There's no echo. Just the clack of your footsteps on the circular granite-and-marble tile mosaic in the center of the reception hall floor. That, and the lilt of a majestic Handel suite drifting from the intercom speakers. Above, a curved balcony looks out to oversized artwork hung on the top half of the 22-foot-high walls. Through a columned entry to the left of the reception hall is the formal dining room, its walls trimmed with picture molding. To the right is the formal living room. Luxurious velvet drapes hang from thick rods, silhouetting the windows.
And there's not a stick of furniture in sight.
In fact, there is no furniture in the more than 6,000 square feet of this luxury model built by U.S. Home. If you're the kind of buyer attracted to the Reserve at Willowbrook, if you've picked this model over the fully merchandised one across the street owned by a rival builder, you already know what to do with your furniture.
At least that's what Willowbrook's developers hoped when they began marketing the luxury development in highly competitive central New Jersey. With five floor plans to choose from, starting from $550,000 to $684,950, Willowbrook is down the road from the tony community of Colt's Neck and a handful of miles to the shore, where you can hop a commuter boat for a serene ride to work on Wall Street, 50 miles away.
To distinguish its luxury product, Donald Bompensa, the president of U.S. Home's central New Jersey division, and his staff opted to emphasize the home itself -- devoting its entire merchandising budget to high-end add-ons, built-ins, and cabinets. It's not the first time U.S. Home, a division of Lennar Corp., has used this approach. But the builder does it sparingly, Bompensa says. And while it's not unknown for luxury models to omit the furniture, not everyone involved in merchandising homes agrees it's the best way to go. Bompensa, though, says the home is getting the attention he was seeking. "We've had tremendous word of mouth. When we opened up this model [in June 2002], traffic picked up substantially" -- from an average of 15 per week to 85 per week, he says.
The model is the largest of the Reserve at Willowbrook's floor plans. With four bedrooms, 3 and a half baths, and a two-car garage, it has 4,700 square feet of livable space without the optional conservatory and finished basement. The New Jersey Builder's Association gave Willowbrook its 2002 community of the year sales and marketing award for detached homes priced at more than $500,000.
U.S. Home typically merchandises its models fully, Bompensa says. But at Willowbrook, they faced what he calls "a unique situation" that demanded a different marketing approach.
"We were competing with ourselves" at the Reserve at Monroe, 16 miles away, "and had a competitor across the street," he says. "They had a fully merchandised model."
You can look out any window at the front of the house and see that competing model, built by Calton Homes, a division of Centex Homes. It has five bedrooms, 3 and a half baths, a three-car garage and sells at a base of $652,990. Calton originally had purchased the entire 150-acre site, naming it Crown Pointe at Willowbrook. In January 2002, Calton sold half of its 110 lots to U.S. Home, which then created the Reserve at Willowbrook.
"They had 15 or 20 sales before we opened up," Bompensa says. "They were already entrenched."
"It helped us distinguish ourselves and create a memory point with buyers," he says.
Of the 38 sales since June 2002, 13 have been this model. Up to 80 percent of the buyers opted for the conservatory, with its vaulted ceiling. Sales of upgrades are 5 percent higher than at the nearby Reserve at Monroe, says Bompensa. "I think that the increase is because we emphasize the decorator options and they are more plainly seen without furniture."
Thanks for the Memory Points
A walk-through is like wandering through one's fantasy of a Tuscan villa. The home seems both rustic and opulent. Earth tones -- taupes and tans -- and textures predominate.
The island kitchen includes granite counter tops, crown molding and rope details, staggered cabinetry, and commercial grade appliances. "Buyers like commercial grade, even though they don't cook much," Bompensa quips. The family room has a volume ceiling, and a lattice of hardwood planks crisscrosses its marble floor. Rising two stories, columns of oversized windows flank the fireplace and its 6-foot-high mirror.
Ascend the 4-foot-wide adjoining staircase (a second one is located at the service area between the kitchen and the dining room) and a tour of the upstairs becomes a game of find the memory point. In the Jack-and-Jill suite, the Jack bedroom is painted an understated summer sky blue. Framed drawings of boating scenes act as the room's memory point. In the shared bath, slide the tub door to reveal a mosaic tile inlay on the rear wall.
The hunt for memory points continues in the princess suite, where the wallpaper application covers the top 18 inches of the walls and 18 inches of the ceiling.
A breakfast bar -- sink, fridge, glass shelves straddling an arched mirror -- stands like a sentry in the approach to the master suite. On the right is the octagonal bedroom with its raised gas fireplace, step ceiling, and bay windows. On the left is the bath, with a laundry room (there's another one in the first floor service area, near the butler's pantry); six-foot tall, six-whirlpool soaking tub; shower with a decorative tumbled marbled boarder; raised vanities; and tray ceiling. Beyond, like a runway disappearing into the distance, is the 300-square-foot walk-in closet.
The brickwork of the exterior aims for texture as well. The masonry is corbeled out, with soldier courses below the first- and second-floor windows. The windows have stone sills and are topped by concrete keystones. Dental molding runs just under the roof line.
"We tried to put in a lot of details that you don't usually see," Bompensa says.
Builders Don't Sell Couches
The presumption is buyers can walk through the model while carrying their furniture in their heads. That's a fairly safe bet for Willowbrook's move-up buyers, says Richard Gollis, principal of the Concord Group, a real estate marketing and consulting firm in Newport Beach, Calif. "It makes sense to show this house at a high spec level. There's a finite marketing budget."
The approach is not uncommon, Gollis continues. "Buyers buy what they can see. Two-to-one they buy what is modeled. The same thing happens to options and upgrades. Let's say they put in wainscoting instead of putting in a really cool couch. They don't sell couches; they do sell wainscoting. And there's a 50 [percent] to 100 percent markup to add those options."
Fully merchandising a luxury home is "a big gamble," adds William Philby, president of Retro Interiors, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Philby, who has worked on $5 million homes, says merchandising can turn a buyer off as easily as on.
"What if they don't like your taste? What if you do it traditional and they like contemporary? Then you're [in trouble]," he says.
But you might be in bigger trouble if people walk into your model and see no furniture, argues Bill Frosolone, president of Frosolone Interiors in Chicago. "Merchandising by all means sells a house."
Frosolone puts the average merchandising budget at $40 to $45 per square foot. (Others interviewed for this story have put it as high as $75 per square foot or 25 percent of the cost of the house.) "Even in this price range, people like to touch things, to sit in things. I've seen people sit in front of the fireplace and talk themselves into buying the house."
U.S. Home's competition in central New Jersey is not likely to repeat the experiment. Builder Hovnanian Enterprises fully merchandises all its models, according to Doug Fenichel, vice president of sales and marketing.
And Douglas Yearley, senior vice president for Toll Brothers and head of its New Jersey operations, says he will consider not fully merchandising only if there is more than one model open at a development. The average merchandising budget ranges from $20 to about $35 per square foot, he says. Yearley wants a buyer to walk in the front door and immediately imagine living in the house.
"That's why we have decorators. That's why we put Post-It notes on the fridge: 'Don't forget to pick Susie up at soccer practice.' That's why there are coats hanging in the mud room."
At the Reserve at Willowbrook, there are no indications what Susie's extra-curricular activities are. Those must be left to the buyer's imagination. To the extent that buyers are able to walk among opulent upgrades, take the tantalizingly empty spaces, and see them filled in their mind's eye, a builder following U.S. Home's approach has succeeded in getting their attention. And keeping it.