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I Imagine Buying Things: Cars vs Houses

by Nic Darling on December 16, 2009 · 6 comments

in Marketing,Philosophy

I took a moment to imagine a strange scenario the other day. I sat back in a comfortable chair, stimulating beverage near at hand and tried to picture myself shopping for a new car. It was an exercise that taxed my imagination but also held an important lesson or two.

When looking for a car we as consumers are relatively well armed. We have copious information available on every possible model in magazines, websites and other media. We also have reports from a variety of consumer protection organizations. We can easily find basic performance specs, long term maintenance expectations, safety ratings and much more. The information is not simply available, it is nearly force fed to us at every turn.

In addition, the vast majority of us have extensive brand knowledge when it comes to cars. We attach certain ideas to each car maker, each brand. This is despite the fact that car manufacturers seem to be trying to erase their brands with ballooning product lines and a lack of consistency, but that’s a topic for a different blog. We still identify certain traits with certain names and this gives us useful knowledge when shopping for a vehicle. This understanding of brand also holds the car makers to their own standards to some extent.

Taking a sip of my delicious Allagash Odyssey I then shifted my daydream journey to shopping for a new home and instantly found myself lost. There is little to no information on homes other than that provided by the builder. Brands are relatively weak and tell me little about the product other than perhaps some hints at location and size. And, there is little to no consumer advocacy information attached to specific houses. This is without even scraping the surface of the existing housing stock. That morass doesn’t even bear a look in this discussion.

There are very few standardized measurements required for homes outside of the basic building code, and needless to say, your average consumer hasn’t spent much time reviewing that tedious document. When shopping for a home there are no standardized metrics on the signs or listings other than the visibly obvious square footage, beds and baths kind of details. In other words, home specs tend to be about aesthetics and size rather than performance. Homes will tell me loudly that they have granite countertops but will rarely say anything about energy use. That is like a car bragging about its leather seats without a word on gas mileage or horsepower.

The other major missing piece in my imaginary home search is recognizable brands. Even local brands are few and far between, if they exist at all. Homes are built, marketed and sold as themselves, divorced from all other homes outside, at most, a given project or development. The exceptions to this might be the large national builders like Toll Brothers or Ryan Homes, but what do their brands really say to us other than something about size, surface level finishes and location.

Brought out of my mental wanderings by the sad emptiness of my glass I reflect for a moment on my journey. Why do we not see more car-like brands built around houses? Why are there no “window stickers” describing safety and energy ratings expected by consumers when it comes to buying houses?

I think this shift in the housing market has given us an opportunity to make a change to consumer expectations when shopping for homes. Brands should be established that have to own up to past projects when selling the present ones. Basic performance information should be conspicuous. People should expect a similar, if not better, shopping experience from homes than they get from cars. After all, it is the biggest investment most people make.

Next time I will show you the sticker I would like to see in the window of every new home. Going forward I’ll give you my thoughts on what a home brand should look like and how we might build one. For now, use the comments to give me your thoughts on branding and consumer information in housing. What are some emerging home brands? What existing testing and performance reviews should consumers expect to see? How do we educate buyers to expect certain information? 

Comment time!

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

There also isn't much conversation to be had here . . . at least not with us. So come on over to the Postgreen Homes Blog and tell us what you think of our new(ish) digs and crazy ideas. We will be sure to tell you what we think of your opinion.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Namazu December 16, 2009 at 3:29 pm

The US has mostly older homes, which are impossible to measure in any standard way, and that conditions our thinking about all houses. In Japan, by contrast, housing is treated as a consumable, the existing stock is rolled over more frequently, and the new builds are spec-ed to the nines. Branding–even for the big developers–is less important than one might think, because their business model revolves around tying up large parcels (and again, because a relatively low percentage of all houses come from these large builders). Therefore, location trumps brand as the key buying factor. Since these are mostly suburban tract homes, and since things like energy use probably won’t vary by more than 10-15% within a development, factors like orientation, yard, view, closet size, etc. come next.

I think firms that produce smaller houses and push the envelope on design are well positioned to thrive by playing where the large builders don’t. Your customer is more interested in the kinds of specs you’re able to provide. You have more flexibility as to where to build, which means you’re selling a house, not proximity to a cul-de-sac. Establishing a brand lets you market over a larger geographic range. I would be surprised not to see tie-ups or even outright acquisitions of smaller firms doing this kind of work by larger firms, who have expertise in sourcing, logistics, marketing, etc., but have to contend with changing design sensibilities, demographics, energy and space constraints.

2 Daniel Hayes December 17, 2009 at 9:24 am

Hey Nic…new reader here. Fantastic blog. I’ve lived this post before too. I have a long-term dream to have a brand of homes that are truly designed. After 25 years of moving every 2-3 years (and sometimes after only a year) my family and I have kept a list of things we want in a house. We always make little design improvements even if we’re only in a place for a year or two. When we have friends over they always comment on our “projects” and ask for help or ideas. Someday, our own dream home will be built and when people walk through it they’ll say “Wow, what a great idea.” I want to turn that into something that is available to everyone. I’ll be looking to your blog for some additional inspiration (if you don’t mind) and I’ll be clipping them all into my Evernote “dream home folder.”

3 GreenbuildinginDenverdotcom December 17, 2009 at 10:50 am

Toyota has a great brand for cars AND houses.

Window stickers are inevitable.

The 100k brand was built online without TV ads or billboards, which is great. What is not so great is that everyone’s first comment is, wait, it’s not $100k, it’s $260k. Perhaps in Philly, the Postgreen brand is supplanting 100k, but nationwide, it seems to be still 100k.

Historically, national and global branding has been the norm, but I think the trend in housing is for local branding. Homes are different in different cities because of zoning and the street grid.

I can also make a case for “stealth building” where a company just builds homes and sells them through RE/MAX, or whoever. Not even the NAME of the builder seems to be an issue, just features & location. There are many advantages to this approach:
1. The builder won’t get pigeonholed into a certain style or price range.
2. The builder isn’t perceived to have “deep pockets” for liability.
3. The buyer tends to do more of his own due diligence, which is good.
4. More “exclusivity”. Buyers will pay a little more for a house that is apparently “one of a kind”.

The biggest disadvantage to stealth building is that pre-sales are nearly impossible without a known track record and credibility.

4 Goran December 17, 2009 at 9:17 pm

PanaHome is Panasonic’s home brand. Nice web site, except the english translation is a little sketchy.

5 Pink Robe December 21, 2009 at 5:22 pm

Around here, there are two types of builders. There are the big guys who build out whole subdivisions at a time, often with little thought to design, much less interesting architecture. There are entire neighborhoods full of sherbet-coloured stucco homes with faux terra-cotta roofs in Calgary, despite the fact that Canada [IIRC] was never the subject of Spanish colonization [Californication?]. The big guys have a brand, but it boils down to “Brand X = Quality” and is not a differentiator. The name of the subdivision seems to be the only way to tell the developers apart. Costs are all over the map, from as low as $150/sqft including land for a standalone house in the middle of nowhere, up to about $750/sq ft including lot for something even farther away from the city centre. The message is the same for all: “Your current place sucks. Move farther away from downtown and experience the wide open spaces, at least until we build another subdivision on the other side of the street.”

The other type are the little guys. These smaller builders tend to stick to one-off homes and smaller condo developments, and tend to have a “style” of architecture that they use repeatedly. Builders like Niklas Homes, Alloy Homes and House Brand have been around long enough and have built enough homes in the inner city that you can almost identify them on sight. Since most of their work is custom, it ain’t cheap. Most are in the $300+/sqft range for a design-build, plus lot. Unfortunately, a well-designed modest home in a decent ‘hood can easily run $1.25M with these builders. Their brand message is basically “Mid-century modern, lots of expensive finishes and a short commute make for happiness. Gimme your wallet.” All this with no window stickers showing energy use or efficiency, and often just built to code [i.e. the minimum standard].

Brand-wise, it’s either good design OR low cost. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of overlap.

6 Bill Sabey January 7, 2010 at 10:45 pm

I’d like to see a std energy profile label (like food nutrition labels) for all homes that would be available in the MLS so we could ‘energy compare’ homes.

How much more efficient are the ones you’ve build than energy star? You can add the co2 pounds, trees and vehicle miles saved to your marketing collateral.
e.g. ” Since the Energy Star program began labeling homes in 1995, consumers have cut their energy costs by $1.2 billion and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 22 billion pounds, which is equal to taking 1.8 million vehicles off the road, EPA says. ”

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