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Home / Features / Bill Saint: The elusive president of the Home Builders Association of Charlotte speaks his piece

Bill Saint: The elusive president of the Home Builders Association of Charlotte speaks his piece

MINT HILL – On the Level begs to differ.

Saint. Photo by Tony Brown

Saint. Photo by Tony Brown

Bill Saint, president of Classica Homes, which in three years of existence has become one of Charlotte’s busiest luxury homebuilders, always turned us down.

“I’m not interesting enough to interview,” Saint would say. “Besides, I like to keep the focus on our teamwork at Classica and not on me personally.”

We finally had him cornered when he became 2014 president Home Builders Association of Charlotte, and appealed to his sense of camaraderie.

Bill, we said, you don’t have to talk about yourself. Talk about the HBAC, about the thousand or so homebuilders and remodelers who belong to it, and about all the people who work for Classica.

True to form, the 47-year-old native Michigander went on and on, and ardently, too, about everybody else.

We did manage to learn a few things about the man himself during our 45-minute talk at the more expensive ($800,000) of Classica’s two model homes in Cheval, the tony horse farm-themed subdivision in Mint Hill.

He earned a degree in accounting at the University of Michigan and worked as a certified public accountant at Arthur Andersen before moving to Charlotte in 1990.

He got into homebuilding in 1992, and two years later was in on the founding, along with Ray Killian and Alan Simonini, of Simonini Builders Inc. It was one of Charlotte’s premiere single-family construction companies until the three called it quits in 2011 and started their own businesses. Classica was Saint’s.

He is married, to Terri, who chooses all the interior finishes for Classica’s houses and decorates all the model homes. “She’s in charge of the magic,” Saint said. They have two children: Harrison, about to turn 18 and bound for the University of South Carolina, and Hayley, 13.

He is very, very passionate about homebuilding, about the HBAC, and about Classica.

That, as you are about to find out, is plenty interesting enough.

Give me three good reasons someone should join the HBAC. The first is marketing for our members. Specifically, the Parade of Homes, which starts this year on April 25 and goes for three weekends. It’s an opportunity for every builder to enter a model home or a spec home or even just a new plan, and it raises the awareness of all the opportunities to buy a new home. Inventory is low right now, but there are plenty of specs out there to sell. The Parade is advertised for you through billboards, radio, TV and our website, which drives great traffic. About three years ago, we made the website very dynamic. You can drop a home in your cart and the best route to get there from where you are will pop up. Add six or 10 homes, and it will give you the best route to see them all.

And isn’t there another similar thing the HBAC does, the HomeArama? That always cracks me up, like Dan Aykroyd and the Bass-O-Matic. How is it different from the Parade of Homes? Ha. HomeArama is a big show of homes in one neighborhood that raises awareness of the builders and the neighborhood it’s in. The next one will be next fall. The Parade of Homes is all over the city.

Marketing. There’s one reason for joining. Homebuilders associations also do good advocacy for the industry. We’re a sounding board and voice for builders and remodelers, on the local, state and national levels. We were involved when the state legislature passed House Bill 74 last year, the rules-review legislation to look at all the rules out there to make sure there aren’t a lot of old ones that don’t make sense any more. There was one that designated gravel as an impervious surface. Now that that the rule has been reviewed, it’s a pervious surface.

Porous pebbles are a good reason to join, I guess. Water does go through gravel, and that made stormwater management requirements fairer for our members. We do a lot of local (government) things, too. In Huntersville, the postmaster had this big centralized mailbox push, in single-family neighborhoods. There would have been no mail at the front door, or even in a mailbox on the street. You would have to go to a neighborhood mail area. They were trying to do this for existing communities, too, not just new ones. That got stopped, and the Charlotte Home Builders Association was central to that. No one builder or remodeler has the resources to do something like that on our own.

Advocacy. That’s two reasons. The last one is networking, and it is truly that: bringing builders and remodelers together. We have monthly dinner meetings and events and trips. You can feel like you are part of a larger organization and learn something new, information I never could get as an individual builder. The 20 people on our board have an incredible depth of experience and knowledge base that they put to work for our members – homebuilders to developers to people running real estate firms. The sharing of information is one of our biggest missions.

Give us an example of sharing information. Right now we’re in the middle of working with UNC Charlotte on a market-to-market salary study; they’re conducting it for the HBAC. It’s something we’ve been trying to do for three years. It’s going to provide our members who participate with an idea of what people who work at new residential real estate firms earn, in a way that’s really useful.

Why would a salary study be useful to a homebuilder? Think about it: As a builder in a growing market, we’re going to be adding a lot of people this year. The builder really needs to know, “Where is the market for a supervisor, or an accountant, or a salesperson?” In the past, we have gotten information from studies comparing different markets and tried to make it work for Charlotte. You get what one person makes in Cleveland, one person in Charlotte and one person in Kansas, and there’s no way in there that lets you see what you need to know about average salaries in the Charlotte market. This salary study will help position our members for growth.

If you’re a member of the HBAC, part of your dues goes to the N.C. Home Builders Association, and to the National Association of Home Builders. What’s the value in that? Let me give you an example. I was part of a group of five builders and remodelers from Charlotte that went to Washington, D.C., for an annual “legislative day.” Hundreds and hundreds of builders from all over the country, all there on a tactical mission to learn about the legislative process and how it can affect this industry. I thought I was going to be wandering around, knocking on doors and meeting a couple of congressmen, maybe a senator. But it turned out to be a real opportunity to tell national legislators what is really happening in the field, so they know what the real issues are. It started with Sen. (John) McCain (R- Ariz.), at 7 (a.m.) and then just one appointment after the other until 5:30 (p.m.). It was really useful.

You’ve talked about a lot of basic communications issues so far. What does the HBAC have to communicate? One challenge is how to communicate the value of buying a new home right now.

How do you communicate that? One thing is home mortgage interest rates. They’re incredibly low right now, but we don’t really know how to communicate how much that means. People tend to think that even if interest rates go up 1 percent, to 5 percent, that it is still a great deal; it’s still a lot better than when it was 9 percent. If it goes up another point to 6 percent, that’s still a great rate, you think. But what most people don’t realize that if your mortgage rate goes up 1 percent, your monthly payment goes up 12 percent, whether it’s a $300,000 or an $800,000 house. Twelve percent more in payments, and you don’t even get a pool with that.

Ha. So now is the right time to buy. If rates were to go up two points, it would be like you’re getting a 25 percent discount if you buy now. Another thing is collectively sending a message about the value of a new home versus a pre-owned home. New homes are an incredible value. Look at the figures, and pre-owned homes were up 7 or 8 percent last year. New home prices are going up, but not nearly that much.

Why is that? Builders are in business. We’re trying to sell multiple houses. Owners are trying to get every last penny out of one house at a time. Someone who bought a $400,000 house is going to try to get $32,000 more for it at an 8 percent annual growth rate. Builders don’t do that. Our prices don’t go up that fast. Another opportunity we have is to communicate how stable Charlotte is, the economy, the growing job base, the fact that companies are relocating here. Homes will appreciate here, up 3 percent to 5 percent a year on average, and when they went down, they did so smoothly and steadily. They’re not going to jump 40 percent and then crash. We’re not a roller coaster like California or Florida. I like to say we’re the Sunday drive here in Charlotte, real easygoing.

Speaking of jobs being created, how many people work for you, are on your payroll? I’m glad you made that distinction. We have 25 people on the payroll, but we employ hundreds of people. People don’t see that, don’t understand just how big an industry this is. I grew up in the Detroit area, near Ann Arbor. You see a lot of factories up there, car factories. These behemoth buildings with their products all lined up outside. You see these places and what they’re making. But in our business, our factories are smaller and they are all over the place; each house we build is a factory, and that’s less visible to people. We have six or seven factories going at any given time.

How did a loyal Wolverine wind up in Charlotte, and how did a CPA wind up in homebuilding? I fell in love with Charlotte and moved here, and got a job as a (chief financial officer) in the medical industry, and I didn’t love it. I got a call from a headhunter for a job with a homebuilder, Centex, to be a controller.

And you fell in love with building homes. When you did, did you enroll in classes to learn the trades? Can you go outside and nail together some planks for me? I’ve got great people who can do that for you. That’s what I love about this, putting together and helping a great team of people. It’s the ultimate opportunity to bring a strong symphony together, one that’s fantastic to see. If one part doesn’t perform brilliantly, it’s awful. But when it is all brilliant, it is beautiful, the framers, the finish carpenters, the architects, the interior designer, the cabinetmaker and drywall installers. That just really turns me on. The other part of it is creating something lasting, that is part of people’s lives. The home that your kids grow up in – that’s pretty lasting. You will remember it for the rest of your lives, and so will they. You just don’t get that with widgets.

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