"My job is really to give a real sense of potential - a glimpse of what this home could be," said Thom Sweeney, a principal with New Home Interiors in Lakewood, N.J., which works with builders throughout the Philadelphia region. "I try to visually suggest color, furniture placement, and a general look and feel that's believable."
Every empty model home starts as a blank canvas, awaiting the designer's brush strokes. From the fabric on the sofas to the bedspread in the master suite, every detail counts, Sweeney suggested. And the real challenge is appealing to everyone, from traditionalists to modernists, as well as those who are unsure and can't imagine living in the house.
Sweeney, who has done extensive work at active-adult communities for such builders as the Kokes Organization, John Westrum, Scarborough, and Orleans, knows that scale is one of the major challenges for buyers.
"So the size, shape, and placement of large objects is always designed to maximize visual space," he said.
Though model homes of decades past were often over the top with furnishings and window treatments, Sweeney said, he tries for a more realistic, simple vibe.
"The era of window swags and jabots is dead. Now, we go for simple topper treatments and side panels, or versatile blinds or shades."
For both first-time and active-adult model homes, granite and stainless steel are kitchen winners, Sweeney said: "Focus groups keep telling us that these are the materials buyers want."
And because older buyers may be experiencing a "yellowing" of their color perception, he often sticks to basics like navy and what he calls "comfort gray," and uses "pep-up colors" such as orange and aqua for the details.
"Color," he said, "is a great mood manipulator. You want a model home to feel upbeat, but not overwhelmingly so."
Cathie Daly, founder of Design East in Medford, a resource for builders, said she had fallen in love with nickel for her model-home designs.
"It's the metal of the moment," said Daly, who has been in home merchandising since 1969.
For her, alluring a buyer starts with curb appeal.
"Impressions begin at the front door, literally," Daly said. "We also have to plan with future resale always in mind, so no pink doors and no wild shutter colors, but rather classic styling from the outside in."
"Lifestyle planning" is part of her mission, she said.
"People want to know, 'Where am I going to watch TV? Where will guests sit? What can I do to make my home beautiful but also practical?' "
One constant in her designs these days? Hardwood floors for a handsome look anchored by what Daly believes can be one of a home's most important purchases: striking area rugs in significant rooms.
"I see that rug as a cornerstone, and I plan model homes that way," she said.
Light fixtures and lighting in general are to a house what jewelry is to fashion, Daly said: "Lighting showcases a room without overwhelming it. And a chandelier should be regarded as a piece of art."
Bold patterns in her model-home designs come through accent pillows and other accessories, not on large pieces.
"Furniture is almost secondary - accessories and details have the most impact," she said.
Also carefully planned by Design East for home-builder clients such as Toll Bros. and D.R. Horton, among others, is wall decor for model homes.
"I like triple matting on pictures, similar frames in one space, and lots of mirrors in model homes because they reflect light," Daly said.
The power of suggestion is important in merchandising a house, she believes. Scattered, for example, in her model-home master bedrooms are trays, a clear hint that breakfast in bed could be in the buyer's future.
"And that idea," Daly said, "appeals to almost every demographic."