Strong buyer demand has put a strain on the available supply of homes in Central Pennsylvania, which has fueled greater competition and driven up home prices but also catapulted homebuilding activity to new heights.
Some of the region’s biggest private builders reported substantial revenue increases last year compared with 2015, with growth expected to continue in 2017.
But with continued housing market expansion comes the problem of finding and retaining employees needed to design, build and sell new homes.
Lancaster-based Charter Homes & Neighborhoods, a perennial powerhouse among builders, recently has focused on expanding its popular mixed-use suburban neighborhood model into the Pittsburgh region. In June, Charter began selling homes in its new Hastings development in South Fayette Township, Allegheny County.
Meanwhile, estate builders like Berks County-based Berks Construction Co. Inc. have branched out to offer more affordable homes to accommodate demand from first-time and move-up buyers. Berks saw its revenue increase more than 70 percent to $53.5 million last year with the launch of its Firefly Homes brand, which now has several active projects in fast-growing Cumberland County.
For this year, Mike Benshoof, president and COO of Berks, projects more than 300 closings and north of $70 million in revenue. Firefly Homes, which specializes in townhomes and single-family homes, accounts for about two-thirds of company revenue.
“Think of us like Toyota and Berks (Homes) as the Lexus,” Benshoof said.
Berks Homes has been around since the early 1970s and focuses on semi-custom homes that can range in price from about $450,000 to $650,000. Firefly, meanwhile, is building townhomes costing in the $175,000 to $250,000 range and single-family homes that average about $225,000 to $325,000.
The West Shore has been a strong driver of recent activity for the company, especially in the popular Cumberland Valley School District. However, Benshoof said the company is starting to see a shift toward the Carlisle area as Cumberland Valley prices have gone up. Olde Forge Station is a development that Berks is undertaking in South Middleton Township.
Despite the population growth in Cumberland County, which has led all counties this decade, Benshoof said there are still plenty of opportunities on the West Shore to add more entry-level homes and new residences for those homebuyers looking for bigger houses.
In a perfect world, he said, the company would create new developments that blend the more affordable homes offered by Firefly with the larger homes that Berks builds. That goal could be realized next year, he said.
“It’s about finding the best land opportunity that makes sense for us,” he said.
Managing multiple projects, especially in a rising market in which development opportunities are knocking, can be equally challenging, Benshoof said.
For Berks, a growing market means a bigger staff. Over the last 15 or 16 months, the company has hired about 30 people and its workforce is now up to more than 80. But finding people hasn’t been easy as many builders laid off staff during the recession and many experienced people didn’t return to the industry when the market began to recover.
“Trying to find people with aptitude and behavioral traits, you almost have to train people from scratch,” Benshoof said.
Berks has focused on trying to recruit from schools with construction management programs, though most of its successful recruiting efforts have come from employee referrals.
“The blue-collar stuff in Central Pennsylvania has been a little bumpy, but we’ve been fortunate,” he said.
Building framers can be tough to find sometimes. And as it is for many commercial builders, finding talented estimators also is a challenge for homebuilders.
The Berks’ owners have talked about using professional recruiters and possibly social media as a way to attract people, Benshoof added. But they haven’t pulled the trigger yet on those alternatives.
“Whether we have an open position or not, we’re always willing to talk to talented people,” he said. We’re always recruiting so we’re not in crisis mode.”
Charter Homes also is taking steps to broaden its outreach efforts and grow its team of about 130 people. The company finished 2016 with nearly $127 million in revenue, up about 44 percent from 2015.
It is planning to use social media more heavily to connect with people who may not know what the company does, President Rob Bowman said.
Much of Charter’s messaging has traditionally focused on attracting homebuyers. But Bowman believes a lot of that content and the company’s continued growth may also entice more job applicants.
The company just hired two people who recently moved into Charter neighborhoods. The expansion into western Pennsylvania could play a big role in Charter’s ongoing development.
Bowman wants Charter to become a national builder focused on sprawling mixed-use developments that incorporate a variety of housing types and businesses, with walkable and community spaces that appeal to people of all ages.
To get there, Charter will need to continue hiring architectural designers, neighborhood sales managers and builders.
“For us, it’s a little more than just finding people to do the work,” he said. “We’re looking for people who value what they do and people that buy into creating special places.”