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Every Tuesday afternoon, Renaissance Homes sales broker Leslee Lahey locks up the single model home in the community she manages in the suburbs of Portland, Ore., and heads into town with high hopes that Renaissance's state-of-the-art design center will help her finalize a sale that evening.

With little but dirt and one model home to show, Lahey has discovered that inviting prospects to Tuesday Preview Night at the design center is one of her best selling tools. After spending a low-key evening noshing on wine and cheese, fondling the faucet samples, and mingling with company principals in the center's homey setting, her prospects are more likely to sign on the dotted line.

"I've actually had more than one occasion where they have signed there," she says.

BEST OF THE BEST: Before building its award-winning design center, Portland, Ore.-based Renaissance Homes executives spent a week on a whirlwind, cross country tour of top builder design centers, each executive keeping careful notes of the most outstanding features. At the end, they shared their thoughts and, with the guidance of consultant Jane Meagher of Success Strategies, incorporated the consensus of what they liked into their new design center. Photos: Courtesy Renaissance Homes

Renaissance is on the leading edge of a trend toward using pretty, posh design centers as more than an after-sale profit center. The best ones, with their softly lit fantasy vignettes and elegantly displayed options, set the scene for putting the romance back in the home-buying experience. They entice on-the-fence buyers to commit by laying out a tempting array of personalized options that make them forget they are buying a production builder's house and remember only that they are choosing the elements of what will be their home.

"The design center actually clinched it for me," says Gail Mann, who, with her husband, is having a Renaissance home built. The couple had already signed an agreement to buy a home from Lahey before they went to their first Preview Tuesday, but the sale was contingent on approving the available options. Mann was nervous that the options would not meet their needs and desires.

"I wanted to get a better feel for what our options would be and make sure I could do some of the things I wanted to do to customize our house," she says. "Until you see what the options are, you go into the transaction with the builder really blind."

Getting to see and touch all the home component selections that are standard, as well as those that are available through upgrades, gave the couple confidence they can build the house they want, she says. And the presence of the company's president and design team helped cement the deal. "They had a big spread of food," says Mann. "They treat you like the king and queen."

Bolt from the Blue

Renaissance Homes' vice president of sales and marketing Kim Whitman was standing in front of a sales group meeting at the company's new design center about eight months ago when he had a sudden revelation.

"It dawned on me that to use this [design center] just for people who have already bought doesn't make sense," Whitman recalls. "We have got to make this into another retail touch point for would-be consumers and clients." Almost immediately the Tuesday night previews began.

Anybody visiting a home site or model and expresses interest in Renaissance's homes–either by filling out a card or giving on-site salespeople their name–gets an invitation to the design center open house from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

"They browse, they get to ask questions, and they are escorted or tended by a sales associate from the site, but not obtrusively," explains Whitman. "It's not a sales event. It's a very casual thing. Nobody gets into details of 'Gee, what would it cost me to tile my master shower if I'm building X plan.' We quietly defer that answer to the appointment should they proceed."

Company president Randy Sebastian is often on hand, as are executive staff, designers, and sales agents. "We have found that people like the idea that they can visit with the company president, they can visit with the vice presidents, and feel like we are more personally in touch with our company," Whitman says.

The company has seen a 20 percent to 25 percent jump in how much its customers spend at the design center, but it's difficult to tell how much of that is because of the new design center or the preview nights. Moreover, the numbers may be misleading because the company sells higher-end homes that have a greater percentage of upgrades.

Another metric Whitman offers as a potential indicator of the new design center's success is the 100 percent increase in sales volume between 2005 and 2006, when the design center opened. Still, the numbers could, to some extent, be reflective of the company's overall growth, which has run somewhere between 700 percent and 900 percent since 2000. It expects to build about 350 homes this year.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Portland, OR.