take a seat and a consultant would see me shortly. It was all very business-like, but the target market was indeed business people and the show home entrance mimicked the condo’s planned concierge.
– In Vegas, the doors opened to a large oversize open space with a ‘golden’ scale model placed in the middle to immediately draw your focus.
– In Buenos Aires a developer had done something similar where your focus is drawn to an impressive model uncluttered from the rest of the display on entering. In these cases the architecture was their power intro.
– People and activity can also produce a powerful introduction. Sales agents sitting around doing nothing and an empty room usually does not. Consider how to create activity in the showroom (café, locate developers office + staff, compress viewing times, shared space)

3.  Structure the Story, Choreograph the Experience
Create a structure to tell your story so the prospect does not jump to the final chapter without taking in the mystery, suspense, action and drama beforehand.

Think of the potential buyer’s visit to a show home as a choreographed tour from arrival to exit. Think how prospects on entering the show room will move and what they will be naturally drawn to, how they are likely to view displays or interact and the key selling points you want them to understand along the way.

This starts with careful design of the layout and placement of marketing displays, built mock-ups and the sales office. With marketing arranged in a staged sequence (which does not necessarily mean linear or a straight line all along one wall) sales staff can guide a consistent story to buyers.

A formula used in many large house subdivisions in the United States involves a multiple show home planned experience. You enter the first home, walk through the rooms often in a predetermined sequence, exit a side or rear door and then are guided (fenced in, in many cases) to the next home. This is repeated again (one subdivision I recall going through 5 show homes in a row) until you finally end up in the converted garage of the final home – which doubles as a sales office. Just in case the highly upgraded finishes do not stir your willingness to sign up along the way strategically placed notes make sure you aware of all the key features and benefits.

One luxury condo show room experience applied a very personal, tailored experience. From the reception a sales consultant would take you into their office and you would discuss your wants and budget upfront. While eager to see the actual marketing and displays, the agent made sure to have a thorough understanding of what you are looking for and picks up on any concerns or key issues you may have, before providing access. The agent then would guide you around the showroom displays, giving a customised tour – embellishing those features that are important and brushing over others that may create issues. This obviously requires very skilled sales staff but was an effective approach.

4. About the Author: Establish Credibility
Renown academic authors sell books because they have built up credibility (at least until they are proven wrong). Even if the developer has a Trump like reputation, the buyer is more likely to make a decision to buy if they have faith in whom they are buying from.

Preface the prospect early into the showroom experience (as early as possible before they start judging what they see) by providing context about the developer – the ‘author’ of the project. Present the developers overall business vision and approach to development. Display examples of past successful projects. Look to convey a sense of financial stability and long term commitment.

Similarly, like the foreword in a good book, have others make recommendations about the development and the developer. Display accolades and awards the developer’s projects have received.
Examples to use in the show home:
– quotes from buyers enjoying their new home (and lifestyle and investment) from one of the developers previous projects
– a photo of a charity event where the developer has donated to the well-being of the community
– press articles displayed prominently how this development is going to change the area for the better- photos and quotes from dignitaries opening projects, or the turning the first sod (ground breaking ceremonies)
– display health and safety, construction excellence and other positively affirming certificates.Establish credibility before launching a sales offensive, it’s about selling a dream not selling a dreamer!

5. Set the Scene
Explaining the background of key characters and history of locations helps give the reader of a good novel  context for the story-line that unfolds.

In Greenfield subdivisions and brownfield gentrification of ’emerging neighborhoods’ the dream you are selling may actually just be one chapter of a much larger story.  Not only do buyers have to understand your vision for the site, they have process the vision for the entire area.

In large planned communities often there are multiple layers of developers and separate marketing displays: one for the master-plan and individual ones for each home builder’s projects. The master plan story is usually much easier to describe as everything is going to be new, none-the-less it needs to be told. A buyer’s top focus being unlocking the mystery of when all the promised amenity is going to happen.

In urban brownfield locations where a down and out area is being rediscovered for condo living, describing the locations future potential may be the most important chapter. Most brownfield locations have many existing negatives. If this is one of the first projects in the area there are likely to be few positives.

Addressing the inevitable questions about the location upfront in the show home’s marketing display is important. The developer’s vision for the future should be transcribed into a chronological story the buyer can understand and believe.

One approach is to present (map) every other new development planned in the area. Pay particular attention to projects that add value to your development. This could include new shopping, public amenity and transit. Allow the presentation to be updated as sales progress as often new restaurants and cutting edge boutiques pop up in emerging areas. The buyer is likely to visit other residential developments anyway so it’s unlikely you are going to have the market to yourself. You might as well use their planned developments as a strength of commitment to the area. Obviously let buyers know the benefits of your location over others! This is the time to promote the trendy little cafe that has popped up down the street that all the sales agent’s visit on their way to the show home.

Knowing the ins and outs of the area and having a thought-out response to negatives whilst promoting positives keeps the story-line moving – even if your response is “and because the area is in the early stages of rapid improvement we have priced accordingly”.

In a challenging location, consider carefully the directions you give visitors to get to your show home and between the show home and site location (if located separately).

Consider everything the prospect may drive or walk by on their way. Encourage the prospect to visit the positive signs of gentrification along the way (new transport construction, renovated houses, new restaurant) and re-route directions where possible to minimize negatives like run down properties and graffiti.

6. Pictures Tell a Thousand Words
Novelists create vivid pictures in the minds of their readers. Through words they convey both the character and the emotion of an environment the story is set in. A good show homes presents the character and emotion of the future development to prospective buyers.

One rule of thumb is to only display in the absolute best form of presentation possible that your budget allows. [As a buyer you should question low budget show homes for significant developments, even if the market is hot, a well presented show home should help sales velocity and pricing].

In addition to built mock-ups, artists renderings, architectural drawings, 3D computer animations, interactive displays & websites and 3D replica models are today’s show home presentation tools.
Each can be used with different dramatic effect:
– The less your show home presents via a full scale replica mock-up  of the condo interior, the more you have to present using other means.- Buyers don’t necessarily understand architectural elevations so unless they relate to a specific benefit, use sparingly.
– If using computer generated fly-through animations and renderings, ensure there is sufficient detail so not to leave gaps in the visualisation that buyers have to imagine on their own. For example often the texture of a wall can have a dramatic effect on the look of a building, a flat computer generated representation of a wall may leave the buyer thinking it is indeed a flat texture-less surface.
– In artists and computer generated renderings, pay specific attention to the cars and people in the artwork. They should represent what you want your target market to see.
– I am always impressed when I see a large scale replica model. Done correctly there is simply no better way to visualise the project. They are now increasingly replaced by computer generated animations but in my opinion they are still a great selling tool.
One impressive model for a large mixed use complex was translucent included lights where each apartment could be lit up independently. Identifying units available for sale on a model allows the sales consultant to then show their relation to key amenities such as pool, parking and the entrance. It also allows the consultant to describe the views and the spatial location differences between each unit.
On some of our earlier projects the models were so detailed, photos of the model were used for close ups in the brochure. Many architectural models are built (by architects) with concepts in mind, whereas many buyers focus on details, so also be careful what you leave to the buyer’s imagination.
– Interactive displays should be well maintained, easy to operate and work correctly. Touch screens have a habit of needing to be touched with increasing pressure until some parts of the screen don’t work at all. Also consider that while many buyers may peruse over a brochure or website at home for hours on end, they are going to have a much shorter concentration span whilst standing within a show home playing with an interactive display.
– If you have purchased photography and had images prepared for the projects brochure and website, ensure you have copyright to use them at a resolution suitable for large visuals in the showroom (and for site signage).
– There are so many ways to present marketing information, rather than just hanging display boards on the wall. Retail outlets in airports and signature stores have all sorts of innovative ways to present their products and can provide good inspiration for the humble property development.  In one project showroom we effectively created a pass through display wall, separating two spaces by suspending large double sided images on ceiling to floor stainless steel cables.

7. Build to Impress
A built mock-up, a replica of the interior of the condo or key rooms within it, is where you leave the buyer little recourse to their imagination. What you see is what you get – at least most of the time.

Until the show home is relocated to a constructed building, it is still a representation of what is for sale. You can replicate almost anything except its location and relationship to the rest of the building and environment.

The specification that you are presenting as compared to what you selling is important. I have experienced two schools of thought:
a) Produce the highest spec option – build out every optional extra and upgrade, or
b) Build the base option and use material samples to describe upgrades available

The problem for buyers in option a) is that you actually don’t quite know what you are getting for the price when looking through the mock-up. The upgrades are often dependent on your floor plan and priced separately. What you see may be an upgraded option tens of thousands more expensive than the for sale price point that got you to the show home in the first place. This appears to be exactly the psychology employed during boom times to solicit maximum revenue from buyers, especially in middle to upper priced standalone homes. Lower priced homes often want to present how good the base option is so you can keep the total purchase price more affordable – also more likely to be employed when times are tight.

Option b) is easier for buyers to understand but if your base spec is relatively low, the visual appearance of the mock-up may be compromised. Typically it is most noticed in kitchens – especially bench-tops and fittings.

The correct formula does depend on your target market and also the margin the developer hopes to make on upgrades versus the difficulty and management time in allowing too many variations to the specification. It is easier to allow multiple upgrades in standalone housing compared to condo buildings. Standalone houses can be built to spec, much more efficiently whilst condo buildings usually have to have all units built, often before all units have been sold – this means keeping a much more upgrade restrictive specification all the more important.

Some show homes combine the two philosophies and display both a base and upgraded version. I have seen show homes that have built a replica of both types of apartments and some which have just built replicas of the kitchen.

Kitchens and bathrooms sell homes, these are typically the best areas to concentrate on in your mock-up. Possibly not a great idea to plumb the display bathroom (the temptation to use the facilities may just be too great !) but plumbing up the kitchen is a good idea, as you can turn it into usable function space and demonstrate how well the kitchen works for entertaining.

If you build a mock-up make sure it is of the same quality you intend to provide in the completed condo. What buyers see is what they anticipate will be in their finished home – to the degree some will take photos to record such that anticipation, just in case it doesn’t measure up when they move in.

Views are often one of the key selling points that are a harder little harder to recreate in a mock-up, however there are techniques that can be used:
– Build a separate tower on site and physically walk people to the level a unit will be on.-Rent nearby space at a high level to showcase the best and most expensive apartment views (like the show home in the office example mentioned earlier)
– Print a high resolution photo of the view behind window joinery in the mock up. In most urban luxury apartments that use this technique it is most often the city lights scene at dusk.
– Embed an interactive computer display (also portable to a website) so you see photos of the exact view from the location of each unit. This requires airborne photography (balloon mounted camera that takes shots in various directions at eye level intervals for each floor).

8. Don’t Leave the Reader Confused
How disappointing are  the words “to be continued…” at the end of a book, or to be left wondering why did one character do such and such in a mystery novel.

I have seen show homes that meticulously recreate a full apartment down to every last detail in let’s say a modern style, but the display suite and sales office is in a different style, like traditional oak paneling. This gives mixed messages and may confuse the buyer as to the intended style of the finished product.

Where there is a noticeable benefit show homes should clearly differentiate when the mock-up starts and where it finishes. Changes in floor treatment helps, as does raising the mock-up higher than the rest of the sales office and having independent walls, without using the existing building structure. This is especially important if the mock-up is within an old warehouse or other space.

Many mock-ups are created in open spaces of buildings intended for an alternative use like an existing warehouse or office space. In these situations the lighting may be a completely different effect to the actual residential setting – consider dropping in ceilings, or modifying existing lighting accordingly.

9. The Twist
Consider having at least one unique selling proposition that differentiates these condo’s from the competition. Use this like a twist in the plot as you tell the story.

It may be a substantial difference or a minor tweak that leaves a big impression in the mind of the buyer.“……and this will be the first development in New Zealand where apartments have their own 3D printing facilities…… ”

Obviously the list is limitless but here are some examples:
– iPod docking stations (ok, that was so last decade!)
– total electronic control of all systems via remote and web
– mirror televisions in bathrooms
– feature texture wall paneling
– feature splash backs
– over-sized decks
– infinity pools on decks
– hanging herb gardens
– over-sized car parks, smart car parking, electric car charging, parking on your level (in a high rise)
– wine cellars, wine attics, wine wall, wine floor

10. The Sizzle
A spicy novel is often the reason it gets picked up in the first place.

A condo development is not just a home, it’s the sexy lock up and leave lifestyle. It’s you at one with the metropolis and it’s all the amenity of your favorite star hotel at your doorstep.

Profiling the sizzle of additional amenity within a development is a double edged sword. Whilst it may appear an effective selling tool for the development to offer the latest and greatest amenity, buyers are now weary of the additional monthly costs such amenity can incur.

During the mid-2000 boom every amenity thought possible was being offered and the cost glossed over or ignored by buyers. During the latter half of that decade a contributing factor to condo prices falling in many cases much faster than home prices was the high monthly home owners association fees. Valet car parking was dropped at so many developments because of the high cost of staff. Increasingly condo developments sell low monthly fees – because of the provision of limited amenity) as one of their key selling arguments. A pool in Arizona goes without question, a pool in Wellington is simply an added expense.

Therefore, in the show home consider displaying marketing of the additional amenity to be provided in the condo development in terms of cost benefits and value for money as well as lifestyle ‘enhancers’.

Where possible market optional amenity. This is where the costs are mainly variable  – allowing the buyer to choose the service where another may not wish to.

11. The Drama
Somewhere in the middle of the novel, the main character has a really bad day, drops their guard and becomes overcome by the drama of their predicament.

In the show home confront drama and issues in the industry head-on. For example:
– In New Zealand and Vancouver weather-tightness has caused significant issues with cladding over the last 20 years.
– Condos maybe associated with the poor acoustic construction of for rent apartment buildings.
– In colder climates appropriate thermal insulation may be topical.

In these cases consider a built mock-up of the construction of the applicable assembly (external wall cladding, inter-tenancy wall and floor sections, window and wall cross-sections). Post videos and references of successful installations and display written guarantees and certificates of proven performance.

12. Grammar and Punctuation
The best written novel won’t get past the editors desk until all the t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted.

A show home can be a considerable investment. Supplement that investment with the appropriate level of detail to round out the story. For example:
– Don’t let the paperwork let you down. Present nice and tidy contracts, plans, specifications and well-presented documentation
– Furniture. Some developments will sell furniture options with the unit for the investor, however often this is not the best furniture to use in the show home. Show homes appeal to people’s sense of ownership and livability, investors respond to the financial return. To achieve both (if both represent target markets), style for the owner occupier and present a professional investment pack for the investor.
– Finishing touches can make the difference. Turn a sterile display into the living environment you are trying to sell. A room stylist can be invaluable to add that personal touch to the mock up and the rest of the display. That can mean fruit bowls, candles, cooking books, rugs, cushions, colour coordinated towels and strategically located plants & artwork.
– Consider your opening hours, do they make sense to the viewing habits of your market? What is the view when someone peers through the window outside of opening hours?
– Recording contact details of show home visitors is important for the sales follow up. Agents have many techniques, typically here’s a pen please fill in the under spaced box on the page style.  In a show home today with all the technology available, make it a slick and simple (i.e. not clunky and annoying) professional experience. Via iPad, laptop, interactive display or stylus – capture all the pertinent data is directly into your sales CRM database, with automatic thank you emails and follow up reminders.
– Branded water bottles, pens and note pads can add that little bit extra and they cost next to nothing.

13. The Sequel
What happens next? Some novel authors may leave a sub plot unexplained, something that can be turned into the next edition.

Show homes can be designed to be used throughout the development process beyond their initial direct selling function. For example:
– Function and entertaining space for a café, parties, cooking lessons, cocktail mixing and other events (primarily to get more prospect travel through the door)
– A recorded physical specimen to benchmark construction quality – especially levels of finish

14. The Book Signing
To the novel connoisseur there is nothing like a personally autographed copy. However, imagine turning up to meet your favorite author and they are rude, disinterested, arrogant or plain annoying. You would probably want to return the book.

Now think about the sales agent. They are, as far as the buyer is concerned, as close as you can get to the author in the show home. There are very few markets where professionalism, market knowledge, a smile and personable demeanor do not go far.

Match the agent to the target buyer. This sounds obvious but in a show room setting there can be a tendency to staff with young inexperienced sales agents. They need to be well trained to ensure what they say and how they say it is consistent with the author’s intent.

Summary – A novel approach for condo development show homes:

  1. First Impressions Count
  2. Pack a Powerful Introduction
  3. Structure the Story, Choreograph the Experience
  4. About the Author: Establish Credibility
  5. Set the Scene
  6. Pictures Tell a Thousand Words
  7. Build to Impress
  8. Don’t Leave the Reader Confused
  9. The Twist
  10. The Sizzle
  11. The Drama
  12. Grammar and Punctuation
  13. The Sequel
  14. The Book Signing




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