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Builder Hires Model Family to Sell Homes

"Mom" Gena Poniatowski shows off some of the features of the model home in Oxnard, including a deep whirlpool tub.
Ina Jaffe, NPR
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"Mom" Gena Poniatowski shows off some of the features of the model home in Oxnard, including a deep whirlpool tub.
Your good-looking new neighbors! Gena Poniatowski (from left), Danny Devan Sickafoose, Colin Robert Sickafoose and Ian Murray.
Ina Jaffe, NPR /
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Your good-looking new neighbors! Gena Poniatowski (from left), Danny Devan Sickafoose, Colin Robert Sickafoose and Ian Murray.
"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 /
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"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.
Daughter "Danny" makes cookies in the kitchen. "I love my fake parents!" she jokes.
Ina Jaffe, NPR /
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Daughter "Danny" makes cookies in the kitchen. "I love my fake parents!" she jokes.

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...

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."