Lori Garton, 48, president of Lyons Heritage Tampa, was named Builder of the Year this summer by Clearwater-based Arthur Rutenberg Homes, of which Lyons is a franchise. We caught up with her to ask a few questions about building, buying and selling homes in this market.
You aren't the first — or only — woman to be named Arthur Rutenberg Homes' Builder of the Year. But you surpassed 30 other franchises to become this year's winner, and you say you think being a woman gave you an advantage. Tell us about that.
In the semicustom building process sometimes you have to modify and juggle a schedule, and I think women are more accustomed to juggling. We had to do that raising our children, changing plans if a child was sick or something came up.
Women aren't scared to ask questions. I worked at Arthur Rutenberg corporate headquarters for 20 years and built relationships with other people and it never bothered me to pick up the phone and ask for help. Women stop and ask directions.
Women think about the livability of a home: not just "can I build this" but "will it work." We see beyond what's in front of us and look at the results.
Are there skills you use in the workplace that you translate into your life at home?
I grew up with six sisters, and even at corporate, I was working mostly with women at our design centers. Dealing with so many men in my current job has helped me with my sons (ages 18 and 21). Learning how men think helped me understand why Eddie or Ryan think that way. The building process has to be organized, you have to do one thing before you can do another. That helped me organize life at home with the boys, setting priorities.
Give us three reasons why people should buy a home now, when many buyers are skittish about buying in a down market and concerned their home will lose value.
This is the best time to buy a custom home. The costs are not going to get any lower. Nobody's going to build a home and lose money. It's the best time to buy because we want to build. You get to pick your cabinets, pick your homesite, pick your layout. Land prices have come down quite a bit from four or five years ago. You can get the house and location you want.
The trades that are left out there are good trades, because they positioned themselves to get through this. They're survivors.
The third thing is that everyone who's surviving, like ourselves, has used this slow time to work on our processes. We can give the time to the customer, the personal attention the customer deserves. Building isn't a science. We've put processes in place to minimize things that could possibly go wrong. In the height of the building boom everyone lost track of the process and making sure everything was done correctly. Now we've got time.
When you walk a house — your own or another builder's — what are some of the details you look at, the telltale hallmarks of a house that's well built or poorly built? What should buyers look for?
The hardest thing is looking past the decorating. You can camouflage things through decorating. Remove the furniture and say, "Can I live here? Is the kitchen workable? Is the dishwasher accessible?"
Look at the master bedroom: If you don't see a king-size bed in a master, or you see just a twin in a secondary bedroom, that's a problem. Are the windows placed correctly? Sit down on the couch: Is the TV in an area where you'd feel comfortable?
We always ask people how they're going to use various rooms. If they're going to create an exercise room, we'll make sure the room's big enough for their equipment and there are floor outlets for equipment such as treadmills or steppers.
If somebody's going to use a room as an office, with three computers and a printer giving off all kinds of heat, we want to know in advance so we can provide extra air conditioning in that room.
You should look at a house under construction, before drywall. You need to understand what's behind the walls: insulation, plumbing, electrical wiring.
What's the jobsite like? The vendors and trades shouldn't be eating in the house, shouldn't be smoking in the house after drywall. This will be somebody's house. You wouldn't do it in your house, why do it in their house?
How do you respond to people who express surprise or skepticism when you say you're the builder?
That kind of response was more prevalent 23 years ago when I started in the business. Sometimes now there's surprise at first — from both men and women — but when I talk to the clients and ease them and relate to them, which gives them a good feeling. They feel I care, I'm going to listen to what the customer wants. There's really nothing women can't do.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Times Homes and Garden editor Judy Stark.