Jack Apple's housing views are built on decades of experience

Jack Apple built his first house during the Truman administration.

Since then, the former Navy cook has built more than 4,000 homes around Tampa Bay. Now 86 years old, Apple has profited from building booms and endured the busts, including the Great Recession that wrecked Florida's housing industry.

More than six decades of experience inform his opinion of what's next for his industry.

"It's just going to be a tough battle for a while," Apple said. "There's a very limited market for new homes."

The only buyers today for newly constructed homes, he said, are people with good jobs and good credit.

"There will be a market for those people," Apple said.

He also sees a future in building smaller, more affordable homes to help revitalize older neighborhoods.

For builders who stick around, Apple offers his old-school business strategy: be honest; never build a home you wouldn't live in; build sales on word-of-mouth references.

"You have to be fair to people," he said. "They're not going to tell their friends if you don't treat them right. "We didn't misuse anybody to get where we are. There's a lot of satisfaction in doing things right."

So much so that he never got around to retiring.

"I just get satisfaction doing work," he said.

Apple came of age in the generation that survived the Great Depression and helped define America after World War II. During prosperous periods in the 1970s and 1980s, Apple Homes built about 200 homes a year.

Times were not always good, but the company survived by keeping overhead low and not overextending its credit. Other companies took more chances; many disappeared.

"I've seen a lot of builders come and go, and sometimes for nasty reasons," Apple said, his voice trailing off.

Apple is well thought of in the business community. Realtor Scott Samuels has known him for more than 40 years.

"He is one of the smartest, gracious and giving businessmen I've ever met," Samuels said. "He takes care of people around him."

Apple headed the former Contractors and Builders Association for many years and built playhouses for the Ronald McDonald House, St. Jude's Cathedral and the Shorecrest Preparatory School.

Linton Tibbetts, the current owner of Tibbetts Lumber and former owner of Cox Lumber, supplied building materials to Apple for more than 40 years. He said Apple used to work nonstop at a desk or on a construction site.

"He is a good contractor but a finer gentleman," the 87-year-old Tibbetts said. "I can't say enough good things about him."

• • •

Apple came to St. Petersburg in 1946 after getting out of the Navy. He saw other veterans flocking to Florida and recognized the need for new homes; indeed, he needed one for himself.

Apple learned carpentry and hand-drew a plan for a home on a vacant lot near 40th Avenue in St. Petersburg. He learned wiring and plumbing from a book he got at Sears. He bought lumber with cash. Working days and nights, he built a two-bedroom home in 60 days. A short time later, he sold it for cash and doubled his investment.

That was the beginning of Apple Homes.

In an interview last week, Apple reflected on a simpler time when lawyers weren't needed at every turn and you could bank on a man's promise.

He recalled the first time he sought a mortgage, for $4,500.

"The banker asked if I would pay it back," he said, smiling. "We sealed an awful lot of deals on handshakes back then."

Those deals led to subdivisions like Shore Acres, Venetian Isles and Yacht Club Estates, built more than 30 years ago.

"I wished I would have sold them for more money," Apple said, laughing. "There's not an ugly house out there."

As the Apple family grew, his five sons entered the business. The boys didn't sit behind desks. They learned carpentry. They learned how to tile. They mowed in the sweltering heat.

"We were inexpensive labor back then," said company vice president Doug Apple, laughing.

Jack Apple follows his own rule about never building a house he wouldn't live in. He lives with his second wife, Norma, in a home he built in Yacht Club Estates in 1965.

For years, the company operated from Apple's house with blueprints scattered on a pool table. It's now run from a small, nondescript office with no signs on First Avenue S. Betty Weihman, a secretary Apple hired 50 years ago, still directs the office like a field general.

Some things have changed.

About 10 years ago, the company downsized, getting out of the subdivision business and turning to custom homes. Apple built about 12 homes last year.

Smaller homes may be the future.

"We have to go back to building Volkswagens," said Doug Apple, 57. "That's where we started."

Phillip Apple, 61, retired from his dental practice and rejoined his dad and brothers to handle development duties. He said his father often calls his sons at 6 a.m. on Sundays to pitch ideas.

"If he's not gaining, he thinks he's falling behind," Phillip Apple said.

Jack Apple has shelved his tool belt, but he still digs holes for yard signs. Vacations and traveling are out of the question — sitting at his desk is too important.

"You never know what you're gonna be doing tomorrow," Apple said. "Dull is not a word we use."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markapuente.

Jack Apple's housing views are built on decades of experience 03/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 11, 2011 10:04pm]

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