Nearly 25 years after building his first home, Bob Benes still loves the chance to sit down in a conference room and talk with a young couple about their dream space.
“That’s just fun,” he said.
Benes, president of Aspen Builders in Lincoln, along with owners of Lincoln-based Kinning Design Build and Third Generation Builder, say they're having more of those fun conversations these days.
With inventory in Lincoln’s existing-home market at its lowest levels since the mid-1990s, more homebuyers are building new homes, they said.
“People are looking for existing homes, and there’s just nothing there,” said Stephanie Ponce, who honored her family roots in the construction business, starting Third Generation Builder after graduating from Union College in 2009.
Ponce and her subcontractors put up 16 homes last year, when the local Realtors Association reported 600 sales of new homes in Lincoln.
That number is down significantly from levels seen before the so-called housing bubble burst, but officials say Lincoln has recovered well from the recession of the late 2000s, and growth is evident wherever you drive in and around the city.
Aspen Builders is active in Waverly and with its own developments in southeast Lincoln (Village Meadows) and northwest Lincoln (Charleston Heights).
In those areas, Benes said lots are gobbled up even before the streets are in. Buyers are attracted to new neighborhoods that feel like, well, neighborhoods, with homes that have a different look from one to the next, and nearby schools, green space and curved roads.
“I’m just like the buyers, I like character,” said Benes, who says Aspen builds 80 to 90 new homes a year. “Today’s buyers, they want to be close to schools and have easy access to where they work.
“The challenge is to find enough of those places. It seems like we’re running out of places to build.”
That’s yet another sign of an active housing market. Local home sales set an all-time record in 2015, with the Realtors Association of Lincoln reporting 4,704 closed sales. That whipped the previous record of 4,581 set in 2004.
Existing home sales remain the biggest chunk of the total, with 4,104 sales in 2015 marking the fourth year in a row of record sales numbers.
The inventory of homes, however, is at an unprecedented low, with just 845 Lincoln homes on the market at the end of December.
As a result, prices are up. The average price for an existing home sold in 2015 reached an all-time high of $173,000.
Input costs obviously drive the price of new homes, but the cost of sought-after lots and a tight labor market are also factors.
Without enough available labor to meet the demand, Benes said new-home projects that once could be wrapped up in four months now take six.
“I’ve got a plumber with four jobs,” Benes said.
Finding enough skilled labor is a challenge, just as finding a build-ready lot can be tricky, said Mike Kinning of Kinning Design Build.
But those are issues of a growing market, and the interest in building is strong among homebuyers -- young and old.
Ponce has advice for those thinking about building.
“Don’t be scared,” she said. “Go out and meet people, and look for that instance where you mesh with a builder.
“It’s all about the experience. You’re going to be spending the next five to six months together.”
Here's more on the Lincoln builders who discussed the local market in our roundtable interview:
Scouting out Lincoln
From building his first new home for himself and his wife in South Sioux City in 1985, Mike Kinning has had a hand in 350 new homes or major remodeling projects in the Lincoln area.
“We moved in in September and sold it in January,” said Kinning, reflecting on leaving the Sioux City area to create Kinning Design Build in Lincoln.
“We did our homework. We went to Phoenix and scouted that out,” he recalled.
His wife, Mary, had attended college here, and with a months-old son, it seemed like a logical place to look.
Kinning recalled hearing that 270 new homes were constructed in Lincoln in 1985. In the Sioux City area, 37 new homes built went up that year.
That made the decision an easy one, but like everywhere, the Lincoln market has had its ups and downs.
“Obviously in '08, those were some pretty tough times,” Kinning said. “The toughest part of the building business is every year you start over. You have to work hard.”
Self-described custom builders, “90 percent of what we do is something we’ve never done before,” he said. “People may bring three or four plans that they like aspects of, and we try to tie those into the homes of their dreams.”
Kinning Design Build is all in the family. Mary Kinning staffs the office, and son Matt is involved as well.
Their work takes them all over town. On a recent day, following January’s big snow, Mike was checking out a home in the trim stages in The Bridges, a subdivision near Southwest 27th Street and West Denton Road touted for its picturesque views -- there are six ponds -- and energy-efficient homes.
It works best to have five to six homes in the mix at one time, he said. “We’ve got too many right now.” It’s a positive sign for the local market.
“Lincoln’s got a lot of great things going for it,” he said. “When we’re creating more jobs than we’ve got people for, that’s impressive. Plus, it’s a great place to raise a family.”
Out on her own
Stephanie Ponce always thought she would take over Krueger Development, the family business, but her father had other ideas.
“He said, 'You’re going to do your own thing,'” said Ponce, who admitted that it was “kind of scary” at the time.
“My early-on clients were amazing,” she said. “I’m still amazed some of them picked someone 26 years old to build their home.”
Yes, there are challenges as a female builder, but one of the strengths is being able to relate with women during the building process. Often, when couples are building a home, it’s the woman who is doing most of the research and has more questions, Ponce said.
Ponce focuses on mostly starter to middle-class homes. Homebuyers she works with typically start from one of her three floor plans and go from there.
The Andy is the most popular. The Valerie works for retired couples.
Her business got a boost a few years ago when Union Bank featured Ponce in a commercial. Even today, she says random people will recognize her walking the aisles of Home Depot.
A lot of her subcontractors are ones her father used, and they’ve been more valuable than just doing the work. Ponce wanted to learn from them, in part so she could do a lot of the work herself.
"I could hire it out," she said, "but when I close on that house, I want to be able to say I did something."
Ponce lived in the first house she built for five years. She says it's helpful to live in the same neighborhood where she builds homes, in her case, The Woodlands at Yankee Hill.
Third Generation Builder has a dozen homes already underway this year, from south Lincoln to Ponce's first project on the north side of town.
"I'm excited to work in another part of the city."
Building a subdivision
A builder and developer for two decades, Bob Benes still considers himself a farmer.
His rural roots can be traced to west of Lincoln, where his dad was a farmer. His building background began as a remodeler -- buying, fixing up and flipping houses while in college.
He started building single-family homes in 1992, and by the late 1990s was active as a developer.
His business now involves building homes but also overseeing developments such as the 160-acre Village Meadows and the 60-acre Charleston Heights. Benes estimates Aspen Builders put in close to 200 lots last year.
In most cases, Benes will sell off a portion of the lots in his developments to other builders to guarantee a mix of homes and “pay off the debt.”
Village Meadows includes Wysong Elementary, which will open next year near 63rd Street and Yankee Hill Road. The development has a variety of lot sizes and some unique aspects, including a community of what Benes terms “patio homes” for seniors.
While building in southeast Lincoln has exploded, prompting new schools in the area, Benes projects more growth in west Lincoln over time. Charleston Heights is near Kooser Elementary on North 14th Street.
Inside Aspen's office, staff work with prospective clients from picking out a lot to designing the house, focusing on keeping the cost under budget.
"We see a lot of young people who want to build that first home," Benes said. "They have all these ideas from Pinterest and Houzz, so we're able to look at those and work with them to include some neat things.
"But we also see the move-up people coming in. They're very important in that as they build a new home, it opens up a house in Lincoln. We need that inventory."
Today's buyers, Benes said, are very educated about the process, and in a change from years past, many walk in with their down payment already secure in savings.
"That's nice to see," he said.