Feng Shui is serious business for builders who seek to be at one with buyers.

By David Holzel

Elaine Evans clearly remembers how baffled she was the first time a buyer showed up in her sales office carrying a compass. "It was, 'What the heck was this all about?'"

That was in 1990. Today, Evans, a sales associate at a K. Hovnanian Enterprises project near Princeton, N.J., has no problem identifying signs that a buyer is scrutinizing a property with the principles of feng shui in his or her mind. "To accommodate the buying populace of New Jersey you have to learn very quickly."

Once a fad that drew chuckles, feng shui has grown in many builders' esteem. More have concluded that if they want to sell more homes, they need to learn a thing or two about feng shui. A traditional Chinese approach to the placement of buildings and other objects -- hence the compasses -- feng shui's purpose is to optimize the flow of a mystical power called chi. And while there are no federal regulations for chi flow, nor any tests for measuring it, feng shui's adherents are as concerned about the cost of escaping chi as other home buyers are about heat loss from ductwork.

"By [catering to these buyers], we're being respectful," says Dave Harding, vice president of sales and marketing for Western Pacific Housing in Los Angeles.

Selling Chi

America's growing Asian population -- both American-born and immigrants -- are pushing feng shui into the mainstream and across the country. The feng shui zone has spread from the West Coast to the East -- and lately to some unlikely points in between. Where feng shui made its early inroads, some builders have adapted their entire operations to make their product feng shui compliant.

In K. Hovnanian's home state of New Jersey, Asian-Americans constitute more than 6 percent of the population, the fifth largest Asian community in the country. The builder has taken note.

A growing number of customers were raising feng shui-related objections to Hovnanian homes that the sales staff were unable to overcome, according to Doug Fenichel, director of communications. So the company's director of sales training and leadership development, Corinne Hoffman, has begun training sessions on feng shui. At the top of the agenda is how to recognize clues that a buyer is concerned about feng shui, and how to respond to those concerns.

"To us, this is a classic case of what our customers want and providing the products," Fenichel says. "It's all about listening to customers."

The Feng Shui Way Ten Tips for the Beginner

Feng Shui began as a system the ancient Chinese used to determine sites for their ancestors' graves. From there, it was only a 5,000-year leap to these handy tips for home builders.
1 Block that view. One should not be able to see through the house from front door to back.
2 Step carefully. A staircase should not lead straight down to the front door.
3 Let's be blunt. Sharp angles -- on walls, furniture, etc. -- are known as poison arrows. That can't be good.
4 Avoid the number four like the plague. In the Cantonese dialect, four sounds like "death."
5 Know your elements. In the feng shui way of understanding, the world is composed of five elements: fire, earth, metal, water, and wood.
6 Dead ends. Do not place a home at the end of a cul-de-sac or across from a T-intersection.
7 Separate your fire and water. In the kitchen the stove should not directly face a sink.
8 Eight is great. It means "prosperity" in Cantonese.
9 Have a bagua on ya. The bagua, an eight-sided compass, offers clues about placement in a home, in coordination with the five elements.
10 Location, location, location. The ideal home site has "a hill behind, two smaller hills in the near front, facing a wider, farther view, preferably of water," Angi Ma Wong writes in "Feng Shui Dos and Taboos."

Like when there's foot dragging about the staircase. Pity the long-suffering neo-colonial if the stairs make a straight shot from the second floor down to the front door. Major cause of chi loss there. "The sales person has to key in that this is an objection that can be overcome," says Hoffman, who has a certification in an Americanized style of feng shui from a school in San Diego. The associate might suggest putting a plant at the bottom of the staircase "to slow down the energy," she says. If such "cures" don't entirely satisfy the buyer, Fenichel says, "in the interest of customer service it might be better to discourage the customer from buying that home and show them another. Our number-one concern is that our customers are greeted by people who understand their needs."

Auspicious Minds

One morning, the roar of earth-moving equipment died and gave way to the sound of chanting. The heady smell of incense drifted over the site as 40-saffron robed Buddhist monks began a ceremony to bless Harvard Estates, a Western Pacific community in Los Angeles' Hacienda Heights.

"The music was just beautiful," says Dave Harding, who, along with his sales staff, then followed the monks to each of the development's 21 home sites, where they held an individual blessing ceremony. In less than an hour it was over. "It was very, very moving," Harding says.

Western Pacific doesn't hold a ceremony at every development -- Harvard Estates is close to a major Buddhist temple -- but feng shui is never out of the developer's consciousness. "We follow it even where we don't think there is an Asian market," Harding says. "There's really no downside to it."

The company starts with a land plan "that takes into a consideration auspicious placement of the lots," he says. The process of incorporating feng shui continues in the design of the homes and ends with the landscaping and merchandising. You couldn't find a staircase that leads straight to the front door if your life depended on it.

Harding says he figures that of all his Asian buyers, some 60 percent adhere to feng shui, "particularly if they are ethnic Chinese, particularly from Taiwan and Hong Kong." But such is the popularity of feng shui with the general public that more than half of Western Pacific's non-Asian customers is familiar with it.

Is all this effort also more expensive? "Perhaps," Harding says. "But there are those of us who have lived through the pains and expense of not knowing about feng shui."

Walking the development with Harding and the monks that day was Angi Ma Wong, a feng shui consultant and writer, who has been showing builders how to sell to Asian customers for 14 years. It was Wong who arranged the blessing ceremony. With compass in hand she'll look at your land plans, assesses the floor plans, perform on-site inspections, and do sales and marketing training.

Ryland Homes is one of Wong's oldest clients. "Nationally, we train people on feng shui," says Eric Elder, vice president of sales and marketing. "It's a relevant consideration in design in most markets. And it helps people feel better about a very emotional purchase."

"There's no substitute for knowledge and sensitivity," agrees Bill Pisetsky, who runs the sales and marketing operation for Shea Homes of Southern California. Shea has sponsored two blessing ceremonies that were organized by Angi Ma Wong. After she conducted training sessions with the entire staff, Shea's sales rose from 0.38 per week to 1.0 per week, Pisetsky says.

What Would Grandma Say?

With feng shui becoming part of the landscape in places that are both urbane and multicultural, the chance of finding demand in a monocultural oasis like Salt Lake City is about zero. David Irwin would be the first to agree with that assessment. For the moment.

Seek Enlightenment

"What do you mean you can't sign your contract today?"

That used to be the common reaction among sales people when an Asian customer asked to put off closing a deal, K. Hovnanian sales associate Elaine Evans says. The request usually meant the buyer considered that particular day "inauspicious." Bad luck, in other words.

Now the more enlightened reaction is, "What is a good day for you?" Evans says.

Salespeople can learn to identify and properly respond to such tip-offs that the customer is looking for feng shui sensitivity, Evans says. And as in any sales situation, staff should accentuate the positive. If a model doesn't meet all the requirements of feng shui, "try to show the good points," she says.

Adds Marc Druge, community sales manager for Ryland's Woodcreek in the San Francisco Bay area. "What one family may think is bad, another may think is good."

Take how a home is sited. "If a house faces east-west, a Chinese person probably wouldn't be interested in it, whereas an Indian person will," Evans says.

But how do you recognize a feng shui buyer? "Nobody says, 'Show me a feng shui home,' " says Doug Fenichel, Hovnanian's director of communications.

One hint is the compass. Another is if the buyer comes accompanied by his feng shui master.

While knowing the cues is essential, consultant Angi Ma Wong believes it's also important to pair an immigrant buyer with a sales person "who is most like them. That could be a woman, or an older man, even if they are non-Asian. Soft spoken, non-aggressive -- these are the qualities you would look for," she says.

And never rule out the possibility that most buyers are savvy enough to take the situation in hand. Says Druge, "Normally they'll say, 'We don't like this.' "

"It's not done here," says Irwin, vice president of marketing for Hamlet Homes, based in Salt Lake City. "So I decided to take a leap." In early 2001, Irwin took the model townhome at the Castlehill project and feng shui'd it -- bright green walls in the kitchen to signify prosperity, a powder room with candles representing the Chinese element of fire. This is feng shui as design trend and, as the expanding shelf of feng shui books attests, it is spreading to Middle America.

"I had other builder friends say, 'You're crazy.' But they don't understand that the buyers are changing," Irwin says. "For younger buyers, they're interested in that urban or sleeker feel."

Irwin's leap of faith brought home a lot of publicity, and at no extra cost in merchandising. "Some of it is just the placement of items," he says. "It gives you an identity. People say, 'Let's go see the feng shui home.' "

"Feng shui is appealing because it is good design in many cases," explains Richard Gollis, principal of the Concord Group, a real estate marketing consulting firm in Newport Beach, California. "It enhances the product but does not shut off part of the market."

Gollis says that although it tends to be the older generation that subscribes to feng shui, builders shouldn't dismiss its importance to younger buyers.

"Let's say that a young couple wants to buy a home, and the home doesn't conform to feng shui. They bring along the parents and Grandma, and Grandma says, 'No.' If they want Grandma to visit them, it has to match her wishes."

If complying with feng shui principles raises the chances that a home will sell, it also adds to the home's resale value. But whether used as an architectural model or an interior design aesthetic, the traditional Chinese approach's effect on the home building industry doesn't seem to have crested.

But wait. This just in: The 2000 census shows that the Indian community has become the fastest growing Asian population, and may yet outstrip the Chinese as the country's largest Asian community. And the Indians have their own ancient ideas about placement and mystical power. The approach is called vastu (pronounced vash-too). And we think it is going to be really big.

David Holzel is based in Montgomery Village, Md.

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, February 2003