IF YOU HAPPEN TO SHELL OUT $75 to get your hands on the 2004 National Association of Realtors home buyer profile, you might be disappointed—but probably not surprised. After scanning its 30 pages, you come away thinking today's buyers are fickle, superficial creatures who don't care about anything but big garages, high ceilings, bathrooms, and closet space.

But is it possible that studies like this simply reinforce stereotypes by not asking the right questions? In recent years, many builders have proved that “invisible” features and amenities such as R-values, durability, and air quality can play a major role in closing the deal. Yet these critical issues are often ignored in consumer-preference studies.

1. REVEAL HIDDEN ASSETS For example, Mercedes Homes has a community with great stealth features under way in Melbourne, Fla. Bill Zoeller, a senior architect with Steven Winter Associates in Norwalk, Conn., has been working with Mercedes on the project.

“There were three builders in this particular subdivision,” notes Zoeller. “We helped Mercedes configure their homes to be more energy efficient and built a little mock-up wall to compare the standard construction with our poured walls. They have been outselling their competitors by six to one, just killing them.”

ABOVE AND BEYOND: Pre-engineered wall studs and I-joists, hot water recirculating pumps, radiant-floor heating systems, and roof deck ice and water shields are just a few of the quality materials and systems employed by Ernst & Ernst.
ABOVE AND BEYOND: Pre-engineered wall studs and I-joists, hot water recirculating pumps, radiant-floor heating systems, and roof deck ice and water shields are just a few of the quality materials and systems employed by Ernst & Ernst.

Zoeller says that one of the keys to selling behind-the-walls amenities is simply learning how to talk about them. And there are certain hot buttons that get a buyer's attention.

“First of all, if the builders don't know what they have to sell, there's no way they can train their salespeople to sell it. If you have a superior product, you have to know it, to know that these are the features that make your houses better,” Zoeller explains.

2. KEEP IT SIMPLE The next trick, he says, is to “simplify the pitch.” In most cases, builders need to talk about a home's systems in a nontechnical way and tie it to lifestyle benefits.

“Comfort is very big,” Zoeller notes. “So is indoor air quality. When you talk about indoor air, you talk about the benefits of tight construction, of a properly sized air conditioning system to control mold. The trick is to tie it into the home's [lifestyle] attributes.”

3. DESCRIBE LONG-LASTING EFFECTS Joe Ernst, a co-owner of Ernst & Ernst, a residential builder/developer in Philadelphia, says that he doesn't try to sell infrastructure on its own. Instead, he focuses in on the fact that customers want things to look new for as long as possible.

This provides an opening for discussions about hidden quality, he says. He simply reminds them how a home's cosmetics will be impacted by construction choices.