By Susan Bady. Atlanta's upscale Buckhead neighborhood is best known for its restaurants, clubs, and cool shops. Local builders, though, know it as the site of Sobu Flats, a hip-yet-affordable condominium project by Julian LeCraw and Co. that defines a potentially lucrative new niche.

The prices at Sobu Flats, from the $70,000s to the high $100,000s, make it affordable even by Atlanta standards. And buyers in the 131-unit building get a lot of architecture for their dollar--curved walls and a two-tier rooftop garden, for starters. Rob Meyer, LeCraw's vice president of acquisition and development, describes the look as "South Beach meets Greenwich Village." It intersects with Silicon Valley as well: A cyber media center offers high-speed Internet access, a must-have feature for these buyers, Meyer says.

The project's marketing materials for this project, produced by local advertising firm Idea Associates, were as unusual as the building design. "The ads were all black and white, funky, and fun," says Sibet Freides, the firm's principal, adding that the first round produced "incredible results." The treatment carried through to the sales office, where visitors logged onto desktop computers to examine floor plans and take a virtual tour of the project. Instead of a boring brochure, prospects received a CD-ROM.

"We went after the jugular of the Gen-Xers," says Meyer, noting that strategy for reaching this active crowd included a cross-promotion with a health club located adjacent to the project. Within 18 months of opening, every unit was sold--that's better than seven a month.

The message

As builders in major markets score big successes in attached housing, the secret to those successes has become abundantly clear. It's all about selling the lifestyle that comes with living in a certain place rather than the bricks and mortar used to build it. The challenge is that no two lifestyle experiences are quite the same in attached projects; each requires a novel approach.

Granted, some people buy attached homes because they are less expensive than single-family. But more often than not, the desire to lead a more convenient or more entertaining lifestyle figures prominently in the choice. Buyers may be frequent travelers who require a home they can lock and leave, young singles who want to live within walking distance of urban hotspots, or empty-nesters looking for the finishes and features of a detached home but not the size or maintenance.

"Attached housing is not a compromise," maintains Debbie Rosenstein, owner of Rosenstein Research Associates in McLean, Va. "It's as desirable as single-family housing. Square footage is very strong, and the finish package is just as good. Townhomes, in particular, have spread across all price points and product types."

That's certainly true in Atlanta, where Ashton Woods pursues a different type of buyer than LeCraw's Gen-Xers. In the neighborhoods of Emory Park and Sandy Springs, attached housing draws doctors, professors, and other professionals who want to live near Emory University and the Center for Disease Control. They also want to avoid the city's traffic congestion. At Reddington in Sandy Springs, a popular in-town location, the builder pre-sold five homes and still hasn't built a model. "People want the location, and they want to get in early," says Larry Kruger, vice president of marketing.

A resurgence of multifamily housing has spurred that trend toward more variety of housing types and price ranges, notably in San Diego. "There are low-density and high-density townhouses, mid-rise, high-rise--you name it," says Sherm Harmer, who until recently worked for the Olson Cos.

In downtown locations, the key marketing messages are lifestyle, independence, and quality rather than quantity. The typical buyer in downtown areas is choosing 50 percent to 75 percent less living space, Harmer says but wants high-quality finishes.

Dubin Residential builds townhomes, lofts, and duplexes in Chicago's up-and-coming neighborhoods and on overlooked sites in high-demand areas. The company's full-page newspaper ads tout features such as hardwood floors, attached garages, private roof decks, and kitchens with granite countertops for the units, which are priced from the mid-$100,000s to the mid-$400,000s.

Eakin/Youngentob Associates (EYA) of Arlington, Va., is an urban infill specialist. "We tend to build near metro areas in Maryland and Virginia, including Washington, that have restaurants, shopping, and other attractions," says Julie Dillon, vice president of sales and marketing. Busy professionals and empty-nesters comprise a large portion of the buying pool. Whereas many large builders market by brand name, EYA markets by community, says Dillon.

"About six months prior to opening, we meet with our advertising agency, research the neighborhood, and decide what the product is going to be," she says. "We design a logo and brochure that's specific to the community." Along with direct mail postcards and e-flyers, Dillon runs ads in the city's primary newspaper and in local community or county papers. For a condo project targeting empty-nesters, the tag line--"A condominium without compromise"--sent the message that downsizing to a condo didn't have to be a sacrifice. An ad for an EYA townhouse project in the hip, walkable Clarendon section of Arlington, Va., used the tag line: "So close to the heart of Clarendon you can feel the beat."

In Dallas, Centex Homes tapped into the urban market a year ago with the acquisition of CityHomes. Gary Latz, the Dallas division's vice president of marketing, uses such tag lines as "Escape from the ordinary," and "A fresh new way to look at urban living," for the CityHomes projects, which are all located in the trendy Knox Park neighborhood, just north of downtown.

"The people who live there are within walking distance of shopping, dining, and entertainment," says Latz. "It's also linked to downtown Dallas via the DART system, so they're close to theaters, art galleries, museums, and sports venues." Knox Park attracts a range of buyers--single people, young couples, families with kids, empty-nesters, and even a few second-home buyers. "We had a very successful opening with two projects that backed up to the Katy Trail, a hiking/biking path that is a huge buzzword with in-town dwellers today."

Seattle-based CamWest also hones in on lifestyle, says Carolyn Gladwell, vice president of marketing and sales. The new patio homes in its Tamarack Village project, say its ads, are "perfect for a carefree lifestyle." The homes, attached only at the garage, "look like single-family homes, live like townhomes."

Design magic

Good design can give multifamily builders a competitive edge as well as a marketing angle. The corporate marketing slogan for Miller and Smith, a builder based in McLean, Va., is, "We're not copycats. We're the cats other builders copy." The company designs new product for almost every job and integrates land planning and product design. At the Broadlands in Virginia, Creaser/O'Brien Architects designed townhomes for Miller and Smith with zigzagged lot lines so that the rear of each unit could be turned 27 degrees. As a result, some of the rooms are 25 feet wide even though the lots are only 22 feet wide.

Brochure for Miller and Smith's innovatively designed townhouse plans uses magic as a marketing theme. This design "magic" became the marketing theme, says the company's marketing vice president Rhonda Ellisor. "We called it the Magic Collection and named the models the Merlin and the Houdini," she says. A magician kept visitors entertained in the sales office, and floor plans were displayed on oversize playing cards. The brochure was filled with puns and allusions to magic. As this article went to press, the 116-unit project was close to selling out. Likewise, Ashton Woods shows off its investment in design. "Our townhomes feel like single-family homes--they have lots of natural light and the plans flow very well," says Kruger. The company uses high-quality photos for its postcard mailers that bear the tagline, "Design to take your breath away."

Direct appeal

Builders marketing attached projects say that direct mail is often the most effective medium, though most also take the blanket approach with newspaper ads. Cambridge Homes of Libertyville, Ill., uses direct mail to market homes in suburban Chicago, especially if the project is located near a large concentration of rental apartments. "We communicate the idea that it's better than paying rent," says Richard Brown, the company's CEO. Other builders use cluster marketing--picking zip codes where people are actively buying, then targeting those buyers' friends with direct mail.

"There's also a lot of invitation marketing, where prospective buyers are invited to a reception at a new community," says Sherm Harmer. "Some builders take them on a pedicab ride or a horse-drawn carriage tour to convey the ambience of in-town living."

CityHomes' reinforces its downtown presence by putting a sales and design center in the same building as its corporate office. "It's a one-stop shop," Latz says. "Customers can get information on the projects, options and upgrades, and mortgages. Then they get in a CityHomes van, and we drive them to the projects, which are only a few blocks away."

CamWest has successfully marketed its patio homes with free-standing newspaper inserts. Their affordability for Seattle--prices start in the $270,000s--has been a big draw.

"We've also found our Web site to be an increasingly powerful marketing tool," says Gladwell. Kruger says the Internet drives more traffic to Ashton Woods communities every year. And in Atlanta, as in other cities, local broker participation is essential. "They're our partners, especially with relocating buyers who want to live close to where they work," he says.

Advertising for multifamily communities in urban Seattle "has a very hip look and hits hard on the technology factor," according to Bill Boucher, marketing vice president with the Quadrant Corp. in Bellevue, Wash. Depending on the project's neighborhood, ads may appeal to Gen-Xers by featuring young models, Boucher says. But here's where market research comes in. If the target market is move-ups, he says, the ads downplay the high-tech aspect and play up the family component. "The message is that it's okay to raise kids in an attached home," he says.

Susan Bady is based in Chicago.

BIG BUILDER Magazine, April 2002