Should you let buyers view lots in real time?

By Elena Marcheso Moreno

One of the hottest new Internet technologies is interactive lot selection. Two of the first builders to offer it are Village Homes and Shea Homes. While both consider it a great tool, they differ on where its boundaries should be.

Village Homes uses an interactive mapping program by Media Lab. It shows buyers and salespeople which lots are reserved, which are available, and which will be available soon. Buyers can also see which models, plans, and options are possible on a given lot. They can select plans and see which lots will support it. But buyers can't use the site in real time because it's updated only daily. The Web data is then transferred to the company's back-office system. This protects the company from someone who might try to interfere with its back end through Web access, says Connie Dahl, the company's webmaster.

Shea takes a different approach, letting buyers see what lots are available at that moment and make a deposit with a credit card. One goal is to eliminate foot dragging. "It instills a sense of urgency in buyers and sales staff alike," says Kellie Prince, Shea's director of customer solutions. What if a salesperson shows a lot to a customer, then returns to the office only to find that another buyer had made a deposit on it? Prince says that can't happen. "If there is a hot prospect for a particular lot, the sales staff can put a lot on a temporary hold," she says.

Shea couldn't find a system with the breadth of options the company wanted, so it put up venture capital to support software developer Home2, which will also offer the system to other builders.

Shea constantly updates its lot plans and lets buyers make deposits online. Village Homes prefers to send them through a sales rep.

Prince sees the lot map as the key that opens the door for a customer to come in to a community. With this tool "customers can evaluate a lot, play with options, determine the price they will pay, and generally dream as they select." And, she says, it is powerful enough to convert a lot of leads into customers.

Elena Marcheso Moreno is a freelance writer based in the Washington area who specializes in building and technology.