Property: Are you man enough for the Van Gogh interior?

The chintz has been chucked and show houses have had a designer makeover.

Thirty years ago, shag-pile carpets and Habitat chairs were must- haves in the world of show homes, and their appeal was to the masses. Today's developers are leaving nothing to chance, especially at the top end of the market. If you like what you see, their target-marketing has worked. It's not so much buying a house as buying a perceived lifestyle. Developers large and small have seen the advantages of using interior designers to come up with schemes that will appeal to their much- researched target audience, and the more expensive the property, the more exclusive the design.

Laing Homes is about to unwrap the show houses on one of their most prestigious developments in an already sought-after residential area at Langley Park in Beckenham, Kent. Set amid private park and woodland on the former Glaxo Wellcome research site, the two show houses will have contrasting interiors, each appealing to the executive family audience. Designed by Yvonne Artz, the five-bedroom, three-bathroom house will feature fabrics and furnishings exclusively from Design- ers Guild, while the larger, six- bedroom, five-bathroom house will have French country influences including designs by Nina Campbell and Osborne & Little.

Lindsey Aspinall, marketing manager for Laing South Thames, says their research has identified a number of different target audiences. "These homes will appeal to people who are aware of design trends and recognise quality interiors and branding." They will also be compatible with the digital age, including high-tech cabling and advanced telephone systems.

It is expected that many buyers will want to upgrade standard interiors with Laing's interior-design service, Homestyle (which is only available on selected developments, at an extra cost). Prices have yet to be released for the Park Langley development, but a newly built Kentish oast-house, standing next to the show homes, is expected to be priced at around the pounds 1m mark.

Wates, a house-builder based in the South-east, concentrates on small developments in well-established prime residential areas. Costing an average of pounds 400,000 each, most of the houses are sold from plans. Jonathan Wates, sales and marketing director, realises that his customers are "much more demanding and have extremely high expectations", but also have the confidence to get involved. "Our houses' interiors are very much a blank sheet of paper: who are we as house-builders to say what people should have?"

The services of an interior-design consultant are offered as a sales incentive. In addition, buyers can take up a landscaping option, essential where plots can be up to five acres. Mr Wates isn't a personal fan of show homes but recognises that they can be helpful. Last weekend saw the opening of the Atrium show house on an exclusive development at Limpsfield in Surrey, designed to appeal to a very specific type of buyer - "business professionals without children who enjoy entertaining".

"We have only built four of these houses and two have sold already, but we felt the space (3,000 sq feet) needed interpreting," comments Mr Wates. With a price tag in excess of pounds 700,000, it has given sales manager and design co-ordinator Delma Barham a chance to be adventurous. "The huge atrium can seem quite intimidating and cold when it's empty so we've come up with a contemporary design with art deco and classical influences, featuring chrome, cream and splashes of colour, and it looks fabulous," she adds.

Another Wates development, at West Grinstead in Sussex, has been designed to appeal to couples who have taken early retirement, are perhaps downsizing, and who appreciate quality. The Dutch-style barns, in a farmyard setting, have rustic styling, combining up-to-date kitchens with antique furniture.

Taywood Homes have come up with a number of show houses themed on the work of artists and designers including Van Gogh, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and William Morris. Sales and marketing manager Gillian Collins believes these homes have more appeal, especially to the "male purchasing-pound": "Men and most women are fed up with the pretty, chintzy houses. If the guys are going to be dragged around 10 different developments on a hot afternoon, at least they don't forget these interiors."

Keeping the wraps on a development until the last moment raises its profile in the neighbourhood. Some developers invite people who have shown an initial interest to an exclusive preview of the show homes. Their reward is the chance to reserve the best plots before the general public.

Show-home interiors are often so successful that the house itself could be sold several times over. Developers WillowAcre made three of the 14 apartments at Prospero House, a former bank in the City of London, into show flats. Not only have they been the first to sell, but the buyers have also bought the furniture and fittings. Two new show flats are now being created. Director Barry Glantz says people don't have the time to shop around and come up with the design themselves, especially if it's a second home or to be used as a rental investment. "I travel a lot to Milan, New York and Paris, so I know what people expect," he adds. Prices start at pounds 180,000 for a one-bedroom flat.

Developers can spend up to 20 per cent of the asking price on show-home interiors, so it is hardly surprising that it is the first house to sell if the builder is prepared to let it go - at a premium. Everything has its price.

Laing Homes: 0800 622298; Wates: 0181-466 4242; Prospero House at Hamptons: 0171-824 8822; Taywood Homes: 01703 266444

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