It’s tough enough to get prospective home buyers to get in their cars and visit a model home without $4-a-gallon gas prices. To encourage buyers to hit the highway--or to motivate them to consider a neighborhood that will require a commute--builders are turning to gas cards. Kimball Hill Homes is running a promotion through the end of July offering a $50 gas card to prospective buyers who visit a neighborhood and pre-qualify for a mortgage.

Through the end of August, Frederick, Md.-based Dan Ryan Builders is offering qualified, non-contingent buyers the option of closing cost assistance or up to a $5,000 gas card. Most of its buyers work in Washington, D.C., says marketing manager Karen Paulik, and the builder decided that the offer of a gas card would help with the cost of commuting.

In Dallas, Parkside Custom Homes currently is offering $100 in gas for 100 consecutive weeks  to buyers of one of its two available homes in The Orchards at Eagle Mountain Lake, a luxury community that’s a fairly good drive from the central business district.

In Sacramento, Calif., Lennar Homes  offered a Summer Sales Drive promotion; visitors to its 15 communities in the division could register to win a $1,000 gas card.

Offering small-denomination gas cards for visiting, or holding drawings for larger amounts, can be a way to drive traffic to a community, and to build a list of names for marketing, “assuming the names have value,” says Brian Flook, president of Hagerstown, Md.-based Power Marketing and Advertising, which specializes in marketing for home builders. “If the incentive is too easy a giveaway, your list is potentially only people who want gas, not a house. But, as permission marketing goes, building a list is a good thing. I see the gas thing as a good motivator when you use it to lure people to a site they may not otherwise visit. Or, use it as an after-purchase value. For instance, give away $5,000 of gas for your drive to work after you purchase. That could motivate a person to buy your home versus the next guy.”

The efforts aren’t limited to home buyers, either. Kimball Hill’s promotion extends to real estate agents, who can earn a $50 gas card for every client they accompany and register at a Kimball Hill community. Tori Ewing, vice president of corporate communications and marketing at Haven Properties in Atlanta, provides her on-site sales managers with prepaid gas cards “to use at their discretion to give to co-op real estate agents as a thank-you for brining potential buyers.”

Gas cards, as well as American Express gift cards, are a big hit with the real estate agents Dan Ryan Builders works with, too, Paulik says. Earlier this year, she expanded an internal sales contest that had a trip to Jamaica as the top prize to include local real estate agents.

“We thought the Jamaica trip would bring in people,” Paulik says. “They wanted the cash or the gas. What it tells us is that while the market is the way it is, we don’t need to spend energy on coming up with something like a trip.”

She also uses gas cards as prizes on a “Spin the Wheel” incentive for her sales agents. Every time they make a sale, and when a sale converts to a closing, they can spin a wheel on a board for gas card prizes.

Gas cards aren’t the only way to get people’s attention, of course. Beazer Homes took advantage of the novelty-- and fuel efficiency--of the newly available Smart Cars to fuel an internal sales contest this summer. The contest was centered on the builder's Smart Summer Spectacular national sales event June 20 to 22, according to Beazer marketing director Mandy Brooks, and the division with the highest sales as percent to goal was awarded the use of a branded Smart Car for a year.

The winner was Beazer's Charleston division, which sold 75 homes during the three-day promotion, exceeding the sales goal by more than 50 percent. The car is wrapped with logos for Beazer’s newly launched eco-friendly initiative, eSMART by Beazer Homes.

Beazer also is considering running some ads in the Los Angeles area that discuss the savings associated with living outside the metro area, Brooks says.

“In some cases,” she says, “the savings are such that a commute is actually worth it.”

Pat Curry is senior editor for sales and marketing at BUILDER magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.