As the potential buyers filed into the open house in Southern California, they gasped in surprise. Instead of the traditional empty residence with a few pieces of tastefully arranged furniture, they discovered a family baking a cake.

Like the tastefully arranged furniture and the cake in the oven, the family was part of the staging of the Centex model home in Santa Clarita, Calif. — completely fake. A public relations firm had hired actors to enact the skit.

“There were a few moments of surprise and confusion,” said Jim Garfield of California property public relations firm Roddan Paolucci Roddan, the company that created the concept. “But once people caught on, there was an embracing of the moment.”

Indeed. Dressed in casual jeans, former “Baywatch” lifeguard Jaason Simmons, 35, posed as the dad for the May 20 “HomeLife Show” staged in Centex Homes’ Milestone development in Santa Clarita Valley, Calif. An actress played the mom, and two children from a local theater company played the role of the couple’s kids. The company has another such event planned June 10.

“The theme is, ‘Mother birthday surprises,’ and when the buyers arrive, the family is baking Mom a cake,” Garfield said. “The people visiting the model homes get to participate and eat the cake.”

In addition to cheerful familiar interactions, the group might also incorporate comments about home furnishings in their skit along the lines of, “Isn’t this a great Wolf range? I love these granite countertops. It’s so cool that we have a washer-dryer on the second floor, not the basement.'”

The “family” is prepped with information about the residences and can answer questions from the prospective buyers, Garfield said.

Martha Webb, who teaches real estate agents how to stage houses and authored “Dress Your House for Success,” a book on staging, said the idea would work with model homes, but not existing homes.

“It (the model home) is almost like a trade show atmosphere, and this idea seems to be OK in that environment,” Webb said, likening the actors to the people who staff booths in a trade show, giving demonstrations and talks to attendees.

“They’re (buyers) expecting to see new appliances in a model home. It’s more than just a house. You’re probably going to pay more attention to things such as the make of the appliances than you would in an existing home,” and hence the actors could be a useful addition, Webb said.

“I would not recommend this for an existing home,” Webb said. “It might inhibit the buyer from asking questions. It would put up a barrier to actively looking at the property and imagining yourself in it, and that’s what you have to do to get to a sale.”

“There are two main advantages to this approach,” said Eduardo Andrade, an assistant marketing professor at the University of California Haas School of Business. First, he said, ambience: “Companies spend millions trying to make store environments more appealing because they know it works.

“Thus, the smell of a baking cake and a friendly chat with the ‘owners’ may influence the overall evaluation of the house,” said Andrade, whose research focuses on emotions and mood and their consequences on consumer decision making.

Second, Andrade said, is information: “Having the ‘owners’ in the house provides further information about how it is to experience this product — i.e., to live in this house.” A major drawback, he said, would be if the consumers didn’t realize the actors were not really the owners and then figured it out, in which case, “the marketing tactic may backfire.”

Ann Mann, an agent with RE/MAX Elite in Brentwood, Tenn., was interested in the idea, though she had a few reservations.

“I’m always interested in any new ideas,” Mann said. “It sounds like a good marketing technique.” However, Mann said, there were a couple of elements that concerned her.

“I like being truthful and upfront with my buyers and if it’s a pretend family, they don’t really know about things like the neighborhood. If they say, ‘It’s a wonderful community and we love living here,’ they don’t really know,” Mann said.

“I think it’s a fabulous idea,” said Toni Nelson, immediate past chair of the Houston Association of Realtors and an agent at Prudential Gary Greene, Realtors in Houston.

However, Nelson was concerned about the fact that the actors give out information about the homes.

“I’m pretty sure laws in California are similar to Texas,” Nelson said. “In the state of Texas, the only ones legally given the authority to answer questions about specific properties are Texas licensees.”

As long as the actors play a “hostess” function, Nelson said, that would probably be acceptable: “Hostesses greet the buyers, get them refreshments, but they don’t answer any questions. The Realtor is there to answer any questions about a specific property.”

Responding to Nelson’s concerns, Tom Pool, a spokesman for the California Department of Real Estate, said, “There’s probably a little bit of truth to that, but there are provisions we have outlined in our Guidelines for Unlicensed Assistants that would allow these people to provide simple information that would not be considered negotiation.”

Under the “Open House” section of the guidelines, as long as the principal in the matter consents, assisting licensees at open houses “by placing signs, greeting the public, providing factual information from or handing out preprinted materials prepared by or reviewed and approved for use by the licensee, or arranging appointments with the licensee,” is permitted.

“I agree with the analysis that people have to be careful of what they are doing,” Pool said, “but this sounds more like play-acting as opposed to an actual form of solicitation.”

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