A new era calls for better ways of standing out from the competition. Here are 10 smart ideas that will keep you on buyers' radar screens. By R.E. Blake Evans

Say goodbye to copycat building. Demanding home buyers on the prowl with critical eyes, sharp pencils, and copies of the competition's floor plans have pressed builders into carving out new niches and providing ever-higher levels of service.

With housing starts uncertain next year, now is the best time to get a jump on the competition by developing creative new ways to brand your company and sell homes--including more exciting grand openings, indispensable community guides, and memorable new-home buyer gifts.

The new charge is helping buyers identify your homes as the place they want to call home. Builder found 10 builders who have done just that. Not incidentally, they all started on the path to differentiating their product with a simple yet crucial step: asking customers what they want.

Take to the skies

Grand openings are one thing, but sometimes a community party can bring in better results than any staged ribbon cutting. Serrano Associates saw its sales soar following its community balloon lift-off called Balloon Fest at Serrano in El Dorado Hills, Calif. Sales soared so high that Serrano made it an annual event. Serrano's developers, Parker Development and Cattelus, invited 50 balloonists to showcase a lift-off display of their air ships to the public on an early Saturday morning. "It was not a race or an event where people would ride the balloons, but they still attracted a lot of people. All types of potential buyers came out. It's an incredible sight to see," says Jill Shannon, director of marketing.

Serrano secured an underwriting agreement from the local paper, The Sacramento Bee, which covered the $700,000 cost of the event. In exchange, the paper received exclusive rights to produce the event tabloid program and to sell advertising to local businesses and real estate professionals. The tabloid circulated in the local paper and helped attract potential buyers to the 4,300-unit, single-family community.

More than 40,000 people came to the free morning lift-off, and most stayed until the evening's Glow Show, where balloons were lit to synchronized music.

The morning lift-off ended just as models in the community opened, generating massive traffic to more than 20 merchandised models. Serrano's sales increased 200 percent during the three months after the event.

Sell to kids

Kids help close deals. That simple lesson is proving a great sales generator for SeaCountry Homes in Newport Beach, Calif. Its marketing effort includes pulling children into the sales process from demonstration to customer follow up.

"We make sure we welcome children to the model site as much as we welcome their parents or guardians," says Linda Mamet, vice president of marketing. Children are encouraged to register their names along with the adults.

Children receive a colorful clipboard with a scavenger hunt game, which encourages them to find different things throughout the home: a shower with two doors, a stuffed cat with the company logo, a green camping tent. After their hunt, they receive a token gift or SeaCountry cap. The builder also sends them a "thank you" note in the mail expressing SeaCountry's appreciation to them for stopping by and "bringing the adults in."

Mamet says the small touches help. "You can't underestimate the power of the excitement a child feels when they get mail," she says. "Even if it's just a note--and every parent reads their children's mail, so we get their attention, too."

If the adults buy a home, SeaCountry sends them a moving kit called "Buckets of Fun." It includes a moving guide and sticker book called "Goodbye, House" as well as a SeaCountry Kids denim hat, beach bucket and shovel, kite, and flyers about local attractions. SeaCountry builds 200 homes a year in San Diego and Orange County, Calif., from the $300s and up, with most homes selling in the low $500s. SeaCountry tailors the program, which costs about $25 per lead, for each of its communities.

Pump up the powder

For a long time, powder rooms were the ignored stepchildren of the new-home floor plan. Not anymore. With home buyers' sophistication growing, even these small areas can be host to great design details. One design trend forecast called them the new jewel boxes of the American home.

At Charles Clayton Construction in Winter Park, Fla., builder Charles Clayton, III, says "details do matter--most of all in the small places." Clayton likes to work closely with his architects, interior merchandisers, and designers to find ways to make small spaces special. Sometimes it's as simple as adding a decorative half-column, lighting fixture, or different finishes buyers have not seen. "The trick is to surprise the buyer with something unexpected," Clayton says. "If they stop and take a moment in a small space like that, you know you really caught their attention."

Say it in print

"We don't sell homes at Santa-luz, we sell a total way of life," says Cheryl Bradstreet, director of marketing. "We are looking to attract buyers who want a new daily experience." To that end, Santaluz sells its northern San Diego move-up community with a focus on recreation, geography, and art. The community's new Santaluz magazine is a four-color journal where the home information is buried on the last pages. Instead of producing hard-selling brochure copy, Santaluz's development partners Taylor Woodrow Homes of San Diego and the DMB Partnership of Scottsdale, Ariz., broke the mold: They hired writers. First, they tapped Peter Jensen, a former editor of California's popular Sunset magazine and then writers from San Diego Home and Garden. Together they created an appealing editorial package that is more periodical than real estate marketing tool.

"The magazine gets the whole community talking. We write about the place, how it is to live here--not the houses--so our location is now a destination," says Bradstreet. Articles include tips on designing outdoor garden rooms, how to pick fine wines, the latest cooking trends, hiking dos and don'ts, biographical stories about local artisans, and, finally, designing homes and choosing home sites. "Locals use it as a resource," says Bradstreet. In the far back of the magazine, a Web address and toll-free number are provided for readers to get more information on homes, sites, and builders.

Santaluz's magazine features artist depictions of the region and community in Plein Air style, a landscape painting style that made the region famous a century ago.

Santaluz is now published three times a year and is mailed to 70,000 homeowners targeted by San Diego zip codes where homes are valued at $600,000 to more than $5 million. Santaluz also displays the magazine in local brokers' offices.

The response rate to the direct mail campaign is just under 2 percent. "And they are very qualified leads," says Bradstreet, who has taken 800 visitors to the community for firsthand views, "even when it was still only in the dirt road stage." In the first four months of mailing the magazine, 23 homes sold.

Write a moving book

Buyers often complain that the details involved in moving are overwhelming. Worthington Communities in Bonita Springs, Fla., has found a way to help. Buyers at the company's Vanderbilt Country Club receive an easy-to-use reference, the "Community Information Guide," which was conceived by president Jeff Darragh as a way to improve service and lower buyers' anxieties about moving.

"Anything we can do to make the process easier, as builders, we should do it," he says. To that end, Darragh presents purchasers with the guide at contract signing. It includes 24 chapters with easy reference labeled tabs, and more than 150 pages of useful information for new residents. The guide also includes tips on moving, recreational information, local houses of worship, media information, utility contact information, and local voter and legislative contacts. Worthington's guide was created by Daryl Spradley and Associates of Maitland, Fla., which has produced similar guides for 12 other communities.

Worthington updates the guide as necessary to keep all local schools, government, and Gulf Coast information current.

Make a big splash

Community pools top charts as one of the most preferred new-home amenities. But don't just throw a pool in the plan: Come up with pool design concepts that will make your neighborhood stand out from others.

The EastLake Co. in Chula Vista, Calif., did just that when it transformed its family-friendly pool and lakefront recreation area into a resort-style park called Dolphin Beach. Located in the EastLake Greens neighborhood, Dolphin Beach is a contoured pool spanning three acres with a sandy beach, a children's play area, a trellis-covered picnic patio, and a now-famous dolphin sculpture water feature.

"The pool is designed for families as a zero-entry pool, which slopes like a lake from shallow to deep, and the children's area is no deeper than 3 feet," says Bill Ostrem, president and CEO of The EastLake Co. "Parents of smaller children are not afraid to let their kids walk in." Ostrem recalls that after a Hawaiian vacation he returned inspired by California artist Wyland, known for his art that often features dolphins. Ostrem decided to include one of Wyland's dolphin themes at the community pool, which led to its eventual moniker. Ostrem commissioned a marble dolphin sculpture called "Synchronicity" showing a family of dolphins, including a baby dolphin, jumping playfully above a fountain. It's now a well-known marker with residents and visitors to the area.

Save the world

McStain Neighborhoods talks a big talk. It wants to "build a better world" in its hometown of Boulder, Colo. The mission is right on target.

"We've been building here for 35 years, but we saw society changing over the last 10 years," says Jeff Kingsbury, vice president of sales and marketing. "So we changed with them." Part of that change was finding a niche as a green, resource-efficient builder with a focus on traditionally styled sustainable communities. The company even changed its branding identity from McStain Enterprises to McStain Neighborhoods. The name reflects the company's affirmation of meeting demand for pedestrian friendly neighborhoods.

But before launching any of its campaign changes, McStain spent a long time deciding what the company's niche for these neighborhoods would be. "Most builders don't get this. You have to decide who you are," he says. "I tell people to ask 'Why are you a home builder?' That way they figure out they can't be all things to all people. If you say you are 'all things to all people,' then you are nothing to nobody," he jokes.

McStain answered its own rhetorical question with the answer: "To build a better world." That ambitious goal needed filtering, of course. "We always did the right things in the past, vis a vis between the built and natural environments. But we improved on it and marketed our efforts more," says Kingsbury.

McStain tailored its knowledge of the home buying market and the Boulder region to target socially and environmentally conscious buyers. "These are not radical buyers," says Kingsbury, "But they do vote their conscience with their pocketbooks."

Some McStain clients are accountants. Some are retired. Some are development directors. However, none of them seems to be an activist. "They're 'cultural creatives' who demand a difference," he says. The difference for McStain's clients means that they demand energy-efficient appliances and energy-saving construction materials. They care about recycling, land and tree conservation, and expect reusable materials to be used in the construction of their homes.

McStain's new branding added humor to sell the "built green" theme of its neighborhoods. Its recent "Why cats should wear bells" ad campaign reads that if cats wore bells, it would save more birds, who can then eat bugs, which will save local trees, and make local homeowners happier--thus leading to world peace. Tongue-in-cheek, the ad ends with "Possibly." "It's a challenge, but also a great opportunity," says Kingsbury. "People are smart and sophisticated, but they also like a friendly approach." The change proved to be subtle but powerfully effective. McStain sold 225 homes last year and expects to sell 400 new homes by the end of 2002.

Judge thyself

Everyone likes to win awards, but no one likes to be judged. Since most builders enter award programs and local parade-of-home competitions, some homework may be in order.

Neal Communities in Bradenton, Fla., decided it could be the best judge of its own products before the selling season. It chose to face the fear of judgement head-on: "We decided to do our own internal parade of homes [prior to the local contest], where we judge our own product lines and make adjustments or improvements," says Leisa Weintraub, vice president of marketing. "Having a real-time judging with check points, judging dates, and criteria is more serious than just doing a walk-through. This way everyone on the team is ready."

Neal's entries in the local parade-of-homes contest compete with at least 150 other houses in Sarasota and Manatee County, Fla. Weintraub and her team strategize six to eight months before the competition on planning, building, sites, budgeting, merchandising and decoration, lighting, and landscaping. "If you want to make the best impression for the public as well as the judges, you can't just enter; you have to start early and be critical of yourself."

If the judging is in March, which is typical in her region, Weintraub schedules the cleaning and landscaping crews as early as the December prior. At that stage, they begin to detail all the work involved with cleaning and landscaping the new homes.

The self-judging was a critical success. Neal won 12 awards in various categories in regional competitions including landscaping, swimming pools, architectural details, floor plans, and best bath categories.

Treat them to terry

Luxury hotels have used them for years: oversized, fluffy bath-robes (many of which found their way into suitcases). Brookfield Homes knew that and decided to add the pampering touch at two of its communities: Terraza at Scripps Ranch Villages and Sheffield at Calavera Hills in Carlsbad. Buyers who bought the four- to five-bedroom, move-up homes were treated to new bathrobes in their master suite closets on move-in day.

"It's a nice touch. They love it, and the expense is returned in good will from the buyers," says Carlene Wilkie, vice president of sales and marketing. "Moving is not fun, and this gives them a nice perk." Brookfield sold 125 homes, ranging from $400,000 to $600,000, between the two communities in just over one year.

Put it in handwriting

Thank-you notes are common when most consumers buy a luxury item like jewelry, boats, or fur coats. But many home builders forget to use them despite how expensive housing is. Perhaps salespeople are too busy. (Or maybe they're worried about their penmanship.) NV Homes in Gaithersburg, Md., found a solution.

Part-time hosts or hostesses assist sales teams, handwriting thank-you notes while salespeople focus on selling. The part-time positions are perfect for retirees or as an after-school activity for young people who can do a little work during the week. NV Homes recruited a local retired resident who it hired on an hourly basis to host the model while salespeople worked with clients. She also handwrites thank-you notes in stunning cursive penmanship. These are mailed to prospects, visitors, and recent customers who signed contracts.

"It frees up some of our time, and it adds a nice touch to receive something that looks classy," says Matt Risinger, sales representative at NV Homes Lakelands community in suburban Washington.