A true fan's dream- a whole Martha Stewart subdivision

Saturday, October 22, 2005

CARY, N.C. -- What could be better than waking up on Martha Stewart sheets in a Martha Stewart bed, drying off after your shower with Martha Stewart towels, gardening with Martha Stewart tools, and ending your day with a Martha Stewart recipe served on Martha Stewart plates at a Martha Stewart table?

Why, doing it all under the tastefully gabled roof of your Martha Stewart home in a complete Martha Stewart subdivision, of course.

Back from a prison stay, the omnipresent domestic diva has extended her brand yet again, partnering with developer KB Home to create a New England-style neighborhood of 650 houses in this affluent Raleigh suburb that seems to be embracing its longtime nickname, "Concentrated Area of Relocated Yankees."

There's no doubt that Stewart's name is popular with homemakers who snap up her linens and chairs, and turn for advice to her books, magazines and TV shows.

But is real estate too much of a "good thing?" Can the cachet of America's favorite household goddess really extend to people's most important purchase?

"I certainly hope so," Stewart said this week in High Point, where she was promoting the latest collection in her Martha Stewart furniture line.

"That's what KB is hoping, too -- that because of the Martha Stewart name recognition for high quality and good design, that it will appeal to a lot of people, and they will come in and notice that we've paid attention to the lock on the window, the finish on the cabinet, the surface on the countertops," she said.

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. and KB announced their partnership earlier this month, saying they would build Twin Lakes: Homes Created with Martha Stewart. Construction is just beginning in this suburb of 100,000, with model homes set to be ready early next year.

A KB Home spokesman said the company has already gotten about 650 "expressions of interest" from potential buyers. They will be able to choose from 12 models in townhomes and single-family dwellings, ranging from 1,300 to 4,000 square feet and with prices from $150,000 to $400,000.

Three house designs are based on homes Stewart owns in Maine and New York state, and options for interior features in all models -- from wainscoting to light fixtures to paint colors and flooring -- were chosen by Stewart's design team. She also advised on floor plans, including large laundry rooms, well-organized closets and space for indoor and outdoor entertaining.

While no one expects the Stewart name to make Cary or future developments planned for Georgia and Texas a magnet for Stewart devotees from across the nation, even a competitor acknowledges suchs tie-ins can make a difference.

"When they're making their decision in a homogenized landscape, you have to have something that sets you apart and sets you significantly in a better light than your competitor," said Rick Ohmann, vice president of sales for St. Lawrence Homes.

St. Lawrence has a similar co-branding arrangement with John Deere, which provided landscaping and lawn equipment for buyers in a subdivision in nearby Durham. Since it opened this spring with the Deere name and logo prominently placed on the entrance sign, 19 of the 51 lots have been sold.

Experts say the Stewart development, where top-priced houses will cost $100,000 less than in the Deere neighborhood, will add a touch of distinction to less wealthy consumers who like the prestige associated with the Stewart name.

"If this indicates it's a reflection of the superior taste of the house's owner, then they'll go for it," said Wilfred Amaldoss, an associate professor of marketing at Duke University. "If people believe she's of a higher social group and has better taste ... it's an indication for them that they are also part of that group."

Mitzi Montoya-Weiss, a North Carolina State University marketing professor, lives in Cary herself and believes the suburb is the perfect market "filled with a huge bunch of conspicuous consumers."

Buyers will be "the newly well-to-do crowd. They are very aware of style, fashion in general. They've got extra income to spend," she said.

"Everything's a fad. It depends on what time frame you want to look at," she said. "Does a homeowner concern themselves with, 'How am I going to sell this house (in the future)?' Not always. I'm thinking about, 'I love this home and I want to live here now."'

KB Home and Cary officials say they're not worried the development will suffer now or later from anything that might tarnish Stewart's image, such as her conviction and five-month prison term for lying to authorities about a stock sale.

Mayor Ernie McAlister said Stewart's handling of the matter, including her decision to serve her prison sentence while her conviction is appealed, will help it be viewed years from now as merely an aberration.

And Stewart herself believes that the reputation associated with her products will last even if her celebrity fades. To make her point, she gestured to the tastefully appointed showroom displaying her fourth collection of furniture.

"When you're sitting on this couch, you don't know it's a Martha Stewart couch unless someone tells you," she said. "But you can be sure it will last, it's well made, it's covered in beautiful fabric, it's comfortable and it fulfills the homeowner's dream of having a comfortable, practical, usable piece of furniture."

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