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This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Pro Builder.

Matthew Wilson was a political science major who was between elections and campaign consulting work when he saw that home building could offer a steadier, bigger paycheck. He joined Maronda Homes as an internet sales counselor in 2013, when online leads for the builder generated about 100 monthly sales appointments. Under his guidance as director of internet sales and marketing, that figure jumped to 500 appointments per month within five years.

Wilson added what some might call bells and whistles, but is a case study in how a home builder website can delight prospects. Visitors can select their home by using interactive floor plans, touring models via 360-degree virtual reality tours, and picking interior and exterior colors using a visualizer tool—all before talking with a sales agent. Web traffic currently accounts for up to 45% of monthly sales for Maronda, which builds in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia, and Florida.

Q: How distant is the possibility of shoppers purchasing a new-construction home completely online without ever visiting a model or a sales office?

A: The possibility is closer than most people think, although to some extent, that would depend on the buyer type. Generation X, Millennials, and Gen Z have no problem with this thought process. And even Baby Boomers seem to enjoy it, which has been proven in the car industry.

I feel like the car industry is always 10 to 15 years ahead of home building, but sometimes it feels like 100 years. Companies such as Carvana are changing the game, where convenience and a customer-centric mindset will lead to higher profits and less overhead. The customer is getting exactly what they want and the experience they choose.

The problem with home building is we really don’t know how to get out of our own way. Once we do, the customer will benefit with a better buying experience and the builder will benefit with profits.

Q: Housing typically has been sold by getting prospects physically into the space, such as visiting a model home. How tough a task was it to pitch your managers that Maronda can sell more houses by being more visual on the web with 360-degree tours and virtual reality?

A: In our case, we have a very forward-thinking owner and CEO [Ron Wolf]. It always comes down to dollars and cents, and then the question: Why? Why are we doing this?

Once we figure out the why and the how, the next item is tracking. Everything we do has a value put to it. Sometimes you have to realize—after investing quite a bit of time or money into an initiative—that all you got out of it, or learned, was what you shouldn’t have done. If I told you 30 years ago that we wouldn’t be investing any money in newspaper ads, you would’ve laughed at me.

Q: With the various tools on Maronda’s website, such as interior/exterior color visualization and 360-degree VR tours, is there any distinction in the way different buyer groups shop for a home?

A: The answer is yes, but it’s not as much of a distinction as you would think. One of the biggest factors is also location, which many people don’t take into consideration. Our No. 1 goal is to make sure the consumer is coming in as educated as possible. The more tools they have at their fingertips, the better.

On average, the time on page during a potential homebuyer’s first visit has almost tripled over the three years since these tools were added to our website, and it doubles when they come back again. People want to be in the comfort of their own space and dream about what they’ve always wanted or to rationalize whether they need that fourth bedroom or the finished basement. Boomers tend to take their time and want to work with sales agents and real estate agents throughout the process.

There is lots of research in the market about homebuyers by generation. Combining insights from sources like McKinsey & Company, the National Association of Realtors, Zillow, Freddie Mac, and NerdWallet with our in-house data helps us develop our core ideas about generational buying.

Boomers tend to take their time and want to work with sales agents and real estate agents through out the process. Gen X is a self-driven generation that tends to want to do their own research, get an expert opinion and talk with their friends. Millennials, which is becoming the largest home buying generation, are doing all of their research online and, in my opinion, are really into keeping up with The Joneses, needs and wants are very blurry. Many surveys show that they tend to set a budget and blow that out of the water. Market might be driving this as well, but only time will tell. Gen Z is the gray area right now, since they are just starting to enter the homebuying arena and consist of 4- to 24-year-olds. With this limited data, we assume they want to do all of their research online, looking for the truth and fact.

They are also called the Me Generation for a reason: They’re looking for smooth process, with information in front of them and don’t need face-to-face interaction. This is the generation that I think will turn home builders upside down, which will start with online sales beginning to end.

Q: A traditional sales tactic has been to withhold some information, usually price, so prospects will contact the sales office to learn more. How does the Maronda sales funnel work?

A: This is still a tough mindset to get over. If I give all the information, will they come in? Why would they? My answer would be, you have already built the relationship with these homebuyers. They know that what you see is what you get, and transparency is the key. When it comes to our sales process, we are still pretty traditional. We give you most of the information via our website. However, we still do not have option pricing and lot premiums readily available to the buyer, and that is still part of the old-school mindset.

The other item of concern is what will the competition do once they have that knowledge and how will they use it? Those are the fears or objections we all get, however, if you have processes and technology in place, you can overcome these fears easily and create cost savings that you can return to the buyer.

Here is why more is more. Think about it this way. There are three items that most buyers look for: location, price, and amenities/features—personal deal-breakers—but in reality, you can only pick two. For new construction, location has already been determined long before you start selling. Now you and your competition are fighting over price and amenities/features.

Here is where more information wins. When your competition is only showing basic information for a to-be-built home, all other information must be attained during an actual appointment. So already, they’re not being customer-centric. The buyer’s first thought is, “I need to meet with someone." This buyer is further up the funnel and it will take more appointments to bring them home (pun intended).

In the ideal sales process, the customer comes to website, finds the location, finds the lot, builds the floor plan of their home with pricing shown and options, picks the outside colors of their home and all that information is put your CRM system. The buyer is in control and sets and appointment, comes in the office and there’s a possible chance to up sell. A contract is signed and the buyer gets a 3D rendering of their future house with all their colors and options. The sales funnel is much shorter and the buyer built a home with me because they were educated and part of the process during the entire way.

Guess what? There is a lot of overhead with the old-school approach compared with buying a home online. We can pass the savings on to the buyer, which then covers the price portion for the three items buyers look for. Can you imagine you’re a buyer-centric builder; your buyer is further down the sales funnel, and you are the best value. Processes and technology will make home building more affordable for all.

Q: Are you looking at AI? Any other technology coming?

A: We are always looking. AI, VR, new listing services ... all are on the radar. AI is something we have been looking at for many different areas of the company from sales to customer service. With an online sales model, the ability for machine learning could take homebuying to new levels. VR is something we have been doing for quite a few years with Oculus and Matterport. BIM and VR have taken home building to new heights with prototyping and items like that.

Augmented reality will be big in home building. When you can go out to a piece a dirt and show a prospective buyer on a phone app what their home will look like, such as what Clayton Homes does [with Home Previewer], that’s really something.

Access a PDF of this article in Professional Builder's July 2019 digital edition