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ON THE LEVEL: Wade Miller: Custom homebuilder targets downsizers

Miller.webCustom homebuilder Wade Miller says he has found his niche – the downsizer looking for smaller space.

His company, Copper Builders, has two town home developments in the works. They are Lumina Townhomes, a 13-unit site in South End, and Easton Park, which includes 34 town homes near SouthPark at the corner of Colony and Carmel roads.

Miller has an extensive track record in the real estate business. He is the president of Copper Builders, which he founded last year. Previously, he was a managing partner in Bellamy Homes, which he created in 2007. Before that, he was a project manager at Ryan Homes.

Newly married, the 34-year-old graduated at the top of his class with a degree in mechanical engineering and business from Purdue University in Indiana.  His other residential developments are Salem Springs and Villas at Westport, both in Denver, and Triveny Commons and Cherrytown, in Charlotte.

How did you become a custom homebuilder in Charlotte? After school, some of my friends went to work for a national builder (Ryan Homes) here in Charlotte. They invited me to work for them. I spent some time there learning the ropes. And then, before the downturn, a friend and I had started writing a business plan to start our own building company. So, when the downturn came and a lot of builders were pulling out of communities, there were a lot of opportunities in subdivisions that had easy entry because they needed builders. We had the opportunity to get into some communities that we normally wouldn’t have been able to and start building. We grew when a lot of other builders were shrinking.

How many employees do you have at Copper Builders? Four. Small and efficient.

What is a typical day like for you?  As the owner of a small construction company, I wear a lot of different hats.  I spend a lot of time working in finance. My engineering background has taught me to be very diligent with making sure the numbers are good. I spend time out making sure that construction is going well. We have construction managers, but I like to be very hands-on and involved. I help out the sales team. Construction is really a relationship-driven business. We form good relationships with our customers and that affords more opportunities to build homes. We also have really good relationships with our vendors. There are a million parts that go into a house. I spend a lot of time on relationship building.

Tell us about your new development, Easton Park. Easton Park is luxury town homes in SouthPark. It’s filling a much needed niche for the downsizers that are looking for one-level living that is maintenance-free but still really nice. There’s just not a lot of opportunities for that buyer in Charlotte. We look at this community as filling that specific need. We launched our marketing (Oct. 1) and have had over a hundred phone calls. There are 34 town homes there. We’ll start building the houses in the spring. There’s a lot of site work to do before then. Each town home averages 3,000 to 3,300 (square) feet with two-car garages, a master bedroom downstairs, a brick exterior and covered porch. There’s a large pond on the property, maybe a couple of acres, and we’re going to make that our main amenity, building trails around it. The homes are selling in the high $600s. That’s where they start, and go up to $800,000.

Tell us about the donation of a house that you made to (the ABC TV show) Extreme Makeover. It was three years ago and the house was in Lincolnton. I had met the producers from the show two years prior at a homebuilder show. I hounded them for two years to try and get them to come to Charlotte. I’m somewhat involved in the nonprofit sector so we were sending them families that we thought would be a really good fit for the show.  We finally found this one family, the Fridays, who have fostered a ton of kids and adopted several as well.  There were ten of them living in a 1,800-square-foot house.  We raised money and built a house for them in a week. The premise of the show is that we tear down a house on a Sunday and then by the next Sunday we rebuild a whole new house for them. We had 3,000 volunteers working around the clock. Belmont Abbey College gave scholarships to the kids. We ended up raising over $2 million for the family. The new house was over 4,000 square feet with seven bedrooms.

What are some of the biggest issues facing custom homebuilders now? Labor shortage. Now that the market has come back and is doing well again, there is really a shortage of labor and people in our industry. During the downturn, a lot of people left our industry. We’ve seen a lot of vendors, such as framers, heating and cooling guys, electricians, not really ramping back up to where they were prior to the downturn. Everybody is cautious, so there is a real shortage of good labor.

Any regulatory issues? I know that there is some discussion about consolidating the county and the city a little bit better. There are some discrepancies between city and county requirements. Bringing together the planners so they are integrated under one roof would really help things flow smoothly.

Has the tightening of the mortgage industry affected your business? Not particularly. We’ve seen a large number of cash buyers as of recently. While mortgages are tougher, in our upper end it affects our clients a lot less.

Why did you decide to go out and create your own company, Copper Builders? It’s a desire to do things your own way. I’ve done a lot of work for the downsizers and I feel it’s a nice niche that nobody is focusing on exclusively.

Do you have any advice for anyone getting into the homebuilding business? Plan for long hours. It’s a dynamic business that takes a lot of different talents, from sales and marketing to construction and quality. It’s a business that takes a lot of different skills. So, be well rounded.

Why do you do what you do? I fell in love with real estate while in college; for whatever reason I really like creating the American dream, growing a business and providing people with a place to live. It’s really nice to take a raw piece of dirt and turn it into a home for somebody. It gives you a great sense of pride.

What is the process you go through to build homes? The first step is typically working out a purchase of the property, then you’ll do a feasibility study to determine if the project is viable. You want to look at the strength of the market in that segment. You want to feel comfortable that if you build it you can sell it. Then you can start planning. A lot of times the site will need to be rezoned. The rezoning process can take six to eight months. Then you do some neighborhood  approvals. After that you get grading permits and you can start with the horizontal infrastructure, streets, sewer and water, utilities. Once that’s in, you can go vertical and build the house. We build in four or five months.

Have you had opposition to any of your communities? No. At Easton Park, we worked closely with the community. We had a lot of interest with people wondering what we were proposing. We had a lot of meetings with them and got a lot of feedback from the neighbors on the project. We incorporated that so everybody was on board with it. I think if you work closely with the neighbors you won’t get opposition.

Where do you see the custom homebuilding industry going in the future? After the downturn, people realized they didn’t need quite so much space. People are looking for a smaller, high-quality home. People realize that big homes cost a lot to maintain. Also, if it’s designed well and different spaces can be used for different things. For example, a laundry room that is also a home office, where that space serves two purposes.

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