Debra Guisinger and her husband, Jason, were newlyweds in the fall of 2009 when they visited a model home at Lexington Homes' Lexington Square development in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood.
As the couple strolled through the living room and kitchen, furnished in a style they admired, something clicked.
"It seemed like home to us," Debra said.
When they entered the nursery, decorated for a baby girl in pink-and-black polka dots, the deal was sealed for the couple, who were planning to start a family soon. Though it would be two more years before they could afford to buy, the Guisingers never forgot the community. They bought a four-bedroom, 31/2-bath Lexington Square row home earlier this year and moved in recently with their new addition, 20-month-old daughter Abigail.
The Guisingers' experience — feeling comfortable and immediately at home in a builder's model — is no accident. Homebuilders, working with interior designers, develop elaborate scripts describing potential buyers likely to be attracted to their developments, whether they are young singles, professionals or empty nesters.
"How you furnish a model is critical," said Jeff Benach, co-principal of Lexington Homes. "You need to know your market and buyer well."
In the case of Lexington Square, Benach created a fictitious family of first-time buyers, including a husband employed as a pharmaceutical representative and a wife who is a lawyer. He also gave the fictional couple a 3-year-old child, parents who live nearby and visit frequently, and a love of entertaining friends.
Interior designers draw on such profiles to reflect the diverse needs and aesthetics of buyers. Creating memory points, details that stick with buyers and create favorable impressions of a model long after a visit is over, is an important design strategy.
A memory point might be a rooftop deck artfully arranged for entertaining or a baseball-themed man cave.
"A memory point is something that makes a buyer go 'wow' when they walk into a room," said Leslie Frazier, principal of Leslie Frazier Design Group, who has decorated models for William Ryan Homes. Frazier often creates cooking-themed memory points: flour and a rolling pin ready for a baking project on a kitchen counter, for example.
The typical new-home buyer will trek through multiple model homes in a single weekend, and many more over the course of a home search. When it comes time to choose, the details tend to blur together. A darling owl-themed baby's bedroom or striking piece of artwork can help a model stand out amid a sea of beige paint, granite countertops and other standard features.
"The average consumer might visit five or six communities in a day or weekend," said Garry Benson, chief executive of Garrison Partners, which recently launched the Penthouse Collection at The Columbian, nine luxury penthouses in a South Loop high-rise . "They all blend together. You want something they will remember."
To that end, The Columbian's Penthouse Collection includes 8-by-4-foot glass pocket doors that separate a living-room area from a bonus room that can be used as an office, media room or spare bedroom, Benson said. Buyers also are drawn to a large walk-in shower in the master bath, he added.
"We always look to differentiate ourselves with design," Benson said.
At Castletown Homes' model in The Glens of Connemara in Lemont, where the builder is constructing 20 luxury homes, a backsplash by Sheri Law Art Glass and a dining-room mural by artist Douglas Coggeshall stop prospective buyers in their tracks, said Ann Bell, one of the company's owners.
"When people come in, I can hear them," she said. "They say, 'Wow, is that wallpaper?' and have to touch the wall."
In family-oriented developments, a well-designed children's room can serve as a memory point for both adults and children, said Deborah Beaver, vice president of sales and marketing for William Ryan Homes. Recent examples from William Ryan Homes' models include a striped skateboarding-themed bedroom with decals and a small ramp and a jungle-themed nursery with a wall mural and oversized stuffed animals.
"It's tough to move when children don't want to go," Beaver said. "We try to reach out to children to make sure they feel at home."
While builders are more cost-conscious than a few years ago, they are still interested in creating beautiful, intelligently decorated model homes to capture buyer interest and clinch sales, said Mary Cook, president of Chicago-based interior design firm Mary Cook Associates. Today, though, the emphasis is on the practical, not the dramatic. Builder's decorating budgets for model homes, once about $50 per square foot on average, are now more likely to be $25 per square foot, she said.
In the current economy, there's little room for lavish details. Cook said neither builders nor buyers are interested in gimmicks or over-the-top features few can afford — designs such as brick pizza ovens, an entire wall of plasma TVs in the den or a family room with dueling pool tables.
Cash-strapped buyers have less to spend on furnishings and are looking for ways to make their home beautiful on a budget, said Tara Ryan, president of San Diego area-based Ryan Young Interiors. Her company relies on eye-catching window treatments and light fixtures to serve as relatively inexpensive focal points that give buyers ideas for the space's potential.
Frazier has all but stopped using wallpaper, instead relying on the more budget-friendly paint to add spice to walls or colorful wall decals to lend a playful touch to children's rooms.
During better economic times, "feathering the nest became a national pastime," Cook said. Though economic circumstances might have changed, people still want beautiful homes. "They want to figure out a way they can still have it," she said.
Instead of custom woodwork and applied moldings, Cook and her team now rely more heavily on paint to accent spaces and provide a sense of proportion. It's cheaper, Cook said, and can create many of the same looks as chair rails and moldings. She's also embraced standard cabinetry arranged in custom configurations as storage for media components and other household items.
"Buyers don't want decorating that is hokey and inauthentic," Cook said. "We aim to grab their attention by solving problems."