The house is in one of those "master planned" communities, where everything is clean and orderly, but homogenous as hell. The tiny front yard is neatly manicured, with colorful flowers and shrubs. Inside, the house is airy, fresh and tastefully decorated. A happy, loving family must live here, right? Yet something feels a little off.
As I enter the house, it appears as if someone is preparing for a dinner party. The dining room table is set for six, and on the kitchen counter are a fondue set, martini glasses and an ice bucket. There's something weird about the ice, though. When I shake the bucket, the perfectly shaped cubes make an odd, rattling sound. I pick one up. It's plastic. I peek inside the kitchen cupboard and find cereal, crackers, tea and snacks. But when I pick up a box of cookies, it's empty. Everything is empty.
No one lives in this house. People live in the neighboring houses, but this one's a fake. It's an example of the increasingly popular (not to mention unnerving) art of model-home decoration based on what designers call "psychological marketing." Today, many builders shell out big bucks to show prospective customers not just nicely furnished model homes, but homes with creature comforts.
Designers and home builders begin by creating a "profile family," says Kay Green of Kay Green Designs. Her company designs model homes across the Southeast, including Charlotte and this particular house in Union County.
"We decide what the family does in their leisure time -- their hobbies and interests," Green says. "Once we create this fake family, we build the house around them. What kind of furniture would they choose? What would be in their pantry? What kind of pictures would they hang on the walls?"
In the adjoining room, the walls are covered with family portraits -- shiny-happy people playing golf, receiving high school diplomas, vacationing at the beach and mountains. Upon closer inspection, though, the people in the pictures don't seem to be related to each other. None of the smiling couples or kids are the same.
Another room belongs to the man of the house, apparently a big car buff. NASCAR models and framed photos of Fords and Chevrolets from the 1930s and 1940s are displayed. Mint-condition copies of Car and Driver are stacked on the desk.
I check out the second floor, and as I walk upstairs the sound of my footsteps echoes through the house. I feel as though I'm being watched. At the top of the stairs I find a game room where it appears a poker game is in process. Three hands have been dealt, one revealing a full house. Poker chips are neatly stacked on a table along with bowls of popcorn and pretzels and a glass of Coke. I notice the straw in the soda defies gravity -- it's sticking straight up, not touching the sides of the glass.
Standing there, I felt as if I'd walked into the Twilight Zone, as if body snatchers had turned this poor family into pod people. Was there a nuclear explosion in the area that I didn't hear about?
"We design it so it looks like what people want, not what they have," says Green. "It's all about creating a dream."
Most of the information Green and her team use is based on demographics studies, which examine area income levels, school activities and popular neighborhood sports. For instance, soccer is a dominant theme for most kids' rooms in the Charlotte area. And in the girl's bedroom of this home, I find soccer balls on the bed, soccer posters on the wall, soccer trophies on the desk and a pair of soccer cleats in the closet.
Do I already know this child?
"It's all about creating memory points," says Holly McKain, sales and marketing coordinator for Westfield Homes, builder of this model house. "The magazines, family portraits, soccer balls -- all that specific marketing and merchandising is about connecting to buyers and evoking an emotional response."
You don't have to be in the market for a new house to check out these "fake family" homes. As Charlotte's sprawl continues, planned communities are popping up all along the city's outskirts, most of which have some fake houses in them. So set your inner voyeur free and go and leaf through some fake family's magazines, peek in their cupboards and smell the dainty bathroom hand soap. Just don't sample any of the fake food. You might end up in the Twilight Zone with a very real chipped tooth.
If you have an idea for Urban Explorer contact Sam Boykin at email@example.com or 704-944-3623.