In the past two years the housing market has seen a significant slowdown, not only nationally but locally, where confidence waned as high-end developments languished and high-end buyers vanished.
For R.B. Fitch, developer and founder of Fearrington Village with more than 35 years in the building business, adapting to the economic recession and housing market slowdown required thinking outside the box.
“Honestly, R.B. challenged us to think ‘BMW,’ like the car brand: smaller, more efficient, and well appointed,” said Greg Fitch, vice president of Fitch Creations Inc., in discussing the planning for a new neighborhood in Fearrington.
Inspiring confidence in prospective clients has presented its own challenges.
“There’s been some skepticism about working with builders these days; homebuyers have read about folks being stranded in developments that went bust, particularly in other parts of the country,” Greg Fitch said.
Working with architect Brian Cather, Real Estate and Construction General Manager Laura Morgan, the Fitches (father and son) sat down and designed a community with four specific home-plans that they felt represented today’s market and would directly respond to the concerns of homebuyers interested in Chatham County.
Building homes to order and not speculation, Fitch has refined his business plan so that it is both long-term and sustainable. The Knolls is a direct by-product of that fine-tuning.
The Knolls neighborhood straddles 20 miles of forested ridge land, and will house 28 Energy Star rated homes, with 50 percent of open space preserved.
The Chatham County Board of Commissioners gave its final approval of The Knolls February 15, and already several of the 28 home-sites have been sold and construction framing has begun.
Why has this community taken off, while other area developments are stagnant?
Fitch believes custom home builders who work closely with their clients and buyers can adapt fairly quickly to changes in buyer preferences, even in the worst of markets.
“Buyers are more cautious than they were two years ago, more price sensitive, but still want privacy, serenity and high-end appointments,” he said.Focusing on what today’s buyers want means smaller overall square footage; less formal living spaces; open living spaces; one- level living; full maintenance with landscaping and exterior upkeep handled by someone else; higher end interior spaces that can be customized with countertops, cabinets, flooring and molding.
Fitch and the Real Estate and Construction Team tested two of The Knolls models by building them in appropriate nearby neighborhoods to gauge market feedback. The feedback was positive, and both of those homes have sold.
“Privacy is important,” said Morgan, who has been with the company for over 20 years. “And indoor living space is oriented to the woods behind the homes.”
The Knolls offers protected wooded view from the front and back, with private courtyards and screened porches, while reflecting a sense of high-end living and exclusivity without excessive square footage.
With four floor-plans to choose from — The Bedford, The Harper, The Mason and The Tilson (all named for Fearrington residents) — the homebuyer can streamline the process of building a home.
Morgan says this is important as more clients are waiting to sell their primary home before building a new one.
“[In the past] we would have a client who would build their home here, and then sell their other home,” she said. “Now our clients are selling their home first before starting their new place.”
Retirees Matt and Phyllis Alexander of Richmond, Va., are waiting to sell their home in Virginia before building on the lot they purchased in The Knolls.
Wishing to move closer to family in Hillsborough, the Alexanders chose Fearrington Village based upon certain priorities, including confidence and security in the developer.
“Naturally with the economy where it is and if you’re retired and on a fixed income you want to pay attention to every detail involved in starting any new project,” said Matt Alexander, who has seen confidence plummet in the housing market around the Richmond area.
“We know R.B.,” he said. “He has an excellent reputation in building, and we don’t have to worry about starting a home and wondering if the builder can complete the construction, nor if the amenities will follow through. It’s a secure development to invest in.”
Alexander also calls the natural setting of The Knolls, and walking paths throughout the Village, lifestyle attractions that made Fearrington Village the perfect spot to retire.
“What we really like about The Knolls is that we can build a home that will fit our budget, and still have all the qualities we want in home despite the economy.”
For Fitch, and the Real Estate and Construction Team, a well appointed neighborhood that would reach today’s cautious and careful buyers has taken a year of planning and testing. But for a developer with 35-years in the business, this challenge is just one of the many ways he’s managed to adjust to the buyers’ needs and continue building in the best and worst of times.