Builder Hires Model Family to Sell Homes

Your good-looking new neighbors!

Your good-looking new neighbors! Gena Poniatowski (from left), Danny Devan Sickafoose, Colin Robert Sickafoose and Ian Murray. Ina Jaffe, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ina Jaffe, NPR
Gena Poniatowski shows off some of the features of the model home in Oxnard, including a tub i i

"Mom" Gena Poniatowski shows off some of the features of the model home in Oxnard, including a deep whirlpool tub. Ina Jaffe, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ina Jaffe, NPR
Gena Poniatowski shows off some of the features of the model home in Oxnard, including a tub

"Mom" Gena Poniatowski shows off some of the features of the model home in Oxnard, including a deep whirlpool tub.

Ina Jaffe, NPR
'Residence Style #2' at left is just one of three available configurations at Westerly

"Residence Style #2," at left, is just one of three available configurations at Westerly. The house has 2,420 square feet, five bedrooms and a two-car garage, priced from $706,126. Ina Jaffe, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ina Jaffe, NPR
Daughter 'Danny' makes cookies in the kitchen.

Daughter "Danny" makes cookies in the kitchen. "I love my fake parents!" she jokes. Ina Jaffe, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ina Jaffe, NPR

In Southern California, a home builder is battling a softening real estate market by taking advantage of an abundant local resource: actors. The Centex company has hired four actors to play a family "living" in one of their model homes — a performance called Homelife.

According to the "script," it's mom's birthday, and helping Gena Poniatowski celebrate is her husband for the day, Ian Murray, and their kids, 14-year-old daughter Danny Devan Sickafoose and her real-life brother, 12-year-old Colin Robert Sickafoose. They gather around a cake to sing "Happy Birthday" in the kitchen, along with a few strangers who've come to see the house.

One clue that this isn't a real family? Poniatowski is wearing a stick-on nametag that says "mom," Murray is wearing one that says "dad," and the couple is better-looking than anyone you know.

The no-last-name family occupies a model of the "Residence 2" style home in the Westerly neighborhood of Riverpark, a huge planned community going up in the city of Oxnard north of Los Angeles.

Amanda Larson, Centex's director of marketing for Los Angeles and the Central Coast, says they've already staged two performances of Homelife at another housing development, and it gives the company an advantage.

"It's less intimidating to people," she says. "Maybe they're not ready to meet with a sales representative — these people are more like your friends."

The actors say they enjoy improvising with potential home buyers. They bake cookies, watch cartoons, play Scrabble — all the while, extolling the virtues of living at Westerly.

"Mom" brought her own personal items and set up in the upstairs bedroom.

"I felt like I'd be getting ready for my birthday, so I brought a hair dryer, hairbrush, some makeup, clothes in the closet — things like that," Poniatowski says.

The actors and the show they put on got great reviews from house hunters. In fact, there was only one minor complaint — Homelife would be even more realistic if the family would just fight a little...

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