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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 23, 2019 2 months ago

With innovative home plans, builder caters to evolution of 'single-family' housing

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The Chicago firm has capitalized on a burgeoning trend in the region: multigenerational housing. New challenges await, including a battle for land.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Anyone shopping for a home has specific criteria that guide the search for new and improved living quarters. For Amarilis Zambrana, her new home had to satisfy her and her 14-year-old daughter, as well as her younger brother, 26, and her retired parents.

It was a tall order. But one William Ryan Homes — a privately held Chicago-based homebuilder with a strong presence in the Tampa Bay region — was able to fill thanks to its emphasis on multigenerational housing.

Over the past two years, WRH has built 24 multigenerational homes — abodes that cater to grandparents, parents and children living under the same roof — in fast-growing areas including Riverview and Seffner, both in Hillsborough County. The homes feature quadruple-split floor plans and additional master bedroom suites that give family members of different ages the space they need to coexist happily (in theory, anyway).

William Ryan officials think the trend, which originated during the recession, has staying power even though extended family members aren’t under as much pressure to cut costs by living together as they were a decade ago. Yet where WRH goes, so goes its competition, so the company not only has to come up with attractive home designs and floor plans, but it also has to fight for land in one of the country’s hottest markets for new residential construction. That takes relationship-building coupled with razor-sharp negotiation skills.

“We’ve got some huge competition,” says Jeff Thorson, WRH's Tampa division president. “The Tampa market probably has every builder who wants to build. If you think of other locations like Orlando, Atlanta, Phoenix, places like that, all those same builders are here, and we’re all trying to get the same pieces of property.”

Thorson, 61, who has been with William Ryan since 2003, starting as vice president of operations, says the company has reaped the rewards of developing a network of trusted allies in the region.

“It's about establishing relationships with Realtors who are involved with land and developers who are involved with land,” he says. “A lot of times in the bigger master-planned communities, you see the same builders over and over. That’s because the developers have established that consistent stable of builders.”

THEN AND NOW

Thorson and Sally McFolling, WRH's director of sales and marketing, say families that need room for elderly relatives — or boomerang kids — are no longer content with backyard sheds that have been converted into granny flats. They want everyone under the same roof but not crowded together.

“We really study how people live in a house,” Thorson says. “Our business relies on human nature. People are doing a lot more planning, trying to think through what’s going to happen to Mom and Dad.”

“With the Internet, the buying process is different than it used to be. People are doing their research ahead of time. So for us, it’s about finding out what’s important to the buyer, not just their physical needs, but emotional.” Jeff Thorson, president of William Ryan Homes’ Tampa division

Because William Ryan is a production builder that does little custom work, the homes’ price tags are also family-friendly. For example, Zambrana’s four-bedroom three-bathroom house in Riverview’s South Fork at Barrington development, which she bought new about nine months ago, cost $347,000.

“I started looking about three years ago,” she says. “I went around to many of the communities in Riverview because I wanted to stay in the area. I didn’t want to move, but I wanted to get out of a two-story and go to a one-story because my parents live with me.”

McFolling says Zambrana’s long search is not uncommon today, when buyers have so much information at their fingertips thanks to websites like Zillow and Redfin.

“People buy on emotion, but they justify it with facts,” she says. “They amass a lot of information before they ever walk in the door.”

Thorson adds: “With the internet, the buying process is different than it used to be. People are doing their research ahead of time. So for us, it’s about finding out what’s important to the buyer, not just their physical needs, but emotional.”

They also buy when they can experience the living space before it’s built. At the Barrington at South Fork development in Riverview, WRH wisely chose a multigenerational house — the Jensen, it’s called — to use as its model home.

“I fell in love with the model,” Zambrana says. “It was what I was looking for. Everyone has their own space, but you also have an open concept, basically.”

Mark Wemple. Jeff Thorson, an executive with William Ryan Homes' Tampa division, shows off one of the Chicago builder's houses in Riverview.

With a base price of $305,990, the design offers several options meant to entice families that need room for everyone to spread out. A second master suite costs $7,000, and a second-floor, 600-square-foot bonus room — suitable for a den or game room — is available for $30,000.

At four of the communities where it’s building — Barrington at South Fork, Somerton Place, Lakeshore Ranch and Paddock Manor — WRH offers a number of competitive incentives that motivate sales, such as a free saltwater pool valued at $25,000; free outdoor kitchen valued at $10,000, plus $10,000 for closing costs and $5,000 in design options; or $15,000 in design options, plus $10,000 for closing costs.

Despite those potential perks, McFolling says WRH has sold Jensen-style homes to families that have highly specific needs that supersede the desire for luxuries, such as pools, outdoor kitchens and bonus rooms.

“We’ve had people who have adult children with disabilities, and this is perfect for them,” she says. “They can have their own space, and if they have a live-in caretaker, it gives them space for that, too.”

MARKET PENETRATION

For Thorson, an emphasis on multigenerational housing represents a pathway to additional market share in the Tampa Bay region. He describes William Ryan Homes, which has already built more than 1,700 homes in the Tampa Bay region, as a top 15 homebuilder that aspires to crack the top 10. And he sees communities like Riverview, with families seeking to move up to larger homes, as drivers of that growth.

“We’re not entry-level — we don’t try to play there,” he says. “I would consider us to be a first- or second-move type of builder.”

Another strategy is to think — and build — green. WRH is one of the few national production homebuilders with houses that meet the National Green Building Standard, which calls for energy, water and material resource efficiency, as well as indoor environmental quality.

“Sustainability is very important,” Thorson says. “Everyone is looking for that these days.”

One of the builder's biggest challenges, like some competitors and peers, is finding enough land to build on. Multigenerational homes like the Jensen model — which tops out at 2,731 square feet, depending on options — require large lots that aren’t always available. That means the company has had to get creative when it comes to design and architecture, so it came up with a four-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,895-square-foot model called Sweetwater that has also been a popular choice for buyers who seek multigenerational homes.

“We sold a Sweetwater to a buyer who’s living with her two grandkids and her adult daughter,” Thorson says. “It has a two-car garage but sits on a small, 50-foot lot. It’s probably our most popular plan in the market, bar none, because it ‘lives’ much bigger than 1,900 square feet.”

Offering versatile homes on smaller lots is also a strategy that leads to repeat business, Thorson says, when growing families move up from, say, a Sweetwater — which ranges in price from $225,000 to $282,000 — to a Jensen.

William Ryan Homes — which has about 250 employees nationwide, 50 based in the Tampa Bay region — doesn’t disclose its revenues, but Thorson says year-over-year growth has been solid since 2015, usually between 15% and 20%. The company has bounced back from the real estate crash of the late 2000s, when it went from building 300 to 50 homes per year.

“Like everybody else, we went through four or five years of doing 50 [per year], but the doors stayed open, and we’re working ourselves back up,” he says. “Another slowdown is always on the radar — your crystal ball is as good as mine — but I don’t think we’re going to see the catastrophe that happened in the last downturn.”

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