Buying a Home? Try It Out

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If you can test drive a car, why not a house?
That is the theory behind several programs that let buyers try out a condo or resort property before they commit to buying. A handful of developers, listing agents and homeowners say they are willing to let potential buyers hang out with the neighbors, have dinner in the kitchen or even spend a night or two in a home before making a final decision.
Raquel Gillett, an officer at a bank in Irvine, Calif., decided to test the waters before buying a Mediterranean-style home for more than $700,000 in Toll Brothers’ master-planned Parkview community in October. Ms. Gillet took advantage of the sales manager’s offer to introduce prospective buyers to residents for an inside view of what it was like to live there. She attended a pool party where she met her potential neighbors. “It gave us a comfort level with each other when we were going to be on the same block,” she says.
For individual homes on the market, the opportunity to test out a home in advance remains rare. Carol Bird, Malibu, Calif.-based real estate agent says that in her 25 years in the business she has fielded only a couple of requests from clients asking to spend significant time alone in a home before buying. One, she said, wanted to get a sense of traffic noise at different times of day. He ended up purchasing. The second wanted to try out a home’s numerous high-tech features, unusual at the time. He decided not to buy.
Ms. Bird says she thinks the test-run is ill-advised. “Either they already liked the house and then change their mind and you lose the deal, or it stays the same,” she says.
Others say it can benefit buyers. “It makes sense; you spend more time trying on a pair of shoes than you do buying a house,” says Susan Vanech, a Westport, Conn.-based agent who recently listed a home she owned for $574,000 and was open to potential buyers sleeping over.
Toll Brothers, one of the country’s largest home builders, also has a Fly and Buy program for buyers who want to travel to a new town to check it out. Travel costs can then be put toward a purchase. The company says for liability reasons they don’t allow overnights in model homes, but can put prospective buyers up in guest units in certain communities or in nearby hotels.
Honua Kai Resort & Spa, a luxury condominium complex on Maui, launched a Stay and Play program about three years ago when sales were slow. Though sales have picked up in the past year or two, they have continued the promotion. Prospective buyers can rent condos that have been placed in a rental pool for between $250 and $2,200 per night. If they decide to purchase, the cost of the stay can be applied to their purchase.
Erika Alm, a principal at PowerPlay Destination Properties, which overseas sales and marketing for the development, says two of the latest three units sold were to people who tested them out while in contract, before closing the deal. “Some people know they’re going to buy at Honua Kai but they’re not quite sure,” she says. “They make an offer and then say, ‘Could we try this out?’ ”
Wheelhaus, a company that manufactures luxury prefab houses as small as 400 square feet, recently launched a “try before you buy” campaign where potential buyers willing to travel to the company’s headquarters in Jackson, Wyo., can spend the night at a resort made up of several Wheelhaus models. The company fully reimburses the cost of a stay if a guest goes through with a purchase. “It’s good for our buyers to get to touch and feel,” says Jamie Mackay, the company’s founder.
So far, about 40 people have taken advantage of the program, says Mr. Mackay, and more than 75% of them have ended up purchasing their own Wheelhaus. Vince Crivello was one of them. He was interested in a 400-square-foot Caboose model Wheelhaus with one bedroom and a sleeping loft, in part to downsize from his 2,700-square-foot home in Marin County, Calif., but he wanted to make sure he’d be comfortable with such a major change.
“The first thing I did was go to the grocery store to buy a bunch of groceries,” says Mr. Crivello, who is in the investment-management business. The kitchen had a two-burner stove, a small refrigerator and minimal cabinet space, and he “wanted to make sure it would work.”
Ginny Beasley, a Ridgefield, Conn.-based real-estate agent says the sellers are open to overnights for a historic country estate in Redding. “We would need to do a background check — there are some really wonderful antiques in the house,” she says
Homeowner Janice Meehan says she and her husband are open to either hosting qualified buyers for dinner or letting them spend the night alone. The house, built in 1768, has been on the market since May, she adds, and the two are eager to move on now that their children have left home. She says she feels like “it belongs to everyone” because it has so much history. “It would be fascinating to host my neighbors and introduce a prospective buyer — or if they wanted to be by themselves, that’s cool, too.”

By: Candace Jackson,

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