You try on a shirt before you buy it to make sure it fits. You test drive a car, which is way more useful than just kicking the tires.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could do the same thing when buying a new home? Well, you can — in a manner of speaking.
If you’re looking to buy in a master-planned community — one with lots of recreational amenities onsite — you may have an opportunity to spend some time alone in one of the homes, meet the neighbors and, in some cases, even spend the night — all before you purchase the home. That’s because developers of these communities understand it’s just not the bricks and mortar in which a prospective buyer is interested.
“It’s not just the house you’re moving into. It’s the whole community,” says Sarah Garlick, a spokesperson for the PulteGroup. “I think being able to test drive the lifestyle is a huge benefit.”
One of Pulte’s subsidiaries, Del Webb, develops active adult communities, ones that target the 55-plus age range. These types of communities offer so many extras — parks, lakes, bike paths, fitness centers and the like — that sellers want to show off to prospective buyers what life would be like living there. So why not take them up on their offer?
According to its Explore Del Webb website, several of its communities offer day and overnight passes — some up to three nights. An overnight pass gives you the opportunity to stay in a furnished home with a fully stocked kitchen. A day pass allows you to share lunch or dinner with a resident, participate in a fitness class, play tennis, bocce or pickle ball and meet your potential neighbors.
“You get access to everything the residents have access to,” says Garlick. “The amenities, the social events, the clubs, and most important, the residents themselves.”
Tammy Barry is the director of sales and marketing at Heritage Harbor in Ottawa, Ill., a master-planned marine resort community that sells a variety of vacation and second home properties, though several owners live there year round. Barry routinely offers interested buyers the opportunity to rent a cottage for a weekend or even a whole week.
“You need to come to Heritage Harbor and stay in one of the cottages, and fall in love not only with the development, but with our downtown,” Barry says. “You can take your time, go into town, ask your waitress questions and live a day or two of what your life would look like if you lived in this community.”
Barry says it’s good for interested buyers to investigate where they are going to buy their groceries, how they will get to the airport, how close they are to health care, where the good restaurants are and the like. It’s affirming to find out for themselves or from people who live and work in the area what it’s really like to live there.
Bill Akins and his wife, Cindy, rented a bed and breakfast in the Ottawa area one weekend. They saw an ad for Heritage Harbor and stopped by on their way back home to Naperville, a Chicago suburb. They liked what they saw and made plans to come back to rent a cottage for a weekend.
“It was such a unique opportunity to be able to rent a home before you buy it,” Akins says.
“At first, I thought, ‘Well, these houses are really close together,’ ” Akin adds. “This is a boating community. Are the boaters going to be wild, crazy partiers?’ It helped a lot to be able to see what the vibe would normally be on a pretty busy weekend. It didn’t feel crowded and there were no wild parties going on.”
The Akins met a couple that weekend who owned homes at Heritage. They shared what their experience was living there, which made the Akins feel more at ease. He and his wife not only got a feel for the community, but for what physically living in one of the homes would be like.
“They are very well built and laid out, really comfortable,” Akins says. “Just being inside, spending time in one, you really get a better feel for that.”
Though many of the homes for sale at Heritage Harbor are recently built, Barry says buyers who already have a signed contract for a home under construction also take advantage of the opportunity to spend time in a rental.
“They come down and stay in our rental cottages while their home is being built to check progress,” she says. “They stay in a home on the same property that their new home is being built on.”
Spending time with residents, eating a meal, sleeping overnight — all provide a real sense of what living in a place is like. Is there a lot of traffic and loud activity at certain times of day? Is the home drafty? Does it feel crowded with the whole family there? What’s it like to cook in the kitchen? Is the dishwasher too loud? This invaluable intelligence can make, or break, a home purchase decision. And it’s information you don’t want to find out after you’ve signed a contract.
If you’re buying a home somewhere that doesn’t normally offer a “try before you buy” option, ask the builder’s sales staff if it would possible to spend some time in your prospective home or similar unit on the property alone with your family. You may have more leverage if you are very interested and the sales rep thinks staying in the home could seal the deal for you.
But don’t be surprised if the seller is not willing to do so. A home builder or seller simply may not have a pool of empty units available to accommodate you. And if the actual home or model is used primarily for tours, it’s not likely available for overnight accommodations.
Garlick says to her knowledge, Pulte doesn’t have a plan in place for homes that are not part of the Explore Del Webb program.
“The model homes we have, prospective buyers are in and out of them all day. If someone was test driving that house, it would prevent other buyers from coming in to tour it,” she says.
If you live outside the neighborhood in which you’re interested or are coming from out of town, you could rent a nearby hotel room and spend a day or so getting a feel for the area. Even if a builder is willing to let you spend the night on site, expect a rental fee. Or at the very least, a request for a background check or security deposit — or both. This expense may go toward closing costs should you decide to purchase the home.
Even if you have to spend a little extra money up front, taking a home for a test drive is certainly worth it, whether you end up buying it or not. So, if you can, get out there and kick the tires of your dream home.
Are you ready to find a new home to explore? Check out New Home Source for the most complete listings of new home communities.
Felicia Oliver is a freelance writer and editor with more than 15 years’ experience, including 10 years in the home building and general construction industry. Her background includes writing on a variety of subjects while working for Tribune Interactive, Catalyst Chicago and writing and producing for the nationally syndicated television programs “Ebony/Jet Showcase” and “The Minority Business Report,” as well as the locally produced “Chicago Tonight.”