Forget granite countertops, Berber carpeting, and 6-foot bump-outs, the hot incentive builders are offering is paying the mortgage, but only if a buyer loses his or her job.
More and more, builders are unveiling unemployment safety packages. Toll Brothers, Bowen Family Homes, Fischer Homes, M/I Homes, and Lennar are some of the builders making this offer, and others, such as Highland Homes, are looking to start them.
"It used to be that customers would come in worried about having a down payment. We have found that people are ready to buy, but they are fearful of losing a job," said Kelly Fink, regional marketing director at Atlanta-based Bowen Family Homes.
Seeing the loss of a job weighing heavy on a buyer's psyche, the company just a month ago unveiled the Safety Net Program, a protection it can offer to buyers who are sitting on the fence.
Bowen Family Homes has partnered with America Home Key Mortgage, the company's preferred lender, to offer clients this mortgage payment relief program that allows up to $2,000 per month for up to four consecutive months of mortgage payment if a buyer were to lose his or her job.
Bowen fits the bill for the insurance-type program and does so on a one-off basis with no additional charges for being in the program.
"We see this as good customer service and a good marketing tool," Fink said.
And while the program might bring some peace of mind to customers, Bowen CFO Steve Palmer does not see it as a strategy for a sales surge.
"It is counter-objective," he said. "It's a negative sell because people don't even want to think about potentially losing their job."
Since the unveiling, Palmer said traffic has continued to be weak, but he also noted the severe weather conditions as of late.
Bowen Family Homes has the second most aggressive plan that has yet to be marketed, falling $500 short of Toll Brothers' $2,500 mortgage protection plan. Both Fischer Homes and Lennar are offering $1,800 a month to buyers who become unemployed.
"We believe our protection program, along with interest rates as low as 3.99%, will ensure the peace of mind that everyone needs when making such a significant buying decision," said Brian Fannin, director of marketing for Cincinnati-based Fischer Homes.
Toll Brothers is offering to cover up to six monthly payments of $2,500 in principal, interest, real estate taxes and homeowner's insurance if a buyer loses a job within 24 months of closing, with a 60-day vesting period. However, not all buyers qualify. Those who are self employed, independent contractors, active military, work for a family member, or own greater than 10% in their employer's business are not eligible.
Lennar's Peace of Mind plan offers protection for up to six months during a 24-month coverage term, with some divisions offering up to $2,500 in payment amounts in markets such as Maryland, San Diego and Orange counties, San Francisco Bay Area, and Austin, Texas.
M/I Homes, through its Worry-Free Mortgage Plan, is offering coverage up to $1,250 for six months, available for up to 16 months after closing, following a 60-day vesting period.
The popularity of these programs with some builders have made other smaller builders curious. Scott Shapiro, CFO of Highland Homes in Lakeland, Fla., has been looking into offering a similar program.
"The No. 1 fear [of buyers] is jobs," said Shapiro. So he spoke with John Hartline, president of Producers Financial Network in Statesville, N.C., about the company's Paycheck Guardian product, an unemployment insurance program.
"We have been inundated in the last couple of weeks for requests and inquiries from builders, lenders, and car dealers," said Hartline, adding that due to the influx of calls he has implemented a wholesale-type product for the inquiring companies--about a dozen of which are builders.
Builders can choose a four- or six-month coverage package, which the buyer will sign up for at closing. Prices for the package vary--a $250 monthly benefit for six months will go for a 12-month pre-paid cost of $119; and a $1,500 monthly benefit for six months will go for a 12-month pre-paid cost of $329. Benefits are only given to W2 workers, Hartline said.
While more builders move forward with these marketing incentives, hoping to ease some fears in buyers, other builders are taking a more cautious outlook.
"To me, this just seems rife with potential fraud," said Buz Hoffman, president of Chicago-based Lakewood Homes. He added that he wouldn't offer this type of program under any circumstance and also questioned the total expense to the company since you can never be sure of how many people will take advantage of the program.
"I applaud them for it," he said, "They must have more guts than I."
Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA.