When Dennis Johnson and his wife, Joan Black, moved in to their new home in Warmington Homes' Bayport Alameda community in Alameda, Calif., the couple didn't have to spend any time figuring out how the garbage disposal or the thermostat worked. They'd already had a detailed lesson during a three-hour orientation walk-through with Don Johnson, Warmington's service representative for construction.

They also didn't have to hunt for cleaning supplies, hand soap, paper towels, or a local phone book. Those were waiting for them in the house in a canvas tote bag filled with practical goodies you use when you're moving in to a new house. If that weren't enough, there was another gift certificate for a cooking class, courtesy of the design center. Plus, at closing they had received a set of good-quality pens, key chains, and a tape measure.

They also noticed that there was no one else moving in that day, which was great because the houses are all alley-loaded, and there could have been a traffic jam if everyone had shown up at the same time.

A few days after they moved in, their salesperson stopped by with a housewarming gift of a plant and a gift certificate for four hours' worth of any household job, such as installing bookcases, hanging pictures, or sealing grout. The couple also were reminded that they would be receiving a survey from Eliant asking about their home buying experience.

Within a few weeks of moving in, they were invited to get together with other new residents in one of the model homes for a “meet your neighbors/meet your builder” night.

“We've seen neighbors and waved to them, but this was a way to talk to them and meet people who had been living in the area for awhile,” Dennis Johnson says. “We wound up having a little potluck just for our neighbors as a result of that.”

A PERSONALIZED SYSTEM It's all part of a step-by-step process called The Warmington Way to make sure that buyers feel special throughout the home buying process, says Cheryl O'Connor, vice president of sales and marketing for Costa Mesa, Calif.–based Warmington Homes. The move-in part of the process focuses on the excitement surrounding moving in to a new house. Along with the tote bag of handy items, the gift certificates, and the plant, new buyers also receive a framed photo of themselves in front of their house, taken during their orientation walk-through. None of the items is tremendously expensive, but they add up to a memorable experience. It wouldn't happen consistently if there weren't a system in place.

It's not enough to have the proverbial checklist of steps to complete, though. What makes it special is that it's personalized, such as the gift certificate for a cooking class that Johnson and Black received from the design center team, which is the result of everyone listening and paying attention to their customers. If everyone moving into a house got a Babies R Us gift certificate, for example, many of those families wouldn't be able to use them.

The beginning of the move-in process actually starts with the orientation walk-through, done typically four days before closing, says Joanne Rivero, Warmington's director of customer service. While many builders have the superintendent do that walk, Warmington has customer service handle it because “we think it's more unbiased,” she says. “We didn't build it, and we're going to be taking care of them from that point anyway.”

APPRECIATE DIFFERENCES The customer service reps take as much time as is needed to complete the orientation walk-through, she says. Language barriers are significant in California and sometimes a translator will accompany the rep. Reps receive cross-cultural training, as well, because the ethnic background of the buyer has to be considered, Rivero says. Certain colors and numbers have significance to different cultures, and gifts should reflect and respect those preferences. Red is the color of happiness and fortune in some Asian cultures, for instance, and white is the color of mourning. Some consider the number 4 to be unlucky.

The special touches offer an important point of differentiation in a crowded market, Rivero says. “[Local builders] all use the same subs and build the same product,” she says. “How can you stand out? Give a good experience and lift that anxiety.”

For Johnson and Black, the experience was so positive, they now consider their sales agents as friends. “The salespeople stayed with us all through the process,” Johnson says. “We will invite them, at some point, over for dinner or at least for an evening of hors d'oeuvres. They were very kind and genuine.”

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