Denise Dersin

Editor in Chief
Anje Jager/ Denise Dersin Editor in Chief

In the never-ending quest to figure out what buyers want, builders employ a whole host of fact-finding methods: They scour magazines for the newest trends, they watch HGTV to see what features home design gurus are promoting, they talk with family, friends, business associates, and their suppliers about what they all think is hot, and they look at houses everywhere they go, even (and perhaps especially) the models of their competitors. If they can afford it, they may purchase survey results from a market research company or even set up their own focus groups within their target market.

Do these methods work? You tell me. Have you ever felt burned because you made a significant change to a design or specced a different product and it didn’t sell? Have you ignored certain recommendations because you had a gut feeling that they just weren’t going to fly? If so, you’re not the only one, and it turns out there may be some good reasons why even the suggestions of the best-intentioned respondents result in a bum steer.

According to an article by syndicated columnist Katherine Salant, many people find it difficult to visualize how theoretical changes to a theoretical home will play out. Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, using windows as an example, said that people in a focus group who responded positively to the general idea of larger windows likely would not understand the effects of such windows until they actually saw them in a home. Michael Eckersley, a professor of design at the University of Kansas and a cognitive scientist, questioned the idea of focus groups in general, believing that many people are just uncomfortable about answering questions in front of strangers, especially in such an unnatural setting.

So how can you find out what will turn buyers’ heads or make them feel confident enough about their decision-making to buy one of your homes? Ariely offers one example of how it might be possible to make the visualization process easier. In Israel, he says, a group of builders has hired a company to make full-size models of plastic foam for each of their floor plans. As customers walk through the models, they can easily discern what they like and don’t like and make adjustments accordingly. Eckersley suggests, instead of focus groups, that you should observe people in context, or in other words, see first-hand how they live. That way you could determine for yourself what living space arrangements homeowners feel are less than ideal. You could watch the dance that occurs, for example, when two people are working in the kitchen at the same time and the dishwasher door is open.

The costs involved for these types of studies, however, would be prohibitive for even the largest of home building companies. So how can you get relevant, usable information? Associations are a good place to start. The NAHB conducts surveys on a regular basis on consumer preferences, and zooms in on first-time and active adult buyers, as well. The National Association of Realtors and AARP also research consumer likes and dislikes in housing and communities.

But the best option might be to do it yourself. A California home building company has a page on its website with seven different surveys. Visitors to the site are asked questions ranging from how they feel about the lending process to their thoughts on energy-efficient and green products to whether they want seating at their kitchen island or keyless entry to the garage. But I think it would be better to ask folks who have just visited your models to complete a survey, perhaps with a sweetener of a drawing for a giveaway for participants. That way, they could respond to what they saw in your homes.

And if your response to this column is “What buyers?”, check out our annual home shopper survey from American LIVES (see “Brain Tap”). They’re out there, they want to buy, and they want to buy new construction. Now it’s up to you to give them what they want.

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