Recession realities: Builders contend with tough economy
Local builders contend with a tough economy
The recession has caused nearly everyone to consider their finances, whether or not they’ve lost jobs or watched their retirement savings disappear in a puff of smoke. Some professions are in worse shape than others, especially in the housing industry.
Local builders have been hit hard. Some builders have gone out of business or been forced to reorganize, while others are taking creative measures to figure out how to stay in business and remain viable until better times return.
Dennis Wiltgen with Wilco Enterprises has seen this before; he came to the Grand Valley in the 1970s and started his company in the early 80s, just in time for the last bust.
“We experienced the bust. We watched the growth – five to six percent growth is good,” he says about local real estate appreciation. “When we started jumping to these 12 to 14 percent growth rates, we should have been paying attention.”
Although Wiltgen got caught with one spec home he hasn’t been able to sell, he did see the writing on the wall and tried to focus more on remodeling. His 2007 Parade of Homes entry was a remodel that turned a dated, 1,600-square-foot home into a gorgeous 4,000-square-foot custom home.
“It established us as a remodeler,” Wiltgen says about the job.
When times were good, Wiltgen didn’t build custom homes under $400,000, but he was also smart enough not to tackle anything close to a million dollars.
“We know what we can do,” he says. “We know our market.”
Wiltgen considers himself a good general contractor, and has consistently continued to do a little bit of everything. That diversity has helped him survive during previous lean times and in the current economic downturn. Two projects he’s happy to have right now are a large kitchen remodel and a complete tear-down of a tiny, old house on an in-city lot, with the construction of a new house to replace it.
“I have to stay on a budget that’s really, really tight,” he says about the new house. He also plans to build the home in 45 days to accommodate the homeowner. “A good general contractor can work with a customer who has a budget and says go.”
Like Wiltgen, Mike Maves with Maves Construction has diversified to remain productive. He’s been a perennial favorite in the Parade of Homes, but didn’t have a custom home in the right stages to enter and didn’t want to build a spec home this year. In 2008, he built two spec homes and ended up bartering for other properties to sell them.
“I’ve just been real creative,” he says about the exchange process. Maves has also been creative about finding projects and staying as busy as possible. Current projects include a commercial project in De Beque, a custom, off-the-grid home near Loma and another off-the-grid home in Glade Park.
“One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was lay off three people last fall,” he says. “If I can, I’d love to get into commercial work and start growing again. I’d love to rehire my workers.”
Although Maves has established himself as a custom homebuilder, commercial work isn’t a new endeavor. He’s built a few dental offices, as well as the tasting room, winery and conference center at Two Rivers Winery. He’s also done remodels over the years, and has a steel building dealership.
“I saw this coming,” he says. “It was too good for too long. There was no way we could sustain it. I knew it was going to slow down, but I didn’t know it would stop overnight.”
Although construction hasn’t literally stopped overnight, the slowdown has been dramatic and abrupt. According to a real estate report produced by Bob Reece with Advanced Title Company, in the years 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007, there were consistently more than 1,075 single-family building permits pulled in the first nine months of the year. In 2008, that number dropped to 576. For 2009, that number is only 304. According to the National Association of Home Builders, every 100 single-family homes employ 305 direct and indirect jobs. The numbers show that a lot fewer people are making a living in the construction industry today than three years ago.
Treece Bohall, a builder with an extensive background in general construction, is also one who is no longer making a living in construction. Bohall started his first project as a general contractor when prices were highest. He partnered on several lots in Vintner’s Farm in Fruita, and built one home as the sole general contractor for his own company in the fall of ‘07 and winter of ‘08. He pulled the permits to begin construction on a second spec house in early 2008, and then reconsidered.
“I decided I’d rather pay on a lot than on a home,” he says. Although he enjoys construction, he also decided he’d rather find another career to make a living and perhaps do a little construction on the side.
“I’ve always wanted to be a fireman,” Bohall says. After testing with the Grand Junction Fire Department four times, he passed the written test, the physical test, the psychological assessment and the panel interview. He’s been with the fire department for almost a year. Since he’s works in Grand Junction, Bohall doesn’t want to build a personal home for himself on the lot he still owns in Fruita.
“I’m hoping to find somebody that wants the lot,” he says. “I’m not looking to get rich, I just want to move on.”
Although Bohall’s preference is to sell the lot outright, he’d also be willing to build a custom home on the lot for someone and can use the other home he built in Vintner’s Farm as a reference and testimony to his craftsmanship.
The difficult times for builders make this an optimum time for consumers. Not only are good, quality builders willing to consider projects that might have been too small in previous years, they’re eager to work with buyers and give them exactly what they want. Labor costs are down and prices for raw materials are lower than they’ve been in years.
The builders who survive this economic downturn will emerge smarter, with a stronger commitment to customer service and a close eye on the bottom line.