Interior DesignOptions News

The Power of Merchandising Model Homes

Model homes can be the key to sales; this is how


Driving occupancy rates is the ultimate goal in the housing industry, where potential renters or buyers decide if they are interested in a place within a few moments of walking into its model apartment or home. Like a proverbial blank canvas, those empty spaces are supposed to inspire them to envision a home’s limitless possibilities.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We have found that the blank canvas paradigm is a paradox that creates more issues than it solves for renters or buyers, and thwarts the intentions of builders and developers.

For prospective renters or buyers, infinite potential can be daunting. They may not have the imagination or design expertise to visualize how they could use empty spaces. Even worse, the innovative aspects of a layout that make the space multifunctional may be totally lost on them without furnishings in place to make a case.

For builders and developers, they lose a sale by unwittingly offering up bad customer service. Buyers or renters often see a number of potential options at a time, so when an empty model apartment or home does not let them see how a home would live, or how they can live there, they are on to the next option.

When the model for a sleek, sophisticated studio didn’t speak to its target market, units languished on the market. A new model solved the issue and helped the developer achieve full occupancy.
Merchandising Changes the Equation

In the race to achieve high occupancy rates, effective model home merchandising—the process where a team of commercial interior designers create residences to appeal to specific target markets—increases the likelihood of success. That is because adeptly merchandised model homes consider all the ways occupants can and will use a space, at all times of the day and in every season, keeping their wants and needs in mind.

Our past experiences designing public and private spaces in residential developments and correcting design mistakes in projects that do not resonate with their target markets, substantiate this principle.

When studio apartments languished for months on end in Aqua, a Chicago high-rise that is world-renowned for its spectacular architecture, we were asked to revamp the model that had been done by a nationally prominent interior designer. The unit featured pieces from her namesake line for Baker Furniture, which were sophisticated and sleek. Yet the unit’s target market was single female graduate students in business, law, medicine and art programs at nearby universities. After we redesigned the model, the developer rented 14 units in the following three weeks.

A similar scenario played out at Chicago’s Trump Tower, where a one-bedroom model we designed for single professional males inspired a father to buy two on opening night (one for each son), and at a Toll Brothers model home we did in Pennsylvania that proved to be the best-selling residence in large, single-family development.

The moral of our stories? Effectively merchandised model homes show potential residents how they can live in a space comfortably, efficiently, and aesthetically. It showcases features or details that stick with the prospects after a visit is over, be it a stylish gourmet kitchen, a smart home office, an enchanting nursery, or a sports-themed man-cave. These “wow” moments are called memory points; they not only help potential residents see how they can live in a home, but they also differentiate that one from the mass of models they see as they search for the right home.

Model homes must speak to their target markets. In a one-bedroom unit at Chicago’s Trump Tower, we maximized the living area with zones for entertaining and dining, and diverted space from a walk-in closet to become a home office.
The Process of Merchandising Model Homes

Model home interiors start with a project’s target market, or markets, since many developments are designed to appeal to more than one cohort. Using demographics and psychographics, we determine what potential residents need—and equally significantly want—in their homes. What problems will they face due to a house or apartment’s space constraints, layout, or both, and their lifestyle issues?

What works for millennials, who favor open floor plans and communal spaces, will not work for more traditional and possibly retired Boomers.

Shifting lifestyle needs, generational perceptions and variable design trends are important indicators of all the ways specific spaces need to function, and will also dictate a model’s furnishings and decorative style.

Given the huge responsibilities model homes have in the marketing process for builders and developers, undertaking its design before understanding the multiple functions it must fulfill for potential occupants is like putting the cart-before-the-horse. It is also the most common and costly mistake design professionals can make.

Merchandising a model home is a series of well-researched, strategically executed, aesthetically driven solutions. Everything that goes into a model home’s interior design is calculated to make potential residents feel like they are previewing a lifestyle that should be theirs—and in the “hands” of the right design team, will be theirs.

Mary Cook is the founder and principal of Mary Cook Associates. She may be reached at