During the housing recession, when many of Mark Patterson’s competitors in southern Maine and New Hampshire stopped selling houses, Patterson’s Patco Construction kept chugging along in large part because he builds and sells houses women want.
Patco isn’t a big builder. It sold 45 to 50 houses at its peak in 2004 and things have tapered off since 2008 to 20 to 30 homes per year now. “But a lot of my competition has built nothing,” Patterson said. “I’m building homes and we don’t do spec. Everything I build is pre-sold.”
“It was not all about women-centric,” he added. “We also had the right product, price-point, and location, but you have also got this superior design and process” that appeals to women.
Ironically, it was a couple of men, Greg Dodge and Paul Foresman of Design Basics, who told Patterson that he needed to work harder to appeal to women buyers if he wanted to sell more houses. Patterson was skeptical, not because he didn’t know and believe the statistics that women make most of the home buying decisions, or even that women think differently than men. It was just that he didn’t think anybody had cracked the code to women buyers’ wants.
So he asked Dodge and Foresman to give him the name of a successful women-centric builder. They pointed him to Hugh A. Fisher of Deer Brook Development Corp., a Rhode Island builder who had quadrupled his business in the middle of the housing recession. After one conversation Patterson was sold that there was something to check out. He signed up for women-centric design training and purchased a package of women-focused marketing materials through Design Basics, which had helped Fisher boost his sales. Then Patterson came back to Maine and started putting what he had learned to work. Soon he became a woman-centric sales radical. “That was ’08 and we had people lined up down the driveway,” he remembered.
A lot of what Patterson learned about appealing to women buyers might sound like sexist stereotypes. He says men look at a house as a general impression, with their most specific interest being where to put the big-screen TV, while women see the details of its parts. Men look at a house plan with concerns about how they will relax in the house, he says, while women focus on how the family will live in the house and how they will work in it. Obviously these are generalizations that don’t apply to every man or woman, but Patterson said that they do apply to many and that figuring out how to use those generalizations to market and sell his homes has been a major contributor to Patco's success.
So how do you become a women-centric builder? Patterson said it’s not just a matter of making your website pink and building better laundry rooms, though those could be pieces of the puzzle. Patterson said it has to be more holistic than that, involving a complete re-thinking of marketing, sales, and design.
Here are parts of Patco’s success formula.
A woman-centric web site. The main page of Patco's website looks somewhat typical, though it does include a lot of photos of happy families and couples, but click on the top button labeled “Woman-Centric” and a pastel peach page pops up that looks like it came out of a women’s magazine. Featured prominently are a section that offers floor plans coded by color to delineate storage, living, and “de-stressing” areas in the plans, the “10 Commandments of Women-Centric Design,” and a women’s magazine-style quiz that determines whether the shopper is a Maggie, Claire, Elise, or Margo and then gives a description of each of the four personality types and suggests floor plans that might appeal to each type.
Listening. Showing floor plans isn’t the first thing that Patco sales people do when customers come in. Instead, Patterson said he sits down with customers for 20 minutes or so to find out what they say they are looking for in a new home and to learn some details of the family's lifestyle. Since Patco doesn’t build model homes, this happens in a show room. “We are not trying to close,” said Patterson. “We talk about, What are your needs? What would you like? What would you need? What is your budget? Women will tell you what their budget is.”
Show life-improving features not found in resales. These things don’t have to be big things. In fact, one secret to selling to women is that small things make a difference, says Patterson. For instance, a nicer doorbell that costs only a few dollars more than the standard doorbell yet makes a big-buck impression. Patterson’s show room has a series of home items that can make people’s lives easier.
There’s a stop-and-drop area coming in from the garage that offers a place for keys, phone charging, and mail handling. It includes a recycling center underneath so junk mail can be tossed quickly. Patterson said this addresses a big complaint from women about husbands who drop their wallet and keys and mail on the kitchen counter. The stop-and-drop area also has a designated junk drawer, theoretically eliminating the one in the kitchen.
“The junk drawer drives women crazy,” said Patterson. “It’s always a mess and women are always thinking that they need to organize it to make it work for them. We get it out of the kitchen so they don’t have to see it. It is the bane of her existence.”
But it’s not the only bane. Laundry is another big stressor for women. Patco puts laundry rooms near bedrooms with a door that can be closed to get the mess out of sight.
“Many times house plans include the laundry by the rear foyer,” said Patterson. “There is no woman who wants to come home at the end of the day and step over her dirty laundry.”
Another pain point for women is the corner in the kitchen cabinets, especially if it has a lazy Susan that constantly swallows and hides items. (Patterson said he once found 72 packets of lost seasoning mixes in his home corner cabinet.) Patco builds kitchens with open-wire shelving in the corner cabinets to offer a full view of all the contents without digging.
Other storage solutions are also demonstrated in the showroom including a cabinet built between the studs by the toilet that holds reading material in a rack and has a cabinet behind the toilet paper holder to store extra rolls and other items.
Patco also offers a storage solution for personal appliances by turning the fake drawer front on the bathroom cabinet into tilt-front hidden storage for curling irons and other hair appliances and their cords.
“It seems like a little thing. It is a little thing,” said Patterson. But such attention to detail makes a big impact, he says, “when somebody sees it and they think, ‘Wow, these folks have actually thought about stuff like that.’ That is the whole secret of woman-centric design, that we have thought about things like that.”
Patterson is busily working to add another item to his marketing program that he's pretty sure few, if any, other builders have considered.
“I’ve been trying to work with hospitals to develop a menopause summit to give women information,” said Patterson. “You are not going to sell a house because you sponsor a menopause summit. What you are doing is building brand awareness and brand loyalty. You are sending the message that ‘They are cool and they do cool stuff.’”
Teresa Burney is a senior editor for Builder magazine.