`Economy of scale' guides homebuilders in today's market

On the billboards along the expressways leading north to the sprawling suburbs of Dallas, new houses are hawked as aggressively as hamburgers are in other places. ``From the low 80s!'' some of the signs exclaim. ``This exit! Turn right, and right again.'' Or whatever. The great American housing machine absorbs empty land the way a sponge soaks up a puddle on the kitchen table. The sprouting of subdivisions in the vast acreages off the offramps seems as inexorable as the leafing out of the trees in spring. But whatever your feelings about being part of the great suburban wave, there is a lot to be said, from the point of view of basic value, for buying a new developer-built house.

The new Hunter's Ridge subdivision here in north Plano is still mostly a gleam in the developer's corporate eye.

The surrounding terrain is all pretty flat. Across the road, in a puddle-filled corner of a large lot, a wooden sign proclaims, ``Site of future shopping center.'' At a small airport a short distance up the way, light planes flutter in and out like so many outsized butterflies.

The developer of Hunter's Ridge is Fox & Jacobs, the Texas branch of Centex Homes, one of the top five homebuilders in the country, with operations in 21 cities, mostly across the Southern tier of states. Centex Corporation has headquarters in Dallas.

``The most home for the money,'' has been the firm's slogan. The average price of a Centex house is $78,000. What this buys, typically, is a 3-2-2 house -- running 1,400 to 1,600 square feet, with three bedrooms, two baths, and a two-car garage -- on a lot a little smaller than a quarter-acre.

It isn't a strictly apples-to-apples comparison, but the latest US Commerce Department statistics (for February) show the median price of a single-family new home to be $83,200. (The median price is that which half the houses sold are above and half below.) The average new single-family home in February sold for $101,300.

How do developers like Centex do it?

They ``presell for future delivery,'' for one thing, says Richard Sconyers, president of the Dallas Metroplex division of Fox & Jacobs. They also rely on their own building crews, rather than subcontractors.

Each house is the complete responsibility of a single Fox & Jacobs crew -- ``from pouring the foundation through the final walkthrough,'' as Sconyers puts it -- although of course different parts of the crew perform different functions.

``There is a fairly rigid schedule to be adhered to.''

Framers, for example, frame two houses a day. The crews move inexorably down a street, turning vacant lots into houses. Fox & Jacobs officials speak of ``production efficiencies'' and ``economies of scale'' but draw the line firmly at any references to ``assembly lines.''

Says Sconyers, ``We'll build 2,700 to 2,800 houses this year -- and that's in the ballpark of what we did last year.''

Centex can also pass along to buyers the savings they get by buying carpet by the acre and plumbing fixtures by the gross.

The company also owns its own mortgage company, offering competitive rates and the option for buyers of ``locking in'' an attractive lending rate for a house that won't be ready for a few months down the line.

Among the general features Fox & Jacobs offers are solid oak cabinets in the kitchen, with a choice of finishes; chair rails; wall-to-wall nylon carpeting; ``cultured'' marble for bathroom counters -- a composite made of crushed marble powder and a resin.

All garages are finished, and utility rooms are in the houses themselves.

Among the special architectural features that have caught on among Fox & Jacobs buyers: ``swing rooms'' -- spaces that can be used in more than one way. In one of the model houses, Mr. Sconyers shows off a small room just off the master bedroom. An individual buyer of this floor plan can opt to wall this room off from the master bedroom, to make it a small bedroom for a child, or to connect it with the master bedroom.

Also big are sloping ceilings, up to a maximum of 16 feet high, in living and dining rooms. There's also a trend to ``openness and less separation, less defining of rooms,'' says Sconyers.

Energy efficiency is also important, of course. Here are some specific standard features for Fox & Jacobs houses:

Windows are double insulated and double paned.

All ducts for heating and cooling are in the hallways, where the ceilings are a foot lower than in the rooms. That is, the ducts are in ``conditioned space'' rather than the unheated (or uncooled) attic.

Houses are laid out with the sun in mind. In Texas, this means taking care to gentle the burning afternoon rays. One way Fox & Jacobs does this is to put the garage on the west side of the house to serve as an insulator.

Houses include central air conditioning and heating, along with a heat pump, for heating and cooling.

Bathrooms include water-saving toilets and showers that are equipped with regulators to restrict excessive water use.

Exterior doors are in effect a ``sandwich'' of two wooden panels with a layer of insulating polyurethane in between.

Hunter's Ridge, with prices within just a few thousand dollars of the $100,000 mark, is a little more expensive than the classic Centex ``starter homes.'' The company builds in a price range of $60,000 to $135,000, and builds single-family homes exclusively. The company has moved into such innovations as the two-master-bedroom home, intended for unrelated housemates.

Fox & Jacobs does a lot of business with first-time buyers but also those who are ``trading up,'' sometimes into what the firm calls ``life-style homes.'' (Don't worry, this just refers to houses that appeal to people who want as much house as possible but don't want to bother mowing a lawn.)

``How much individual choice do you get with a house like this?'' you may be wondering at this point. ``I don't want to live in a place that's a clone of the house next door, and the house after that, and the house after that.''

Well, there is, shall we say, a family resemblance among the floor plans, but Sconyers points out that Hunter's Ridge offers five basic floor plans, each with three different elevations.

You have options when you buy a Fox & Jacobs home -- but ``not so many you get confused,'' says Clark Mitchell, vice-president of sales for the Dallas Metroplex Division of Fox & Jacobs.

In the sales office at Hunter's Ridge there is a choice of 20 shades of brick -- brick over wood frame being the prevailing style -- with names like ``cinnamon'' or ``Sierra.'' The company tracks which houses are getting which bricks, so that the buyer of a ``cinnamon'' house doesn't have to worry about having six other ``cinnamon'' houses nearby.

There is usually a decision to be made on the particulars of the fireplace, too. (Fireplaces are such an attractive feature at resale time that even people who don't really like them order them.)

With these weighty decision under their belts, the buyer(s) can move on to consider other options, such as whether their wall-to-wall carpeting should be ``chamois'' or ``toast brown'' or some other trendy hue.

If it's a couple buying a house the wife may find herself making the decisions solo after the husband tunes out. ``Generally,'' says Mr. Mitchell, ``the husband picks the fireplace and the brick, and then he's through.''

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