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THE CUTTING EDGE

VIRTUALLY Home

Models Now Open For Inspection--Through Computer Simulation.

September 23, 1996|DEBORA VRANA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Andrea Crutchfield touches a computer screen with a tentative finger. It immediately erupts with the sound of hammering, sawing and a loud "ouch!"

The image on screen--up to then a three-dimensional rendering of a home game room complete with pool table--morphs into a child's bedroom, baseball pennants hanging on the wall.

"This is what we need in our house--lots of bedrooms," says Crutchfield, 51, sitting transfixed before the computer installed in a housing sales office in Huntington Beach.

Buying a new home in California may never be the same.

The housing industry--hesitant to embrace the nontraditional and rarely on the leading edge of technology--is putting a growing number of computer tools to use in designing and marketing homes.

More builders are using "virtual models" that enable buyers to "walk" through 3-D mock-ups of homes without rising from a chair. In some cases, as in the Huntington Beach office, the systems even allow buyers to participate in designing their homes by adjusting floor plans and other elements.

"It's like standing next to Wolfgang Puck and helping him make your meal," said Terry Beaubois, president of RDC Interactive Media in Palo Alto, which creates virtual homes.

The use of virtual model homes is expected to nearly triple by 2000, when 60% of American home-building companies are expected to the technology, compared with 19% now, according to a survey by Builder magazine.

And that's just part of the trend. Buyers have taken to shopping for homes on the Internet and using the latest in technology to make buying a home quicker, faster and friendlier.

Throughout the nation, real estate agents have begun to post property listings, along with full-color photographs on Web pages. Most real estate brokerage firms, such as Coldwell Banker Corp., now display most of their listings on the Internet, categorized by location and price.

But perhaps the most striking development has been that of the virtual home.

In a first for Southern California, Newport Beach-based builder Presley Homes is offering only virtual models for the Boardwalk, its new development in Huntington Beach.

The change is making for big savings.

Building three model homes would cost Presley about $1 million up front, the firm estimates. Although those homes would eventually be sold, the landscape upkeep, high-grade furnishings, electricity and carrying costs would represent an additional expense.

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By contrast, software to display homes is about $9,000 per model; the computer hardware costs an additional $2,500. In all, the company said it saved more than $100,000 by not building the physical models. Moreover, the software programs can be recycled to sell homes in other Presley housing developments, the company said.

"Home buyers are programmed to say, 'Where are the models?' We just point to the computer screen," said Kirk Chittick, director of sales and marketing for Presley, one of California's top 10 builders in number of homes sold.

For all that, no one really expects model homes to disappear any time soon.

"Virtual models will replace real models when virtual sex replaces the real thing," said Kevin Pfeifer, a housing consultant who runs Professional Housing Tours & Conferences, a real estate firm in Yorba Linda. "It's interesting to talk about. But it's not the real thing."

Even software developer Steve Ormonde, 32, who designed the homes for Presley, doesn't think his virtual homes will ever completely replace the wood-and-stucco models. But with advanced technology allowing his 3-D images to look more and more like the real thing, virtual models for every housing development can't be far behind, he said.

"Some of our clients feel it's possible that virtual models will replace real ones," Ormonde said. "But I know I want to see the quality of construction of a home."

Plenty of builders and customers would agree.

"I feel like I'm in 'RoboCop,' " said Jimmy Wang of Gardena, who was shopping for a home in Presley's Huntington Beach subdivision. "I can't get a perspective or feel the wind."

"It's a great tool because we can build one model and then just show them the rest on the computers," said Dana Warren, marketing director for the Central Valley division of Centex Corp., the nation's second-largest home builder. But "we think we still need at least one model because buyers still want something they can touch and feel." Centex is cutting down on the number of model homes it builds for new housing developments from Bakersfield to Fresno.

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Other builders and home-furnishings companies hope that, in time, buyers will become acclimated to choosing their homes and the things in them from a screen.

Masco Corp., a maker of home furnishings inn Taylor, Mich., recently hired RDC to replicate a real house situated in Maryland, right down to the fixtures.

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