I spent the day being a secret shopper at a Stockland Residential Village, and discovered some surprising and disappointing things. Here’s how it went …
For some time now, I’ve wanted to spend some chunky time at a Display Village – but with a twist. In my architectural career, I’ve done this quite a bit, but never as a secret shopper. So when you experience display villages, and the homes in them, as an industry insider … and those you speak to know you’re in the industry – well, the experience is very different.
I deliberated for a while about whether this was a good thing to do. I was essentially going to be wasting the time of sales people, because to have it work properly, I’d have to experience them ‘selling’ to me as a prospective buyer. It felt sneaky and a little underhanded.
However, I knew it was going to be the only way I’d stand a hope of getting the insight I needed into how this world is for customers who seek to build their new homes off-the-plan. And that it might just be the key to unlocking the secrets to making this process easier, simpler, and more enjoyable to navigate. So, with that in mind, I decided to do it.
I headed to Stockland’s village at Ormeau Ridge. They promised 21 displays … which seemed like a good spread of companies and home types. Honestly though, given the time it took to get through each one properly, and speak thoroughly with the salesperson at each, you don’t stand a hope of getting through 21 in a day. Not without massive mental overwhelm and exhaustion, anyway.
I created a back story
To be believable, I knew I had to be ‘in the game’. I told each salesperson the same story, which went like this …
I was (and in reality am) a mum of 3. I had a kid-free day, and even though it was early in our home-finding journey, I wanted to make the most of my opportunity to do some crash-course research in what was involved in building off-the-plan. We were looking for land in the Gold Coast Hinterland, over 1000m2, so site constraints weren’t an issue (so I wasn’t fixed into a specific plan-type). And I had a construction budget of $400,000 – $450,000. This is quite high for the display village I visited, which is aimed at a different market. But I knew it would open up the options available to me, and that would enable me to ask about those options, and be taken seriously. I wasn’t set on a home that was one or two storeys. I just really wanted to have separate zones for the kids and for us, which two storeys seemed to do more effectively. However, if I could find a one storey home that separated out these zones, then we would consider that, and probably prefer it for access and connection to the land around it. And we wanted this to happen this year. So I wanted to know how we chose, what was involved, how long things took, when we’d have to pay money, and who we’d be dealing with throughout it all.
The stage is set
I visited 4 different companies, and spent over an hour at each. Most of that time was spent speaking with the actual salesperson. I went on a Monday morning, and was usually the only person in the display, or in the sales office.
With each, I walked into the display home, asked for a floor plan, and said I’d wander around first and then come back to pick their brains. I’d spend 10 minutes in the home, comparing it to the floor plan and looking at the fitout and details. Then I came back and sat down with the sales person, give my back story, and ask for my crash course in building off-the-plan (a dummy’s guide!)
I avoided using industry jargon. I asked when they did what it meant. I channeled every customer and consumer who I know who is very good at what they do in his or her day job, clever and smart people about lots of other info, but have never built a home before, and are novices in this arena. I never acted ‘dumb’ – I just showed genuine curiosity, an enthusiasm to understand and confusion when what they said didn’t make sense.
It became clear that the process with each of these builders is fairly standard, with individual differences that were fairly small. For example, some had a central location you chose all your finishes and fixtures at (like Studio M for Metricon), and others required you to visit the individual suppliers, or have them come to your current home. I won’t be speaking a lot about ‘process’ in this blog – more about my specific experience of dealing with these companies, and significant things that stood out for me as part of that.
My upfront declaration
I do not and cannot endorse one company over another. This is purely my experience on the day I did this experiment, honestly reported. I don’t have any affiliation with any of these businesses at this current point in time (incase you’re reading this 2 years into the future and for some amazing reason I’m consulting to all of them because together, the UA Community is changing the way this industry works and you’re all demanding better of these companies!!). I also don’t feel I could honestly endorse any home building business until I’d spoken with a significant number of end users who’ve lived in their homes for some time. So, please read this in the light it is delivered … an honest account of my personal experience on Monday 9th February, 2015.
To the home building companies I visited
Thank you for your time and service. I don’t think I would have got anywhere near the level of attention and information I did, if I had been honest about who I am and why I was there. Understanding that this could be interpreted as ‘wasting your time’, I hope you appreciate I have good intentions to make the path smoother for those in the UA Community wanting to build a home this way. These people are your customers, so we’re both taking care of the same people 😉
Now onto my visit. The first company I visited was Hallmark Homes.
No. 1 Hallmark Homes [Click here for website]
Hallmark had 2 displays – a one storey with their basic finishing package, and a two storey with the upgraded finish. Neither were furnished, which another salesperson told me is Hallmark’s standard approach. It did strip away the seductive illusion that styling and decorating can have on the experience of a display. However, I suspect those who can’t visualise spaces easily would find it challenging to understand how furniture would fit, and what the spaces would look like as a result. The floor plans I was given were drawn as furnished, however interestingly, the living area in the one storey version had its TV points on a different wall to where the TV unit was shown in the furniture plan.
According to the salesperson, Hallmark build around 50 homes per month and are number 3 to 4 builder in Queensland. They are a family owned business that’s been in operation for 30 years, and the original founder is still heavily involved, with his children now working in the business. I asked whether they use special teams to build the displays (separate to the customers’ homes) and was told no. (This is something that can happen in this industry – so you see one version on display, but what gets built for you is a different standard). Site supervisors, who oversee the construction of each home, are geographically located – so if a display is built, then the site supervisor for that area oversees it (in association with other homes being built for customers).
The salesperson took me through the process quite methodically from start to finish. He explained the difference between their base price and turnkey.
- house plonked on your block (his words)
- no turf
- no fencing
- no driveways
- no window coverings
- no bulkheads over kitchen cupboards
- no lighting package – just a bulb on a bracket
- no air-conditioning
- assumption of an S-class soil (slightly reactive) – most properties are an H-class (highly reactive)
- no floor coverings
- wet areas are done and tiled (required for building sign off and warranties) but carpets and tiles to living and bedrooms are not
Turnkey means you get everything you need to ‘turn your key’ in the door and move in with nothing left to do. There will be variables and fixed items in the price of this. The fixed will be the package of interior and exterior finishes and fixtures you select, which can be selected and priced like a shopping list, and added and subtracted to the overall price of your home. The variables will be items that are dependent on your site. Driveways vary in length, fencing changes in scope and soil class is location and site dependent.
The fixed items can be fairly accurately determined prior to you paying any money and committing to the process.
The variable items can be estimated, however it’s not until you’ve paid a deposit (for Hallmark this was $2,000) to have a soil test and survey done that you can confirm these items with any certainty.
Like other companies, you pay a couple of small(ish) payments to get yourself to signing contracts and starting on site – so by the time the builder takes occupation of the site (site start), you’ve paid 5% of your contract sum. To be able to lodge for approvals (council, building approvals, covenant approvals), you’ll have paid $5,000 in costs and signed a legal contract to commence.
Hallmark use the Queensland MBA standard contract to build their homes.
So who is your person through all of this?
From the point of visiting the sales display, to signing the contract, your main point of contact is this salesperson. He works with you on firming up your price estimate prior to signing contracts, including any changes you wish to make to the floor plan – which Hallmark do consider (not all companies do, or they have constraints about what is possible to change). He also visits your site, helps establish your estimate and works with you on the selection process.
I started to become aware that I would be seeing a lot of this salesperson if I built a home with Hallmark. That this salesperson was the gatekeeper to my home-building journey and my experience would be significantly impacted by his skill, ability and personality.
In actual fact this was the case throughout all the companies I spoke with (and from what I understand, the volume-building industry). The salesperson is your contact, your guide, as you choose and finalise the package of your home. They help you navigate selecting the plan, the early positioning on your block of land, helping you determine your inclusions and their associated costs, and helping your documentation make its way through the process right up until contract signing. And then once your contract is signed, you pay the remaining amount to make up your 5% deposit required contractually, and you’re given a site start date. Then the site supervisor then becomes your person and takes over from the salesperson.
What kind of land should I buy?
I asked the salesperson for his recommendation in what to look for in a block of land (given I had not purchased one yet). This was his feedback:
- with views
- north-east to rear
- south-east as a second option
- patio facing west is not great
- be aware of trees and impact on building
- be aware of backing onto bushland, and bushfire overlays which will add costs to construction
- look at potential for site access
It was a good run-down. The only thing I would venture to qualify is that most designs I have seen in building-off-the-plan-world work best in a north-to-rear, north-east-to-rear, or east-to-rear situation. South-east will not work well for passive solar design, unless your living areas have access on your northern side to sunlight, particularly in winter.
My incorrect assumption …
I asked the salesperson what his background was, and how he started working with the business. He told me he was originally a chef. Not a designer, not a draftsperson, not a builder. He had worked for some time for the business, and had been mentored by another colleague. He spoke of how well he’d performed in the business in terms of sales, and from what I could see, had a natural skill of understanding spaces and reading floor plans (and in fact was in the process of planning his own home). And he was very generous with his time and information, patient and thorough. However, from what I understood, he had no specific professional qualifications in property or design.
Please don’t misinterpret this as a criticism of this salesperson’s abilities or the company in general. It is said without judgment – and in actual fact, surprise. I had wrongly assumed the salesperson would have property or design based qualifications. Why did I assume this?
Well, I believe that to understand floor plans, visualise spaces in three-dimensions and interpret the experience of a design as a home to live in and enjoy – and then translate it for someone else – requires a combination 1) natural ability, 2) professional training and 3) practice. So I was surprised that the frontman (or woman) of a building company would not tick all three of these boxes so they were equipped to help customers navigate the process of building their home.
I am also curious if others buying a home just assumed (as I did) that the salesperson was professionally trained with property qualifications. And whether customers rely on the sales person for qualified guidance, assuming they have specific design or property training to provide it. How much advice does the average customer seek from the salesperson, and how much is their guidance trusted as an informed and reliable source of industry expertise? Are they relied upon for guidance in the actual decision-making of choosing which home to build and what to put in it? I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on this.
The other companies I did my secret shopping with were Metricon, Orbit Homes and Stylemaster. In next week’s blog I’ll take you through my experience of these other companies, their salespeople, and their displays.