By Cheryl Weber. Toll Brothers offers buyers about 1,000 options these days, significantly more than 10 years ago. The number of options in U.S. Home's design centers has more than doubled in the past decade, says Bob Strudler, Lennar's COO, thanks partly to the enormous diversification in manufacturers' product lines.

Consumers want choice, but with it comes anxiety. The challenge for builders is to balance clients' desires for options with their need for a stress-free buying experience, so that the choices don't overwhelm, says Barbara Caplan, a partner at Yankelovich, the market research firm based in Chapel Hill, N.C. While the material desires of today's consumers may know no bounds, the opposite is true of their time. "Time deficit cuts across all markets," says Sandra Kulli, a marketing consultant based in Malibu, Calif. "If the options experience can be a respite, like the sorbet between dinner and dessert, that's what people are looking for."

To decompress the selection process, buyers at John Laing Homes can go online and play with prepriced options before arriving at one of the company's design centers, which vary in size from 3,000 to 5,000 square feet. Marianne Browne, vice president of sales and marketing, says the company's options and upgrades program has reduced buyer cancellations. "Design centers are a lot of fun," she says. "Buyers have a lot invested emotionally and are less likely to back out when the home is more theirs."

At Four Seasons Private Residences in Scottsdale, Ariz., a gated enclave of 51 homes adjacent to the Four Seasons Resort and built by Kitchell Custom Homes, Phoenix, the buying process is precisely calibrated to prevent frayed nerves. Within 45 days of contract acceptance, buyers are required to select the large number of items that will go into their homes, which range from $1.7 million for a 3,500-square-foot home to $2.5 million for 5,700 square feet. To do that, Four Seasons conducts a three-day "design retreat," putting clients up at the posh resort.

A typical first day starts buyers on a critical path, beginning with choices that affect the house's structural and mechanical underpinning, such as flooring and adding fireplaces and wet bars. The afternoon session offers a change of scenery with a three-hour, on-site visit with the professional who will design their landscape. "We have an adequate landscape package in the base price," says sales and marketing director Sandra Esmay, "but we see that as a primary area people will want to play with, to customize the pool and create an entertaining environment." During the buying spree, stress is kept at bay with well-paced breaks — coffee in the morning, lunch, and afternoon tea. In the evening, clients are pampered with spa treatments or dinner on the town.

Four Seasons spent $150,000 to turn the garage area of its largest model home into the design gallery, going for a human-scaled, residential feel designed to put people at ease. Options are organized into three "design directions" — Colonial, Territorial, and Southwestern Pueblo — reassuring buyers that their giant order will add up to a cohesive look. Buyers needn't even scout around for sofas and bedroom suites. Says Esmay: "We anticipate that people will want to purchase a furniture package. It's an opportunity to increase our profitability with turnkey service."

Cheryl Weber is based in Severna Park, Md.

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Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, August 2002