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Developers Trying to Make Asian Buyers Feel at Home in Southland

June 17, 1995|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To the untutored eye, these are simply nice new homes perched on a ridge.

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Walk through the models, with their comfy decor and gleaming kitchens, and you still might not see anything unusual.

But wait. That bin near the kitchen sink? That's to store up to 50 pounds of rice. The flame on the gas range is four times as powerful as on most stoves--the better to stir-fry in a wok. Floor plans offer up to eight bedrooms for extended families. And the low cabinet in the foyer is to stash shoes as you enter the house.

The subtle message: Welcome, Asian home buyer.

With the Pacific Rim booming and overseas money pouring into Southern California, big home-development companies are building some of their newest tracts with Asian traditions in mind.

"Builders recognize that a white, two-child, two-parent family is not the only market anymore. At Walnut Estates, we are targeting an affluent Asian executive family," says Terence Hanna, president of the Los Angeles division of J.M. Peters. The Orange County-based firm is constructing 4,000-square-foot homes on up to a half-acre lots in Walnut. The 16 homes will run about $500,000 each.

The list of cultural touches goes on and on. Some are a matter of spiritual belief, such as a disproportionate number of homes whose addresses include an eight--a lucky number according to some Chinese beliefs.

Others are pragmatic, such as the shoe cabinets for a culture that does not track shoes into the house. Or large bedrooms with adjoining bathrooms on the ground level for elderly relatives who might have trouble climbing the stairs.

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One key to targeting the Asian American housing market is understanding an ancient Chinese metaphysical art called feng shui. Feng shui-- which means simply the wind and the water in Chinese--began three millennia ago in China as a codifying of common sense rules to avoid flood and bad air circulation. Over the centuries, it became interwoven with superstition, astrology and Chinese philosophical concepts.

While real estate agents in Southern California have long been aware of feng shui principles in marketing resale homes, major American builders are now developing that knowledge in their attempt to build en masse homes that are attractive to Asian customers.

According to feng shui practitioners, the direction of a building, street locations and birth dates all play key roles in channeling cosmic forces that allow good luck and wealth to flow into a building.

While many Asians dismiss it as silly superstition, followers cut across all lines, from poor immigrants in rural China to wealthy, college-educated business people.

"If it's a predominantly Asian market and people believe in it, it's very important, and we will plot houses in particular directions, change interior parts, the landscaping and where you put it," says Mark Beiswanger, president of the Coastal Valleys division of Kaufman & Broad, which is building 79 homes in West Covina. Newport Beach-based California Pacific Homes repositioned several trees to appease a buyer in its Montecito project in Tustin Ranch. Realtors and developers say about half their Asian clients consult a feng shui adviser when buying a home. Sometimes the advice comes too late.

Valerie Yu, project manager for the 250-home Belgate Estates in Walnut, which is built by Bramalea California Inc., says clients will walk away from a deal--forgoing a big, non-refundable deposit--if their feng shui consultant nixes it.

"I had one that just lost $15,000; the master said it was a bad-luck house," Yu says.

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Up to 80% of the buyers at City Lights, a Shea Homes tract with 200 houses in Rowland Heights, are of Asian heritage. So it helps that Susana Wang, a sales agent at the tract, speaks fluent English, Mandarin, Tagalog, Taiwanese, Cantonese and Fukienese and practices feng shui in her own life, preferring to keep a small office on the east side of the sales office instead of a larger one elsewhere, because east is good luck for her personal numerology.

She knows that it's important to design the house so that the qi , or life force, flows without blockage. Trees and lamp posts should not block the front entrance or good energy will get caught.

"It makes them feel more at ease that I understand why they don't want a lamppost in front of the entryway," Wang says.

Stairways should not face front doors because all the money will flow down the steps and out the house.

Hanna, of J.M. Peters, says his firm has modified building plans in midstream to ensure the front door won't go by the staircase.

"There is an added cost to making these homes harmonious, but the benefits are greater sales and happier buyers," Hanna says.

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