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D-B Custom Home Builders The Dearborn-Buckingham Group, Inc.


Niche builder sees silver lining in home building market

May 12, 2007

Not since the early 1980s, when the new home industry was mired in recession, has there been so much glum talk among developers and home builders.

Front office layoffs, declining construction employment and the sale of excess land reflect a drop in home sales blamed by some industry economists on sub-prime mortgages, swollen inventories and a potential buyer market thinned by the historically high sales volumes of recent years.

However, there are those who view a somewhat better picture.

"New home sales would benefit from less negative screaming," said Christopher F. Coleman, founder and president of The Dearborn-Buckingham Group based in Northfield. "Not every year can be a record year for sales, and this 'Chicken Little' philosophy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Coleman's firm is a successful niche custom builder currently focused on developing 186 upscale townhouses on in-fill residential sites in Lombard, Des Plaines and Mundelein.

"We had 40 closings in 2006, and we'll do the same or better for 2007," he said. "Our target is sustaining a volume of 40 to 60 units a year, and we consistently meet it."

He cited the presence of national public companies, under pressure to perform, as partially responsible for some of the industry's current problems in suburban Chicago, which historically was dominated by independent local builders.

"It's only been in recent years that national firms became a significant factor here," Coleman said. "Public companies must build 'spec' homes to meet their numbers, while most private firms build a home when a contract is signed."

"Even though dwarfed by housing giants, the independent entrepreneurial developer can still make an impact in the Chicago market by building smaller, more intimate in-fill communities," he said.

The Dearborn-Buckingham Group is an example of a small niche operation that succeeds despite the giants.

"We concentrate on in-fill townhouses because of a pent-up demand in select locations. Large companies are only now looking for such sites," Coleman said. "It's hard for them to make it economically feasible to develop small properties. It's profitable for a small company like ours because we're geared to smaller volumes."

His company is specializing in luxury townhouses geared to professionals, singles, couples and what he calls the "newly empty-nester."

"These are relatively young people whose kids just got married or the youngest is off to college," he said. "They are working and active, but they want to down-size with something maintenance-free."

Buckingham Orchard in Lombard offers 34 townhouses base priced from $362,900 to $413,900.

Three floor plans range from 1,730 to 1,750 square-feet with two to four bedrooms, a convertible loft, 2½ baths, central air conditioning and an attached two-car garage.

A full 9-foot deep basement is available in either standard or look-out configuration, depending on the home site. When finished as additional living space, the basement can increase the townhouse living area to about 2,400 square feet.

"We also offer a finished basement option that includes a bedroom, a full bath and a rec room," Coleman said. "One plan's flexibility interchanges the downstairs family room and the second floor master suite."

A fully-furnished model unit showcases a selection of optional features.

Buckingham Orchard is at Pleasant Lane and Old Route 53, a half mile south of North Avenue and east of Interstate 355.

Two developments are under way on Touhy Avenue, between River and Mannheim Roads, in Des Plaines. All but seven of 44 townhouses, priced from the $390,000s, are sold at Buckingham Pointe. Sales will begin this summer for the adjacent Buckingham Courte, where 18 new townhouses will be priced from the $420,000s.

Sales begin in June for 90 rowhouse-style townhouses priced from tehe $270,000s at Belden Place, Allanson Road, a half mile west of Butterfield Road, in Mundelein.

"The 17-acre site will have extensive ponds and water features at the monument entrance," he said.

Three 2½-story plans will range from 1,800 to 2,000 square-feet with to four bedrooms and 1½ to 3½ baths. A rear deck will overlook a motor court, which avoids the "alley look" with a landscaped center promenade.

"I am upbeat about the market, the year, and our position," Coleman said. "The key to our success is the stability and consistency provided by our small, close-knit staff and the fiscal restraint which controls overhead."

His optimism is rooted in a realistic assessment.

"Overall inflation is in check, interest rates are stable, the Dow is up and the Chicago economy is strong," he said. "If you're providing a good value, are sensitive to the buyer and appeal to his lifestyle, you will sell."

Coleman, 39, earned his bachelor's degree from Northwestern University in 1989, a year after he had joined The Zale Group, suburban builders and developers, as a marketing analyst. He advanced to director of marketing before leaving in 1991 to become division sales and marketing manager for an Orlando, Fla., home builder.

He moved again in 1994 when he joined John Wieland Homes in Atlanta as regional sales and marketing manager. In 1996 he married his college sweetheart, Suzanne, also a Northwestern graduate. The couple returned to Chicago, where Coleman made the decision in 1997 to start his own company and began to build single-family custom homes on in-fill sites.