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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 17, 2020 2 months ago

Homebuilders hammer away at digital transformation

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With showings plummeting, builders get creative on selling homes.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Although the tourism and hospitality sectors have been crushed by the coronavirus, few businesses are as see-touch-feel like buying a new home.

And with showings and tours dropping to next to nothing, given social distancing, homebuilders have been forced to rapidly alter approaches and ways of staying connected and in front of potential customers.   

‘There are still people interested in homes, and we will continue to serve our market the best way we can. We know a lot of people want to move here and live here, and we want to find them homes.’ Mark Metheny, Lennar

Miami-based Lennar, for example, has turned its Tampa division into a digital enclave, with all the steps to buy a new home done online and remotely until a final, personal and private walk-through. Lennar communities utilizing the online program include Heron Pass in Ruskin, with 48 homesites starting from the $170s, and Riverstone in Lakeland, where homes start in the low $200s. A potential buyer can call an internet sales concierge to schedule a meeting, meet remotely with a new home consultant and take a high-tech digital home tour, review and ask questions. Then, at the end, is an in-person walk-through.

“There seems to be some good interest in it so far,” Lennar Tampa/St. Petersburg President Mark Metheny says. “While demand has certainly slowed, there are still people interested in homes, and we will continue to serve our market the best way we can. We know a lot of people want to move here and live here, and we want to find them homes.”

A similar approach is happening at Cresswind Lakewood Ranch, a Kolter Homes community. The team there, a 55-and-up community in east Manatee County, is connecting with potential residents by hosting online cooking and yoga classes, Kolter Vice President of Marketing John Manrique says. Some of those people are under contract for a Cresswind home that pre-dates the coronavirus.

Cresswind Lakewood Ranch has gone virtual too, utilizing 360-tours, agent FaceTimes and remote closing technology. The project closed on its first house in mid-April, Manrique says, on schedule with the original timeframe. “Our people are getting creative in being able to provide connections with future residents,” Manrique says. “It’s been pretty inspiring.”

Another use of technology can be found at Enclaves at Eagle Landing, a Centex community of 188 single-family homes off Bayshore Road in North Fort Myers, with prices starting at $209,990. The community is hosting a Facebook Live event, scheduled for 11 a.m. May 2, where viewers can earn a limited-time incentive toward their a home purchase. The Enclaves at Eagle Landing sales team will there to answer viewer’s questions — in real time — about the community.

Courtesy. Lennar Tampa/St. Petersburg President Mark Metheny.

At other places in Lakewood Ranch, meanwhile, one of the hottest new home markets nationwide, some builders, such as Homes by Towne, have shifted to a by-appointment-only format for viewing model homes. Others have remained open but instructed sales teams to disinfect and wipe down surfaces regularly and avoid shaking hands.

One of the region’s most prolific homebuilders, Neal Communities, is likewise shifting to sell homes in the new environment. One benefit is the company’s experience — May marks 50 years since it built and sold its first home.

But even Neal Communities feels the pinch. Normally in early spring, Founder Pat Neal says he expects about 30 new home sales a week across his 22 communities, from Naples through north Manatee County. In the most recent late March and early April, that figure was down to 11 one week, 12 the next.

Neal, who has often talked about the multiple recessions, downturns and other financial crises he has survived, is pragmatic. “My intent as a business is to stay on just as we are,” he says, “and I think it’s going to be a blip — a long, uncomfortable blip.”

(Pam Eubanks with the Observer Media Group contributed to this story.)

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