There's no question that the Internet has changed the way most people shop for homes. You can find houses online, take a virtual look around and plot their locations in relation to your kids' schools, the church of your choice or even your favorite coffeehouse.
Now the Web is taking it up a notch with software that allows new homebuyers to "build" their dream house. You can pick our your favorite lot, choose from several models and customize the place to your heart's content, all while sitting at your computer.
Then you can print out the final results, take them to the sales office and you're off and running.
Not every builder offers customization portals. In fact, they are far from universal. But enough companies are starting to adopt the concept that it is becoming a trend.
While online simulators like Blu Homes' 3-D Configurator or Kova Solution's WebPro aren't likely to replace honest-to-goodness model homes, at least not altogether, they seem destined to change the way builders operate. After all, research shows that today's buyers, especially the younger ones, want an interactive experience.
Blu Homes, a builder of novel modular homes, is no stranger to innovation. The company ships its products anywhere in the country from its factory in Vallejo, Calif. The modules are 8 feet wide instead of the standard 13, so shipping costs are much cheaper than conventional, wide-load sectionalized houses. The modules are also built on sturdy steel frames and unfold when they arrive to 19 feet, with ceilings as high as 16 feet. Each section comes almost completely finished, including plumbing and electrical systems, and they are assembled by Blu's own construction crews.
But even more inventive is the software the company employs that allows would-be buyers to pick and personalize any of its seven precision-built models. Blu's realistic, three-dimensional configurator is very similar to the software used by such elite industrial giants as Ford and Boeing, according to co-founder Maura McCarthy.
"We are a technology company that builds houses," says McCarthy, who was trained as an economist at Georgetown University and has worked with Alan Greenspan. "Boeing used to build test planes. Now it builds virtual test planes, and we do the same thing with our houses."
With the configurator, you can change finishes, appliances, cabinets, hardware, countertops, window treatments, lighting packages and flooring, all until you find exactly what you are looking for.
Several more traditional "stick" builders are using similar software.
S&A Homes of State College, Pa., uses interactive smartPLAN technology developed by San Francisco-based Graphic Languages. The system allows users to pick a community, pick a house and then make changes, such as adding a fireplace or extending the breakfast room.
The program, which even lets you virtually furnish bedrooms, living rooms and dining rooms, "has been very, very popular; very successful for us," says Ashleigh Shetler, head of marketing for S&A.
Oakwood Homes in Denver, American West Development in Las Vegas and Hayden Homes in the Pacific Northwest are among a handful of builders that use Kova's end-to-end software system. It guides buyers through product and community options, including selecting the site, plotting the house, picking the elevation, making changes and selecting upgrades. It even allows you to pick a color scheme.
"Our homebuyers are fully involved in the customization process," says Kendra Saffle of American West.
Not only does the interface allow you to see floor plans and elevations, but it also tracks which options interfere with others. You might not be able to select a second-floor bonus room, for example, if you've picked a vaulted ceiling for the room below.
"This technology ensures that the options the buyers choose are compatible with the homes they have picked," says Ray Appel, senior IT manager at Oakwood.
And it is completely mobile, available anytime from a smartphone or iPad. That view-it-anywhere flexibility can benefit both buyers and sellers. America West almost lost a deal when a long-distance buyer could not envision the plan he wanted being flipped around, but when he was able to see the reverse plan of the house online, the sale was saved.
Once you've settled on your dream house, you can print out a brochure and take it to the sales office, where an agent has already been assigned to you. Here, your house, just as you picked it, becomes a contract and then a sales order that is the basis for estimating, bidding, purchasing and scheduling, so there is less room for errors along the line.
The program follows the sale all the way through to customer service warranty work after you've moved in.
If there is a drawback with virtual homebuilding, it's that some builders fail to include pricing. Kova says its clients purposefully leave out prices for competitive reasons. But truth be told, they want you in their sales office before they talk about costs.
S&A, the Pennsylvania-based builder, shows base prices only. You'll have to talk to a live person to price any changes. Blu, on the other hand, is completely transparent, showing not just base prices but how the cost changes with each and every item that is moved, selected or deleted.
But buyer beware: Playing around online could be costly. Blu's McCarthy says that buyers are spending $25,000-$50,000 more per house ever since real-time pricing was implemented. Why?
"Because when they control it," she said, "they feel more comfortable with it."