Fred Forbes

When developers Roger Mumford and Clay Bonny were drawing up the plans for River Place, a mixed-use enclave of 68 townhomes in the suburbs outside Manhattan, they had a hunch their best prospects would be young, first-time home buyers, given that the stagnant resale market was making it difficult for empty-nesters to unload their existing homes and downsize. They were right. And with a shrewd sales strategy, they sold more than 65 percent of the units within five months of the project’s grand opening.

A heavy emphasis on model merchandising was central to the frenetic success of River Place, which is located in a mostly blue-collar county on the site of a former silicon factory in Butler, N.J. “We knew it wasn’t enough to just talk about our building company and the quality of our products,” says Mumford. “We needed to execute so people would have something they could experience first hand. They needed to know exactly what we were offering in the face of what was clearly a deteriorating market.”

That’s when interior designer Mary Cook was brought on board to create three furnished models reflecting the lifestyle needs of three imaginary buyers. The ­contemporary, neutral-toned Amsterdam model, for example, pictures its owner as a 34-year-old divorced, single guy who works full time as a personal fitness trainer while pursuing a business degree on the weekends. The Freeport model imagines its ­inhabitants as a couple­—both divorced and remarried—who met in culinary school, with one working as a sous chef in an upscale restaurant and the other running a catering business from home. In this case, a study off the kitchen serves as a home office, while a second ­bedroom is set up for weekend visits from the child of a previous marriage.

Fred Forbes

And then there’s the Chelsea model, staged as a “mingles” unit for two sisters in their 30s—one a jewelry and textile designer, the other a high school math teacher—opting to buy and build equity together. Blond wood tones, radiant textures, and eclectic furnishings give this space a worldly, urban vibe. “In a first-time market, many buyers now have a roommate situation, or they are pooling their financial resources to buy a larger place together, so this was a very realistic scenario,” Cook says.

Having three fully furnished models for a property of only 68 units is unusual, Mumford concedes, but the experiential sales strategy, tied in with Internet and newspaper advertising and targeted direct mail, proved to be money in the bank. Curious visitors touring the models were dazzled to discover that standard features include oak stair treads, 42-inch staggered-height kitchen cabinets, two-tone designer paint themes, whirlpool tubs, oversized showers with Corian seating, built-in breakfast bars, and granite countertops.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: New York, NY, Dallas, TX.