Parked in the lot of a closed Sonny's BBQ in Palm Bay, Fla., the SUV's A/C blasting beneath the already baking mid-morning sun, builder mystery shopper Karen M. readies her hidden video recorder and microphone and starts briefing me on our cover story.

"I'm a new employee in human resources at Harris [company] relocating to this area and you are a co-worker who has the day off to help me find a house," she says. Then she fills me in on the particulars of her made-up identity as a ready, willing, and able to buy customer.

So begins my day as a mystery shopper's shadow, hopping across the state of Florida, looking to get a look at what's really happening at a few sales centers at a ground zero of the housing slump.

Raised Stakes

It's been a year and a half since the housing slowdown began and a year after it became blatantly obvious across the country that the market had made a 180-degree turn. Yet sales agents in many cases still behave like order takers, say sales trainers and the mystery shoppers builders hire to assess their sales employees. They also say many agents are still barely willing to get out of their chairs to greet customers, while others simply haven't been taught the most basic sales skills.

"It's been dismal," says Melinda Brody, whose Orlando, Fla.?based company, Melinda Brody and Co., is hired by builders across the country to mystery shop their salespeople. "You would think they would step up to the plate. The builders have kept on a lot of people who are used to just showing up and making six figures. They are now saying: 'What do you mean I have to do this and that?'"

Brody says the scores of sales agents her company has shopped across the country have been dropping by a few points every year. In 2006, only 5 percent of the thousands of salespeople her company's mystery shoppers visited scored 80 or higher on the 100-point checklist. Among 786 sales associates her company has recorded scores on, a majority–27 percent–were in the 50s.

Then Brody offered to let Big Builder spend some time with one of her mystery shoppers to see in person what's going on. We gladly accepted.

So, that's how, on a morning in late April, I ended up sitting in Karen M.'s car, listening intently before we walk into the first of three high-volume builder sales centers as she tells me the fake name she will be using for the first shopping visit of the day, the price range of the home she is looking to buy, that she is supposed to be moving from South Florida, and a few other minor details to round out her pretend existence.

Turns out, it was a story she wouldn't need to tell. The sales counselor of this top 25 national private home builder never gave her own name, much less asked her customer's. And her interest in why Karen M. showed up at the builder's model center that morning was practically nil.

"You want well water or city water?" was the second question the saleswoman posed after ascertaining Karen M.'s price range and leading us over to the model home. Huh? Apparently homes in the builder's scattered lot holdings with city water cost more than those with a well.

After a brief explanation that the model home we were in had no upgraded features and that the ceiling in any home Karen M. bought would have a knock-down rather than popcorn finish, she took us on a tour of two available homes under construction in the right price range, slowing down to point out the partially completed homes. Next, she drove through the parking lot of the local shopping center and city hall to show off the area's amenities. About an hour later, we left after Karen M. had filled out a paper with her fake name and address and was handed a mortgage application.

"How'd she do?" I asked back in the SUV. "How do you think?" she answered. Bottom line: poorly.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL.