June 25, 2018
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Coastal builders seeing housing boom in the form of renovations

By Matt Wickenheiser, BDN Staff

HARPSWELL, Maine — David Varney knew he wanted a home on Orr’s Island with livable space inside, room for visitors and a deck offering views of both Casco Bay and Harpswell Sound.

The home he wound up buying fell short of those demands.

So he changed it.

Even before the retiree from the Delaware Valley area of Pennsylvania signed the home purchase papers, he was working with Bruce Leland of Long Cove Builders, imagining what the 1908 cape could become.

For Leland, the work with Varney was part of a growing trend he’s seen developing since 2008 — home buyers settling on a beautiful area of coastal Maine and working with their real estate agents and Long Cove Builders to turn a just-OK home into their dream home.

It’s a relatively new development, said Leland, a twist from the idea of home sellers making renovations to make their home more marketable.

Instead, home buyers are, in essence, settling for the right location and the right basic structure, and then upgrading and factoring those plans into the purchase decision.

“Yes, it’s worth purchasing the property,” said Leland, president of Long Cove Builders. “We can get you what you want.”

In Varney’s case, a deck was paramount. But building one in a spot that could capture the right views was a challenge. A second-story deck off the house was considered, but the sight lines weren’t there. Finally, Varney asked about popping it on top of the garage — an impressive idea that paid off, with some structural strengthening.

Today, Varney has a 14-by-20-foot perch with amazing views. And inside, Leland extended the main staircase, making it less steep and safer, renovated the kitchen, downstairs bathroom/washroom, and did extensive work on the bathroom and bedrooms upstairs.

“I bought the house in April 2011, and immediately turned it over to Bruce,” said Varney. “The things we came up with was as much his as mine.”

The first real estate broker Leland worked with was Georgia Breyer of Morton Real Estate in Brunswick in 2008. She had a homebuyer who wanted to explore potential options post-sale, and Breyer turned to Long Cove Builders. The relationship has continued, and today Leland works with about a half-dozen real estate agents in that capacity.

Breyer said real estate market conditions make this sort of consideration feasible. In the seller’s market that dominated the first half of the last decade, buyers often were in bidding wars.

The market today is somewhat balanced, Breyer suggested, with neither sellers nor buyers having an upper hand. Both parties are interested in making a deal work, she said, and there’s a bit more of a luxury of time involved to make plans and look at possible renovations.

Housing is still affordable, she said, mortgage rates are low, and some loan packages can have funding for home improvements included.

“People can look at a house and be more open to its current potential, rather than passing on that house in hopes of finding the right house,” said Breyer. “Location and general structure give you the bones of your future. If it’s otherwise right for you, there are no perfect houses — there just are none.”

The housing bust played a big part in the decision to pursue this type of work, said Amanda Leland, Bruce Leland’s daughter and director of operations at Long Cove Builders. Prior to 2008, most of the work the company was doing involved home construction and big renovation jobs. But the company was forced to downsize and look for new sources of work when construction plummeted.

“It’s been learning to do the same things we’ve always done, in the confines of the new economy,” she said.

Working with real estate agents and buyers in collaboration with each other was an area they decided to pursue, Amanda Leland said. The work has varied, from jobs like Varney’s to simple bathroom or kitchen renovations, said Bruce Leland.

One of the first jobs came from a couple who wanted a bathroom in the Asian cultural tradition — fully tiled, open shower, soaking tub and a drain in the floor. They put in a big fence, as well, blocking traffic and noise from a nearby road. And they renovated the second floor of the home’s garage, beefing up the structure so the husband’s very heavy record album collection could be stored in the new built-in shelves that Long Cove installed.

On a job site this week, Bruce Leland talked about how the couple started working with him before they bought the ranch-style home. They were considering an addition to provide classroom space for homeschooling and serve as a dance studio, as well. After ongoing discussions with Bruce Leland, they decided to convert the two-car garage into the space they needed.

Bruce Leland said when he starts talking with home buyers, he tends to listen more than talk.

“We listen to what their dreams are, what their ideas are — no matter how crazy,” he said.

Often times, what the soon-to-be homeowners want is possible, only limited by how much money they want to spend, he said. He raises issues with flow inside the home, and asks how they will be using the space.

He said he also tries to get a sense of where they are in the home-owning life cycle. If they likely will be looking to sell the home at some point, he talks to them about how a certain change or addition might affect resale value.

But if the home will be the buyers’ last one, he works with them to consider how easy it is to get around the building, adding improvements to allow them to “age in place,” in the house. These can be as simple as railings in the bathroom to making staircases less steep, as in Varney’s Orr’s Island home.

Today, a majority of the jobs at Long Cove Builders are ones started through discussions with buyers and agents. The business has five to 12 projects going at any one time, said Amanda Leland. And while the company handles big projects, they’re still doing small jobs for customers who have turned to them multiple times over the years, with repairs as simple as replacing screen doors, said Bruce Leland.

All of it adds up to finding business in a challenging economy, he said.

“Hopefully we’ve been a little bit smarter, a little bit wiser,” he added.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an error in two photo cutlines. Kevin Brockett, not Keith Brockett, is an employee with Long Cove Builders.

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