Builders Finding Way in New World

"I predicted then that there would be the ebb and flow that always happens, but I didn't know just how much it would ebb," Cannon said.

Although he had a backlog of home orders that would keep him busy for two more years, Cannon did what the other regional builders were forced to do and began downsizing his staff of 115 to the eventual 28 who comprised the backbone of the business.

"We stuck with our core business during the downturn," Cannon said. "But we adjusted our pricing. We adjusted our product. We became very tight with our margins. We adapted to what I think is the new world right now."

The few dozen people left working at John Cannon Homes during the depths of the recession were dealing with the few customers who remained, wanting lower prices and less square footage and being much more selective with the options than the average buyer was during the boom.

"Now it's, 'I'm building this house for me, not for resale value.'" Cannon said. "Today, this is a long-term investment and people are being very careful on what they are spending their money on. But they still want all the nice stuff.

"The 5,000- to 6,000-square-foot-house is now the 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot house," he said.
Cannon also advertised homes for $99 per square foot, which had competing builders grousing because the price did not include such things as the land, a driveway or the grass and landscaping.

"What we said was, 'Here's a house we can build in entirety on your lot,'" he said. "What we were seeing is a lot of people wanted to put in some sweat equity and do their own landscaping or put in their own driveway.

"It was a custom-level home finish," Cannon said. "Did people choose to upgrade? Sure, but it still gave them a starting point."

Things began getting better for Cannon and Southwest Florida's other home builders as last year came to an end.

Cannon ended 2009 with about 50 deals, including 31 new homes, 19 remodeling jobs and several commercial projects. In 2008 he had barely a dozen overall.

So far in 2010, Cannon has about 35 homes in the works, ranging mostly from $350,000 to $1 million, and has filled eight of the empty staff positions.

"We've been gearing back up," he said. "We're being more efficient than we used to. Everybody is wearing more hats and working harder, but this is not just John Cannon Homes -- that is the world right now."

The company is working on its first new model in three years, called the Tauri, which is a 3,147-square-foot home in Lakewood Ranch featuring three bedrooms, three baths, a large bonus room, a three-car garage and a screened-in pool and lanai.

When complete in August, the home will serve as a model that can be bought, furnished, for $849,000, or that can be used as the basis for a custom home that incorporates any of the features from the roughly 2,000 floor plans that Cannon has designed.

There is good reason the regional builders are starting to come out of their shells.

Metrostudy, a national housing data firm, found that from Palmetto to Punta Gorda, sales of new homes rose every quarter last year, from 247 in the first to 342 in the fourth.

The firm also reported new-home inventory in the region was at 844 units at the end of 2009, which was down considerably from the 3,287 available in 2006.

Economists at the Florida Home Builders Association have said that the new-home market sank as low as it will go last year.

The region's builders have weathered the new home downturn and the emerging rebound in varying ways.

Pat Neal Communities had much success during the downturn by selling homes priced under $200,000. Last year, the builder closed on 176 homes throughout Manatee County.

Lee Wetherington Homes closed on eight homes in the fourth quarter last year, compared with two during the same period in 2008. He already is working with seven buyers so far this year.

Cannon said he expects to match last year's numbers, if not eclipse them slightly. "We're very, very busy."

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