As the adage goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. For builders, that message often is manifested through a crucial consumer touchpoint: the model home.

While potential buyers may already have seen a firm's homes in neighborhoods or via its website, chances are good that visiting a model or design center is the first opportunity for a buyer to see all of the layouts and products that a builder has to offer.

These spaces are some of the most fulfilling for the buyer, says Erin Dunavant, owner of Birmingham, Ala.–based home staging and interior design firm SWAG Design Studio. "Building a home is a dream for most buyers, and ... they get excited over the possibility of design items and features in their new home."

To keep today's buyers engaged, presenting high-quality models is more imperative than ever, says Jane Meagher, president of Success Strategies, a Manalapan, N.J.–based firm that provides design center creation and consultation services. "Design is just ubiquitous today and trends move faster than ever before," she says. "The buyers are on Pinterest and Houzz, they're watching a million episodes of HGTV; they're exposed to it on a daily basis."

With the potential to improve revenue and reputation, builders can't afford not to optimize these spaces' customer appeal. Here's how to accomplish that—and reap the rewards.

Know Your Buyers

To the uninitiated, designing a model home may seem straightforward. But according to Kelly Diepeveen, senior model home designer at Winter Park, Fla.–based Marc-Michaels Interior Design, it requires more than just picking out nice furnishings and paint colors.

"There's definitely a lot more marketing that goes into model homes than people realize," she says. "People think, ‘Oh, you're just decorating a house to make it pretty to make people want to buy it,' but it really is a target demographic that we base the entire design of the house around."

That target is key for builders to make educated merchandising decisions, says Meagher. "It's critical to know your customer and it's rare that you can effectively be all things to all people. It comes down to really understanding your buyer's wants and needs," she says.

At Irvine, Calif.–based TRI Pointe Homes, vice president of sales and marketing Tina Martelon-Braunthal works closely with local designers to ensure that the approach stays consistent across the entire team.

"I have a lot of face-to-face meetings with our designers," she says. "I go with them to the showrooms and see the concepts. I feel like I really know our buyers and what they're looking for, so if something feels good to me, it will probably translate."

Put Your Best Foot Forward

While a buyer profile certainly will influence decisions, some essential principles cross demographic lines.

First: the space needs to be welcoming, says Martelon-Braunthal. TRI Pointe is conscientious in carefully selecting everything to enhance comfort, from the seating options to sensory input like scents and background music. "We are always thinking about how you will feel when you walk through the door," she adds. "We want people to stay and spend time in our model homes and design centers."

Ensuring a flawless-as-possible presentation—down to details like warm lighting and soft music—can make all the difference to a buyer, says Preston Innerst, vice president of sales and marketing at Bethesda, Md.–based EYA. "Those are things that customers may not immediately recognize if something's wrong, but something just doesn't feel right to them."

Builders also should focus on features that reflect current homeowner priorities, such as open layouts, high-end kitchens, spa-like master baths, and the use of natural materials. One of the most popular trends attracting buyers is blending outdoor and indoor living space.