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New Developments: Same Frames, One-of-a-Kind Frills

September 8, 1995

When William Levitt invented the modern suburban development five decades ago, he didn’t have Donna and Tony Palumbo in mind. They are a middle-aged couple whose nest is empty.

``My husband has two adult children, and we both have parents who are getting on in years,″ Mrs. Palumbo says. So when they were looking for a new house _ and they looked at 100 _ they finally settled on one in the 150-home Barkley development in the Washington suburb of Fairfax, Va. The houses there, built by industry giant Centex, were designed with older married couples in mind and sport Georgian Colonial brick fronts and small yards. Prices begin in the low $300,000s _ suitable for buyers who are tired of mowing lawns and whose kids aren’t around anymore.

Mr. Levitt built his mass-produced houses for the masses. And if they didn’t want Levittown’s two-bedroom, one-bath plan, well, tough. Not so Centex. In the Barkley development, there are a French cafe and wine cellar in the basement of one model and a home theater with a popcorn stand and a pool table in another.

Not far away, in Winchester, Va., the Woodgate Manor development has two basic models _ with 24 floor plans, 8,064 design combinations and 300 options. Kim Migliore, a 33-year-old single woman, paid about $175,000 for a new home there that she shares with two other adults. Ms. Migliore opted for the plan with two master suites and, instead of a garage, a third bedroom and bath.

``I ski, I go to the Caribbean, I like new cars and clothes,″ says Ms. Migliore, who makes $52,000 a year as a supervisor for United Parcel Service. ``So I knew that to keep living the way I want, I’d need roommates. And I didn’t want the typical townhouse arrangement, with one big bedroom and two tiny ones.″

Well-to-do home buyers settling in new luxury-home developments have always been able to customize their purchases, adding a greenhouse here, a bathroom there, or replacing a deck with a flagstone terrace. Now, such customization is increasingly available in developments of all price ranges as changing demographics force developers to abandon the one-size-fits-all styles of days past and build option-laden, ``have it your way″ tract homes.

In taking advantage of customized options, buyers with resale in mind should be aware that features like added bathrooms enhance value but quirky frills can turn future buyers away.

It’s certain that choices will proliferate. ``It’s hard as hell to come up with a new idea, and the life span of any idea is short,″ says Robert Simmons, a builder in Gaithersburg, Md. ``All we can do is offer choices and keep close track of our costs.″

That’s no small feat for a price-sensitive industry that _ borrowing from the fast-food and auto industries _ is customizing production-line houses into one-of-a-kind homes. Like car dealers, home builders are marketing bare-bones models with alluring _ and profitable _ options.

The term ``development″ encompasses any group of houses _ from two to thousands. These days, developers of all sizes are not only tailoring their houses to individual tastes but are also adopting much more sophisticated sales strategies. Model homes are often outfitted to appeal to only certain demographic segments of the buying public. (At Barkley, photos of a middle-aged couple are scattered throughout the models to reinforce the idea of who might feel comfortable there.) Advertising is targeted. Neighborhood amenities are being built with the special needs of the primary demographic group in mind.

A Las Vegas builder created a community there a few years ago that included several tiny 750-square-foot models designed and marketed specifically for single women blackjack dealers and cigarette peddlers. The $60,000 houses have a den that can be converted to a child’s bedroom, a patio and high walls for security.

Builders in areas with large immigrant and minority populations are mining those markets, too. These are potentially rich veins: According to a study by the Federal National Mortgage Association, 20 percent of immigrants say they will buy a home within the next three years; only 13 percent of the general population have the same aspirations.

In California, where the rise of immigrant and minority buyers has been most noticeable, huge Lewis Homes has been niche-marketing for so long ``it’s second nature to us now,″ says vice president of marketing Randall Lewis. At one Southern California project, 80 percent of buyers are of Chinese descent; at another, 90 percent are Hispanic; a third has attracted 80 percent African-Americans.

Through surveys and focus groups, Mr. Lewis has learned, for instance, that Filipinos prefer bold colors to the usual pale Southwestern look. The firm’s Hispanic buyers respond well to Spanish-speaking sales personnel. African-American shoppers seem to like the company’s presence in a largely black neighborhood, but sales are slow.

To appeal to Chinese-American buyers, Mr. Lewis’s firm uses feng shui, an ancient guide to house design. To boost a home’s luck in buyers’ eyes, the firm moves stairs away from doors, changes how homes sit on their lots and avoids inauspicious house numbers. Members of the sales force are expected to be extra-respectful of the elderly, who often hold veto power even over middle-aged family members’ buying decisions. ``These ideas are now so ingrained in our corporate culture,″ says Mr. Lewis, ``that at sales meetings someone might say `Oh, we can’t open this weekend, it’s the Year of the Eagle.‴

First-time buyers Andrew Say and his wife Gwendalyn Tan, bought one of Mr. Lewis’s homes after rejecting 10 other communities. ``We had a friend who’s an expert in feng shui check out the house before we bought it,″ says Mr. Say. ``We wouldn’t even consider a house that faced south or had unlucky elements.″