Ever walked into a model home and felt like you could live there?

It’s no accident.

Developers often will hire a focus group to identify which kind of home buyers the subdivision will attract. They will then put up a model home or two in order to show prospective home buyers what a new subdivision will look and feel like when complete.

Finally, they’ll spend anywhere from $25,000 to $75,000 or more to merchandise those homes in order to attract a certain clientele.

The model is the opportunity for the builder to communicate to you what this community is going to be about, says Rene Pabon, president of the Childs/Dreyfus Group, a firm that designs and merchandises model homes for developers based in New York and Chicago.

“Most of these communities are out in the middle of a farm and you don’t know who will be living next to you. The developer gives us a merchandising profile, which is who they believe, from their focus groups and research, might be the potential buyer who comes to the site. We then take that and bring it to life,” Pabon explains.

That $25,000 to $75,000 price tag includes furniture, window treatments, throw rugs and even place-settings – all the little touches in all the right places that help you imagine the perfect family lives there. It doesn’t include items such as granite kitchen countertops or upgraded tile, carpet or paint.

In a community with several model homes, each will be merchandised in order to attract a different type of buyer. At a Muirfield Village at Gregg’s Landing, in Vernon Hills, Illinois, one model home is outfitted for a young, expanding family, while another is meant to attract an empty nester couple.

In the “young family” house, you might find a little boy bedroom decorated with sports memorabilia and another bedroom with a crib, changing table and baby bottles. The empty-nester model might have a first-floor master bedroom and office, with guest bedrooms upstairs that could be closed off until they’re needed.

“We try to create a memory feature so that when (the buyers) have gone to 17 communities and looked at all these different models on a Sunday afternoon, they may be able to walk away and have something with which they can identify our house,” Pabon explains.

At Muirfield Village, the imaginary owners of the young family house are expecting twins. So a large bedroom has been merchandised with two cribs.

But aren’t these homes just decorated nicely? Not a chance, says Pabon. “Merchandisers look more at defining space, explaining space and letting people understand how the space lives. Decorators are more concerned with coming into a space and making it beautiful.”

“Our job is to help people understand better how the space can live and how they themselves can see themselves living in the space,” notes Pabon. “We help them better understand through design and enhancing the space beautifully what they can do once they buy the home.”

And that’s the crux of the problem. Most new home buyers can’t visualize how a home is going to look and feel from the blueprints. A vacant model home is better than nothing, but many home buyers, particularly first-time buyers, have trouble understanding how the space works.

Ruth Peterman, a real estate agent with Naperville, Illinois-based Century 21 Achievers who has also decorated model homes for other developers, says while merchandising is expensive, it’s money well spent for developers.

“People need to walk into a room and realize how they want to live in that room. They need to make sure the room will really accommodate the pieces of furniture that are necessary for their lifestyle today and in the future,” she explains.

Peterman says home buyers need to be careful when looking at model homes that have been decorated. Often, furniture is over-sized or under-sized. The right furniture can make any room look gracious, while your furniture may show how cramped the space really is.

She also suggests home buyers bring an inventory of the size and shape of their furniture when viewing model homes. If you know how big your sofa is, you can quickly determine whether or not it’ll fit in the living room.

Curtains and shades may point to a different problem. All those wide-open windows might be wonderful in a living room or family room, but expensive to cover in a bedroom.

Still, she thinks a well-merchandised home will attract far more home buyers than an empty model home.

“I’ve taken purchasers to particular developments and they come in and don’t relate to the indoors because they’re aren’t merchandised toward them. They come in and look at the furnishings but don’t really look at the space or beyond, and they don’t see themselves in that space,” she explains.

“I actually took some first-time buyers out last week and we looked at two homes. They were identical. One was decorated and one wasn’t,” she recalls. The buyers “walked into the decorated (house) and could see themselves. They walked into the one that was empty and they were lost.”