Spec Builder to the End

The planets had aligned; he had the money, the land was beautiful, it was large enough for almost 30 homes, and he could afford to let it sit for 10 or 15 years. So Larry Gage seized the opportunity, bought the land and 25 years later is building the 12th home in the community known as The Estates at Valhalla, which sits in a canyon surrounded by a forest in Morris County, N.J.

Larry Gage, owner of The Gage Organization, is building luxurious spec homes on 3- to 4-acre lots, and selling them for between $3.5 and $5 million. But these are no ordinary spec homes. Each estate is custom designed and fully furnished with half a million dollars in bedding, furniture, artwork, decorations and hundreds of other details that make a house a home.
“I’ve owned this land since 1985. I put developing it on hold until the timing was right,” Gage says. “There has been quite a lot of expense in site improvements, walls, excavations. We had to make sure we would be able to get my money out of the land and be able to build high-quality houses on it, too.”

The land is approved for 27 homes and to date Gage has completed 11 of them. The homes range in size from 9,000 to 14,000 sq. ft. Two new homes are under construction, and another is on the market.

Taking a year and a half to two years to build, creating the Estates at Valhalla would not be profitable if Larry Gage didn’t own the land 25 years ago. “I couldn’t have done this,” he says. “There is no one who is putting the outlay into projects like we are. We don’t use mortgages; it’s all my own money to build these homes. A lot of builders want to turn money over more quickly. For me it’s more of a hobby.”

The vision for each of these homes is to create for the owners an instant lifestyle they can’t wait to get home to. This is the job of Alexis Gage, Larry’s wife and interior designer, who also selects many of the exterior details on each home. “We try to captivate the client with over-the-top-extreme aesthetics, and by showing them how well they can live. Sometimes people don’t realize how well they can live,” Alexis Gage explains. “I think we’re doing exactly what these customers want.”

The Gages prefer to build homes down to the smallest decoration. “Most people who buy big custom homes never finish them; they never furnish them. They don’t know where to start. They’re intimidated and nothing ever gets done and they live with empty rooms for too long. So when they buy one of our houses it’s a lifestyle they’re buying, and it can start right away,” Larry Gage says.

Homeowners don’t need to spend two years of their lives building and decorating a home because Gage does it for them. On average, Gage spends half a million dollars in furnishings. “If homeowners had a professional do what we do, it would cost a million-plus. We don’t include anything too wild. We design to appeal to someone on the conservative side,” he notes. Typical clients include CEOs, self-employed entrepreneurs and professional athletes. These homes are investment-grade, meaning they will not be dated in 25 years because of the quality of architects employed to design them, Gage says.

Consistent, high-end design

The vision for the Estates at Valhalla has always been to include pure European architecture - English, French classical, all styles that never go out of style, Larry Gage says. He works only with a handful of architects, from Texas, Georgia and locally in New Jersey. Gage uses the same architects to maintain a consistent style and feel to the community, something not all builders do. “Many builders sell a few lots, and then they lose sight of the consistency of the neighborhood’s look and feel. We’ve maintained a consistent look here. The goal is to create a first-class estate neighborhood that a homeowner can’t wait to get back to enjoy. These are trophy houses.”

On every home, Alexis Gage is there to help blend the architecture with the furnishings. She strives to carry the architectural style of each home through her interior design work. “I try to bring the outside of each house into the inside. My goal with every home is to make it simply irresistible. Ideally the clients should not want to change anything. They should walk in and say, ‘Yes, this is my dream home,’” she says.

Plenty of attention is focused on the ceilings in many of these homes. The office ceiling in one home took several months to finish. “They’re all labors of love,” she adds. “We depend on the craftsmen that work with us, and we stick with them over the years. We know that they’re first rate and we never have any problems. For the ceiling on the English gothic home, we had a tradesman working on that ceiling for four months. When you walk in there, you look up and it takes your breath away.”

When an architect submits plans for a new home, rarely does Gage need to make many changes — a benefit of using the same designers time and again. Plus, with no clients to make hundreds of changes, the process goes quite smoothly, Larry Gage notes. “And when an architect is done with a plan, we give it to a structural engineer to make sure roof framing is engineered properly, for example.”

All-in from day one

Alexis Gage is involved with each home from day one, making choices for both exterior and interior materials. She works with the architects, goes back and forth on interior and exterior choices, while choosing all the colors and materials throughout the homes.

“I work along with the architect during the design process,” she says. “I toss out my ideas, they give me theirs, and we go back and forth until we’re both satisfied. It’s very stimulating work, and incredibly creative. I’m always up for learning about new and exciting ideas. I enjoy it,” Alexis Gage says.

Alexis gets involved after construction begins only if there are issues or questions that pop up. For example, if a question surfaces about using stone or brick on a fireplace, or how the flooring is being laid, or what kind of lighting to use, Alexis will step in. “It’s wonderful to be able to do whatever we want to do with these homes [without clients],” she adds. “The projects move incredibly smoothly because of it.”