In a market that has seen home building slow significantly, Cary Hamilton has tripled his workload in the past five years. Maybe it’s because of the level of detail in the homes he builds, or his cost-plus approach to construction management. Or, maybe it’s his attitude; he simply won’t build a home until the clients agree to remain friends after the process is complete.
“Friendship is important to me, which leads me to do things not in my job description,” Hamilton explains. “I have a client with 55 acres, and I’m out there literally in ditches doing yard work for him. I don’t get paid for that, but I don’t mind doing it, either. I spend a lot of time doing these things because that’s what I’d do for a friend.”
Not every prospect is friend material, however. Roughly 20 percent of the prospects who approach Hamilton Construction in Steamboat Springs, Colo., are price-shoppers who want a home built cheaply and quickly, and he’s quick to respectfully decline the work. “I don’t bid anything. I’m all cost-plus. I tell clients what my margin is. Each month I send them a photocopied bill from the subs, and I add my percentage to it. I’ve noticed affluent people don’t mind spending money; they just don’t want to be screwed. I’m making a fair amount of money and they’re happy with that. They understand how business works.”
Ultimately, Hamilton is a nice guy who follows the rule of attracting more flies with honey. “Construction is a rough job, and being a jerk does nothing but ruin the mood of everyone involved. So I try to be an upbeat, happy guy; the long-short is, be nice,” he says.
Weather or not
Hamilton isn’t sure exactly which reason is behind his success, and he doesn’t have time to figure it out. Snow is on the ground roughly seven months a year in Steamboat Springs, which means he has limited time to enclose a home. Snow changes the way homes here are designed, he adds.
“Some of the houses I build have 130-lb. snow loads. There’s a big difference in the cost of building a house to withstand 130 lbs. per sq. ft. versus one in California that doesn’t need to hold any snow, so framing and labor are more. Architecturally, the snow creates limitations, too. We can’t do big cantilevers. We can’t even have an eave above the garage door. All garages around here are designed into a gable end,” he explains.
Limitations like these require close collaboration with architects and designers, who typically appreciate Hamilton’s input. Designers will draw plans, which Hamilton says more often than not can be built in a way that would save money and maintain the design intent. His design insight is so keen that sometimes owners approach him with design questions. Still, he sticks to construction and only aids in design.
Half the time Hamilton suggests architects to clients, and on the other jobs the clients have chosen the architect, whom he more than likely knows, considering the tight-knit community in Steamboat Springs. Relationships must be solid, since Hamilton insists on working closely with designers through project completion.
Working relationships are commitments, with most jobs taking an average of 18 months to complete. “A typical home takes roughly two years. On the jobs I do, the house costs a million or $2 to $3 million, and usually are $325 a square foot. The home I’m working on now is 12,000 sq. ft., but house sizes in general have gone down to an average of 5,000,” he says.
Ideally, Hamilton is working on two homes at any given time in a year. However, that workload has increased to roughly three or four during the past two years. Most of the homes are custom secondary homes for upper-end clientele. Occasionally he builds for first-time owners, who also fall into the upper end of affluent society.
As affluent people, typically they’re coming from a big city environment in which they’re used to a cutthroat lifestyle of doing business, and they want Hamilton to get three bids from every sub. Cutthroat, however, is not in his vocabulary.