Tristan Coopersmith wheels and deals in what's cool today and what will be hot tomorrow. A 30-year-old executive at The Intelligence Group, a division of Beverly Hills-based talent agency giant Creative Artists Agency, she knows what makes youngish people tick. The currency exchange among her clients is impeccable, predictive insight into the buying behaviors of Generations X, Y, and beyond. If “Trendlish” were a language, you'd quite likely mistake it for her native tongue. More important, Coopersmith, a most recent Los Angeles area arrival and a renter, is herself an incarnation of the present and future of entry-level home buyers—a living, breathing micro-version of the macro trends she talks about all the time.
She's aiming to buy a house, maybe even before year end. No surprise, she's already been trolling online for weeks doing her research. What may come as a surprise, though, is that she's familiar with quite a few of your names—KB Home, Toll Brothers, Centex, Lennar, Standard Pacific—and she's virtually toured your models, scoped out price offerings, and checked into various and sundry neighborhoods in Los Angeles' sprawling environs. Next step is a week vacation she's planned for August, specifically to make the rounds of model homes and communities, checking out in person what she's been gathering fodder about in virtual real estate land.
It may be tempting, but best not call her. A hard sell would likely do more damage than good, nestled as she is by reason of her birth year, at the vortex of Gen X and Y. What she would welcome, though, is an opportunity to attend a two-hour seminar that would introduce her to the basics of buying a first home. Demystifying the mortgage process and the legal procedures, how to work with the builder's sales and design counselors, and what to expect from individuals in the various stages of construction would give her more confidence in her decisions, since she's making them all herself.
SEA CHANGE FOR WHAT IT IS U.S. Census Bureau statistics indicate that people aged 27 to 40 buy 51 percent of newly constructed home units. This means that an overachieving 22 percent of the U.S. population—born during the baby bust years of 1965 and 1979—account for one out of every two new home purchases. Still, what these broader statistics mask is a first alert of a fundamental shift occurring in who's making the home buying decision, who's the customer for big home builders, and, as a result, who's the focus of design, marketing, and customer care initiatives, particularly among younger buyers. The answer is women.
“As it is, I'm probably going to have to buy a Home Buying for Dummies, kind of book, because I just don't see anything like that around to attend, and it's a terrifying process,” says Coopersmith, who hails from Chevy Chase, Md., and recently arrived in L.A. by way of a stint as head of research and market intelligence for Teen People magazine in New York. “I'd much rather do a two-hour, fun, interactive class and get everything I need to know about the process. Why doesn't anybody do that sort of thing?”
Precisely. Someone smart will create a seminar offering like that, and will probably get rich doing it. What's more, as long as it's all about the educational value—turning buyers into genuinely smarter, prospective homeowners—a program like that could help a new home builder or two in the process. That is, if they don't try to do a typical sponsorship or, worse, run it themselves. “We're cynical and skeptical, remember?” says Coopersmith, referring to decades of broad brush characterizations of her generational cohort by marketing consultants. “We'd see through the commercial, and it would only end up coming across as self-serving.”
Still, focusing too heavily on marketing's “generational cohort” issues will lead down a garden path to missing a genuine secret of how to anticipate and meet the evolving needs of the next wave of buyers. As 76 million American baby boomers arrived at a similar age threshold starting three decades ago, many businesses missed a critical factor in the change. That is, women's all-out entry into the workforce would forever change the economy, culture, and the nature of business opportunity. Behind the veneer of the sheer numbers of the pig-in-the-python generation, the insight of any real business value was that women were no longer the stay-at-home June Cleavers that businesses targeted so cleverly. It took decades before the marketers got a clue.
The risk now is that if home builders and other businesses fail to take a deeper dive into both the demographics and psychographics of their Gen X and Y prospects, they, too, will miss a critical factor; the shift in decision-making power and influence from males to females in more important matters of personal financial management. This includes home buying. As big home builders adjust to dramatic change in household make-up—away from traditional, nuclear, white, married-couples-with-children households, which represent less than 25 percent of U.S. homes—they also need to take note of who “wears the pants” in these less traditional households and why.
“I was in Orlando for the International Home Builders' show in January and visited the National Association of Home Builders' New American Home project,” says a female branding consultant who works with home builders on positioning their products and marketing messages. “Frankly, I was offended by how male-oriented the floor plan and design was. The ‘man's office' was on the first floor; where the hell was her office space; somewhere upstairs next to the sewing room? There's definitely a gap between who most home builders see as their customers, and who we really are.”
XY TYPICAL Conversation with The Intelligence Group's Coopersmith reveals two essential verities. One, she knows her Gen X and Gen Y trends. She can riff on a litany of how today's younger adults pattern themselves around cravings for the “badge of success” of homeownership, the pragmatism of financial prudence, the functionality of space and technology, the openness of family rooms and kitchens, the crucial importance of ambient entertaining space, the essential notion of community, and the desirability of his and her “unnamed” rooms that may serve multiple work or recreational functions.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.