On the House: Housing downturn, at high end

There's not a whole lot of residential construction going on these days, which is the reason that some builders are cutting to the bone to survive, while others are sailing into Bankruptcy Court, leaving broken dreams in their wake.

In normal times, builders produce about 1.7 million units of housing annually. Today, there are 2.1 million vacant houses nationwide.

It will be some time until that surplus is reduced enough for large-scale home building to resume. So you would think that those people still able to build custom houses would have their pick of builders and subcontractors. Lower material prices, too.

But that wasn't Christine Biben's experience as she and husband Eugene spent two years navigating recession-tossed waters en route to a $2 million-plus custom-built house in Merion Station.

"If we could have postponed it, we would have, because what happened to the economy during that time frightened us," Biben said as she took a break from unpacking belongings in the new house - built with features such as an elevator that will accommodate the couple's changing physical needs as they age, as well as encourage more frequent visits by an elderly parent.

As owners of the venerable Joseph E. Biben Sales Corp. on Washington Avenue in Philadelphia, Eugene (who is also an economist) and Christine Biben represent some of the largest manufacturers of electronic and electrical equipment in the business. They have a front-row seat on the economy.

And when they signed a contract in 2007 with a builder, Murphy Homes, that promised their house would be ready April 24, 2009, the world looked OK.

"We've built two other houses at the Shore," Christine Biben said. They knew that some things likely would take twice as long to finish as they expected, but that was the only caveat.

As it turned out, Murphy came through on the promise of an April 24 completion date. The economy, on the other hand, did not.

"We've watched our clients and customers cut back and lay off employees," she said. "We grew very fearful."

What the Bibens saw at work followed them home. "It was an amazing experience," she said. "As things slowed down, product availability became limited."

Suppliers Murphy had used for years - the fireplace vendor, for one - went out of business. Fortunately, subcontractors who weren't as busy as they had been before the downturn were able to handle changes and keep the project on schedule.

Prices didn't drop, though. Locking into a base cost on paper doesn't mean the cost won't change as plans do.

"Everything is an 'upgrade,' meaning more expensive," Christine Biben said.

A few days after the new house was finished, the sale of the Bibens' old house closed. That house, which had been on the market since October, sold for $960,500.

"Two years ago, we probably could have gotten a couple of hundred thousand more," she said.

 


"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.

Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens is the author of "Remodeling on the Money" (Kaplan Publishing). His home-improvement columns appear Fridays in Home & Design.

Real Estate Tools
Looking for a new home? Search Philadelphia real estate »
Browse Recent Home Sales »
Compare Philadelphia mortgage rates »