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Builders Open the Doors for Outfitting Homes


Buyers of new tract houses have long resigned themselves to cookie-cutter decors.

When it came to the faucets, floor coverings and fixtures that went into their home, most had few options. They would visit the builder's sales office, usually a converted garage in one of the model homes, and be asked to choose a carpet by looking at a board with tiny tufts of yarn. Their cabinets had to be oak, their counter tops paved in white tile.

"The builders used to dictate what they thought was best, and the homeowner just picked the floor plan," says Desiree Larivee, decor center manager for Kaufman & Broad Home Corp. "We didn't offer many options, and they were handled on-site."

To give consumers more say in their new home's decor, the builder recently unveiled its first Kaufman & Broad Showroom in Southern California. The 14,000-square-foot showroom, in a former piano store in Santa Ana, offers a supermarket-style approach to home decorating by furnishing actual rooms with a wide variety of decor products.

Buyers of the builder's new tract homes can visit the showroom and select light fixtures, fireplace facades, cabinet finishes, flooring, window treatments, and other upgrades and options.

"Now there's a lot for buyers to choose. We've opened up the doors," Larivee says.

For builders, opening design showrooms makes sense because they're offering new-home buyers greater choices of upgrades and options, says Mary Fitzgerald, manager of the Laing Homes' Interiors showroom in Irvine, which opened in March 1997.

Interiors does not have room vignettes, but buyers of Laing homes can see a wide range of carpeting, cabinet finishes, window treatments and other materials. There's also a hospitality kitchen to show buyers different counter tops, flooring and appliances.

Design showrooms "are not only a convenience, they have in-house designers to help [home buyers] choose materials and give guidance," Fitzgerald says. "You get a designer to help customize your home" for no cost.

Still, some buyers bring along their designer when visiting a showroom.

Nancie Lowe has accompanied clients to builders' showrooms to help them select carpeting and other options, making sure that their choices blend with their existing furniture and overall design scheme.

While Lowe considers the design showrooms to be "a great service," she advises home buyers to take their time when picking out fixtures and finishes because they'll have to live with their choices for a long time.

"You don't want to make any emotional or hurried decisions," says Lowe, a designer with Von Hemert Interiors in Costa Mesa.

Unprepared buyers can make mistakes, such as choosing a cool-color flooring when everything else they've chosen for their interior has a warm, yellow-based undertone.

"Everything needs to be planned," Lowe says. "I encourage clients to really think through what they're installing in their homes."

Kaufman & Broad plans to open showrooms in each of its 15 divisions. The builder decided to give buyers a place where they could have more choices in decor after conducting surveys of home buyers asking what features they'd like to see in their homes.

Some of the survey responses were surprising: The builder, for instance, had long assumed that all home buyers in Denver wanted fireplaces, but found that only a small percentage thought one was important as an option--many would rather pocket the $2,000 savings on the cost of the home.

"We decided to provide them with a choice [of options] and the showroom was the best way to demonstrate that choice," Larivee says.

One reason builders can offer more choices: the hot housing market. They're selling the homes months before they're finished, so they have time to decorate them according to buyers' wishes.

"We're selling homes that won't be built until November," Larivee says. "It allows time to customize."

Still, there are limits to decorating a tract home. While buyers of custom homes can put a different style of faucet or light fixture in every room, buyers of tract units have to choose between different faucet or light fixture packages to be used throughout the home. They can, for instance, have all rooms in the house fitted with fancier chrome-and-brass faucets or stick with the standard chrome styles.

The showroom has three full-sized kitchens where visitors can see different cabinet finishes, counter tops and flooring. They can compare a high-end kitchen with black granite counter tops and maple cabinets to a standard, plain-wrap model that has oak cabinets, white ceramic tile and vinyl floor covering. There are four baths furnished with various decorator upgrades, such as glass-enclosed tubs and showers and fancy faucets.

The showroom also offers a complete flooring area, with 1,500 full-sized carpet samples instead of the tiny squares of rugs shown in sales offices.

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