Remember the bygone days when home-buying prospects could visit a market’s Parade of Homes and see just about every model being offered by local builders?
John Heagney does. In the 30 years he’s lived in Florida, he’s also seen the Parade of Homes concept become financially less feasible for builders and a “logistical nightmare” for customers who now might need to drive to several counties to see the full gamut of models a market offers.
So about two years ago Heagney, who runs a public relations firm in Clearwater, Fla., started thinking about how to make visiting models easier for prospects. He came up with an idea for a website with an imaginative name—www.mousethruthehouse.com—that offers full video house tours as well as other detailed information about the model and the builder.
The site, which launched in April 2010, currently has tours for around 400 models in seven central Florida counties from three dozen builders that range from large public companies to small custom builders. The videos run up to eight minutes long, and the site is averaging 2,500 tours per month (170 visitors took a tour on Wednesday alone). The site also provides builders with back-door access that allows them to use the videos for their own marketing. Over the past 10 months, Florida’s Highland Homes has had 1,500 prospects take a tour of its Owensburg model on the site. And over the past four months, an average of seven prospects per day have toured Taylor Morrison’s Kensington model, says Heagney.
Heagney doesn’t require visitors to register to use his site, because requiring registration and credit-card information have always bugged him about some websites. “They say their information is free, but then they make you give your name, your address, your phone number, your first child’s birth date, just to get details about their models, so how ‘free’ it is?”
Heagney also wanted his site to be “absolutely user friendly,” and had to fight long and hard with his IT people to keep them from adding what he calls “whiz bang” elements. Mousethruthehouse claims that visitors can bore down to find a model at any price range in any market it covers within five clicks.
There are two reasons why no models appear on his site in certain markets, Heagney explains. The first is that some markets like Pinellas County are built out, so there’s very little new construction going on. Another is that some parts of Tampa Bay are pretty rural and don't have any models yet. Heagney also has a backlog of 40 models to videotape. (Heagney does all the shoots himself.)
Initially, Heagney wanted to charge builders $999 to videotape a model and post it on his website with a floor plan and a link to the builder’s website. The builder would also get to use the video any way it wanted to. At that price, though, “we got nothing, zero.” The same was true when he lowered the price to $360. So in late 2009, he scrubbed his business model and offered builders a free basic package that includes the model shoot and posting, the builder’s phone number, the floor plan, and three special descriptive features.
For $95, a builder gets more feature descriptions and five on-screen callouts; for $360, 10 on-screen callouts, a link to its website, and an “ad guard” that promises models won’t share pages with other companies’ advertising. Heagney has one developer client for which his company has put together a community video tour for $1,000, and he hopes to get more of these so he can link builders’ model tours to them.
Heagney thought it would take 18 to 24 months for his site to break even. But enough builders took the premium packages to bring Mousethruthehouse to break-even in nine months.
Over the next 60 days, Heagney says he’ll start “monetizing” his site by selling advertising to businesses near the models, such as electricians, dentists, and furniture stores. “We realized that our market is everybody.” He plans to hire a sales team dedicated to selling ad space on the site.
Right now, the company is concentrating on serving the greater Tampa Bay area. But Heagney says he’s been approached about franchising the site to other areas of Florida and other states as well. That could be a while, though, he says with caution. “We don’t want to expand to the point where we become incompetent.”
John Caulfield is senior editor with Builder magazine.