Big Builder '07 Conference

From the hippies of Haight-Ashbury and the East Bay's political activists to the suits in the suburbs and householders of every description in between, solving the sales puzzle in Northern California is anything but one-size-fits-all. However, Warmington Homes takes a highly tailored and targeted approach in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, with 30-year industry veteran Cheryl O'Connor leading the charge. Beginning in the land acquisition phase, Warmington develops an individual marketing plan that is unique to each community. When developing Vantage in Palo Alto, Calif., the builder, recognizing that its affluent buyer profile for the $1 million units would understand and appreciate green features, incorporated photovoltaic panels–the first condo project on the Peninsula to do so. "We decided to make the photovoltaic panels a standard feature because we thought it would be the one thing that would push people to buy a home when the press was telling them that now is not the time," O'Connor says. "And it has worked for us."

Cheryl O'Connor Photo: Courtesy EMC Impact

By leveraging sustainability as a marketing tool, Warmington has essentially achieved the impossible–increasing traffic and moving product in today's less-than-hospitable market. In fact, Vantage sees roughly 140 visitors per week in a submarket where 30 is the average, according to O'Connor. "We have a competitor opening soon across the street, and they have told us that people expect their project to be green and would prefer to buy from us instead," she says. "We are the new standard."


Making the cross-country journey from Buffalo, N.Y., to the City by the Bay "in search of fame and fortune," O'Connor first fell into home building with a job in Sunstream Homes' accounting department. Since then, she has seen more than her fair share of tumultuous times, but through it all she remains positive and a strong advocate for issues that affect the industry. "I have been responsible for selling homes through three recessions, a drought, an earthquake, and other challenges outside of my control," O'Connor says. "But I have always been creative and flexible in coming up with ways to succeed."


A recent Home Builder's Association of Northern California (HBANC) polling study revealed that most Bay Area residents would be more willing to accept home builder growth if the new-home communities featured sustainable designs. Due to the cyclical nature of the housing industry, O'Connor notes that remaining attuned to the desires and requirements of one's target buyer segment is crucial for success. "Our industry is constantly changing, and we need to be able to turn on the dime," she says. "If we are headed down a road to building a move-up product when the market shifts to entry-level, someone needs to be the voice of reason and ask the question: Should we be doing this? I see that as one of my roles."

Moving forward, Warmington plans to introduce a "green room" in its 2008 models in order to better illustrate the advantages and unique benefits of green building. Attributing poor performance of past environmentally friendly projects to a lack of home buyer education, O'Connor stresses the need for builders to do a better job of promoting green features. And as the first female HBA regional chairperson, she plans to take the issue to task. "If we can change the mindset of Northern California residents to embrace new communities because they are better for the environment, this will have a profound impact on our industry going forward," says O'Connor.

–Lisa Brown

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA.