“Five hundred twenty four people in church last Sunday,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s a personal thing; you quantify things. It’s good for background in buying land and figuring out the sewer lines and everything else. Even though we have engineers on-site, it helps to be an engineer to oversee everything.”
Given how well Wick’s number-crunching has served the Columbus, Ohio, homebuilding company he cofounded in 1982, it’s a pretty safe assumption that, give or take a few congregants, he was on target about Sunday’s service. Same as when he evaluates the housing markets in the counties of the greater Columbus region and anticipates that Rockford Homes can build 210 houses in 2017 as well as 20 to 30 condo units and a few multifamily dwellings.
That’s quite a decrease from the 500 or so homes that Rockford built annually during the early 2000s boom, but a nice rebound from the Great Recession of decade ago, when that number fell well under 100 and consumed so many competing builders.
Today’s outlook is unquestionably better, but good times or bad, Wick warns it can be a tricky housing market in greater Columbus. The nation’s 15th largest city, with a population just over 850,000, Ohio’s capital has been showing increased housing demand for years, but demographics have put the emphasis on buying rather than building.
As The Columbus Dispatch wrote in February, for eight straight years new homes have accounted for less than 10 percent of central Ohio’s home sales. Buyers don’t need to build, not with so many modestly-priced homes built 12 to 15 years ago. Add that factor to the rising price of land in a region of modest incomes, and builders better be wary of spec construction.
Not down for the count
But there’s a particular demographic well worth pursuing, Wick says. At least for now, in this part of the heartland, families are “recombining.”
The kids may be through with college, but their student loans and the challenges of getting established in the workplace may have them ensconced in the family basement for longer than they might prefer. Or with lifespans growing longer but health costs ever increasing, the parents’ parents may move in. Meanwhile the breadwinner or breadwinners need their own living space as excess familiarity doesn’t always breed comfort.
“You might have seven people in the house, and they’ll need 3,000 square feet,” says Wick. “That’s become our strongest market, at least for now—the move-up home for $400,000.”
But even that trend comes with the caveat: at least for now. Mindful of supply vs. demand, Wick says he’s counting the number of lots he’s developing. And while the company will build condos and multifamily units, its stock in trade remains the single-family home, be it the pricy move-ups in demand or the more modest dwellings that could again be needed.
“Multifamily housing may be the icing on the cake, but homebuilding remains the big horse,” Wick says. “That’s where we make our money.”
Though Rockford Homes is a high-volume builder, Wick knows when too much is too much. He spurns the term “subdivision” in favor of “neighborhood” and limits the number of lots in even the most desirable communities.
It’s possible that he could sell more than the 36 houses planned for the upscale Harvest Point neighborhood still under development in the affluent Columbus suburb of Powell. Wick says this development offers everything a move-up area can boast: excellent schools, community feel, green space, access to cosmopolitan Columbus as well as countryside, and lots that can accommodate large houses. But too many lots would threaten such charms, not to mention tilting that supply-demand balance in the wrong direction.
“It’s a unique small neighborhood and we’ll keep it that way,” Wick says. “Subdivision is a no-no; people want the identity of a small development, but one that still may come with the security of a subdivision.”
And when those 36 lots are full, there could be a unique look to the neighborhood, he says, adding that Rockford offers an array of modern and traditional styles, its own design center where each client has a personal representative, conferences from pre-permitting to completion, and preferred lenders who can expedite the financing.
“We humanize the process,” Wick assures. “We match a smiling face to each customer. The design center is probably the most pleasant part of the process.”
Close to home
Like all of Rockford’s developments, Wick won’t have to drive far to see Harvest Point progress. All the houses Rockford puts up are within driving distance of the company’s north Columbus headquarters.
“An hour’s drive is the farthest we’ll go,” Wick says. “You need to be looking at your work; you can’t do it all from the office. We’re looking at our operation all the time so we can keep tuning it up.”
That kind of hands-on management was among the factors that garnered Rockford the prestigious Irving E. Schottenstein Builder of the Year Award, in January. Selected by committee and named after a late Columbus area builder, the award recognizes a central Ohio builder for encouraging the American dream of home ownership, maintaining professional and ethical standards and a commitment to public service.
Building better community
Rockford Homes has long given back to community in its day-to-day operations. Other builders might undertake a project when work is slow, but Rockford collaborates with organizations such as Homeport (formerly the Columbus Housing Partnership) and the Community Housing Network, acting not just as a builder-developer in subsidized housing projects, but as a fundraiser too, and in the process cutting its fees.
Such collaborations have long been part of Rockford’s overall business model since Wick and the late Robert Yoakam Sr. founded the company. When Yoakam’s son, Robert Yoakam Jr., died of cancer in May 2015, Wick took over as president, assuring that the company wouldn’t venture far from what made it central Ohio’s largest family-owned homebuilder.
Two years later, Rockford Homes seems to be in good hands.
Wick believes even better days are ahead, made possible by Rockford not straying from its basics: carefully calculating the market, staying close to the operation at all levels, being responsive to the needs of clients and guaranteeing its workmanship.
In other words, just being accountable.
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