As part of its monthly Icon series, Florida Trend magazine had Art Levy interview 84-year-old Arthur Rutenberg, founder of Arthur Rutenberg Homes, based in Clearwater. Here are Rutenberg's thoughts on how we got into this real estate crisis, whether a home should be considered an investment, and what to expect if your barber tells you he just bought three condos.
• One time we were sitting around and, literally, my younger brother Dan started drawing on the back of an envelope. He put the master bedroom over to one side and created an entry into the dining room. He was trying to come up with a plan with almost no hallways to provide more square footage of livable space. What he did was develop the first split floor plan.
• I'm not very much of a political animal, but if I were, my pet peeve would be the amount of government. It can get ludicrous. Approximately one-fourth of every dollar spent on a house has to do with government.
• My father came over to this country in 1903 from what is now Poland, but it was Lithuania at that time. They kept moving the border around. He was 11 years old and worked for a nickel a day. Eventually, he owned his own retail store.
• My first business I started when I was 21 with three of my brothers, a retail business, housewares, gifts, and later it morphed into furniture. We made a living. What I learned was it took about the same length of time to sell a $10 item as a $300 item. So I learned that selling higher-priced items is probably a better business than selling low-priced items. That's what pushed me into wanting to build houses.
• Lots today are selling for somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent less — sometimes worse — than they were before, and homes are about one-third less. If you have a lot of product around, you're just taking a hit right now.
• As an old guy, I've been in this business in every cycle since World War II, and this is certainly the deepest and longest cycle we've had.
• Why did it happen? It happened because credit was easy. More homes were being bought by investors than we understood. When your barber tells you he just bought three condominiums, you might expect the markets are a little bit askew.
• The lesson we usually learn from something like this is, nobody learns. But if you are going to learn anything, it's when assets are running up in price, you have to know when to get off the train.
• Flying is about the only hobby I still have. I still fly myself, although every year at my physicals the FAA gives me a hard time because I'm reasonably bionic. I've had five bypasses and a couple of stents. But I'm still licensed to fly. What I fly now is a little Cirrus SR22, just a nice single-engine airplane. It's a flying computer, is what it really is. You go in there and press the buttons and it flies.
• The split plan worked partly because of what was intended — more livable space — but it also became very popular that you could have a little separation from the kids.
• I'm not an architect or really too great at designing houses, but I know when I look at a house plan if it'll work.
• Nobody had money during the Depression. My mother was a piano teacher. She would teach the dentist's kids piano, and he would fix our teeth. I had a very industrious upbringing. You learned to work.
• It's not like you get this one big hit, this one big lucky break, and that's how you find success. You have to earn your wings every day. What you've done last week is nice, but if you're building resources that can be brought to bear again, that's the trick.
• After high school, I wanted to go to an engineering school, but Northwestern's engineering school didn't at that time take many Jewish kids because they couldn't place them. There was too much of a bias then toward Jewish employees in the engineering field. I went to the school on a Saturday to look around, and I ran into a guy who wanted to know what I was doing wandering around the halls. No one else was there. I told him I was thinking about applying and so he took me for a walk around. We sat in his office and talked and he asked me if I wanted an application. He handed me one, and he initialed it. I found out later he was the dean of the school, so I got in.
• My father, being from Eastern Europe, liked his meat well done. In Eastern Europe, if there's any hint of pink or red showing, that means it's not done, so we had well-done meat. In my household, you didn't waste food. You sat there, and you ate it.
• To buy a house because it's an investment is probably, in my opinion, not the best reason to buy a house.
• I think Texas has shown us that to some extent if government can get out of the way, things can get better. If we could do that same thing in Florida, I think it's going to be all good.
Times Publishing's Florida Trend magazine comes out monthly. Visit floridatrend.com to read more interviews in its Icon series.