Job spotlight: Bill Hart, Columbus homebuilder and remodeler

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 11, 2013 

Bill Hart loves building homes, particularly for those young families just starting out. He also loves being in business for himself.

"Once you go in business for yourself, a lot of times it's hard to work for somebody else," said the Columbus native who started out more than 35 years ago buying foreclosed homes, fixing them up, then flipping them quickly to new owners. It wasn't easy.

"It was so hard to keep (skilled) trades people because you never knew what your inventory or product was going to be," said Hart, 64. "Some months you might get two or three foreclosures, and then you might go three months and not be able to find one."

Tucked somewhere in his career was a 12-year stint with Delta Associates, an engineering firm that primarily did airport designs, remodeling them in Georgia and Florida.

"My liability insurance in the engineering profession was almost more than my salary, so I had to find something else to do," he said.

So that meant going into home construction full time, with the former University of Georgia swimmer and licensed pilot now building 12 to 15 houses each year. His son, Will Hart, is on the payroll.

The Greater Columbus Home Builders Association recently named Hart its 2013 Builder of the Year. And the Historic Columbus Foundation presented him an "outstanding contributions" award for taking a burned-out home site at 1815 Wildwood Ave., near Columbus High School, and rebuilding it into a duplex that blends well into the neighborhood.

The Ledger-Enquirer recently visited with Hart to discuss his job, his career and the housing market in general. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.

Why do you enjoy being in business for yourself so much?

You call your own shots. You make or break yourself. If I'm successful, it's due to correct decisions. And, by the same token, if I'm unsuccessful, it's a bad decision. You look in the mirror and see who to blame. ... Sometimes it's the deals that you walk away from that's the difference in success or not. One bad one can negate half a dozen good ones.

What gives you the most satisfaction about your job?

I enjoy building in the entry-level market. These are people who are grateful to have a roof over their head and they want to hug you when you go to closing (the home loan). I enjoy that. It's nice. Sometimes in the higher end homes, it's very difficult to satisfy some people, if not impossible.

What size of homes do you construct?

More of the entry-level and mid-level, but some custom homes.

What has the housing market been like since 2007 or so?

It's been a huge transition. The whole industry has changed probably more in the last five or six years than in the previous 40 years. It's different in terms of marketing. So much of it is Internet now and that's all new to me, because I'm pretty old school. I don't even have a smartphone. (laughs)

What is your primary clientele?

A lot of it is military. Ironically, none of mine have been the result of (Base Realignment and Closure). These were not military from Fort Knox. They were from other deployments who wound up at Fort Benning on a little bit longer assignments -- three- or four-year assignments -- and they could see fit to buy a house.

The local housing market relies heavily on the military?

In my opinion, yes sir, absolutely, from my business perspective. I would venture to guess 60 to 70 percent of my business is military, either active duty, retired, or in some way connected to Fort Benning.

How have you adapted to the changing market?

My theory in the old school was reluctance to build two-story homes because the younger couples didn't want their babies falling down the steps and the elderly couples didn't like the steps. So I tried to stay with ranch (single-level floor plans). Then the Atlanta wave of builders came down here and started the two-stories. You can build a two-story and get more square footage for less dollars (as a consumer). That's what brought it about. So I'm now building a two-story product. I had to rethink things.

The Atlanta builders have gone back up there to work?

I've heard that, and I've seen signs of it in the form of some subcontractors that were coming down from Atlanta to work here. If they've got work in Atlanta, there's no point in driving 100 miles down here. So I see a gradual shift of it getting harder to get (skilled worker) sub-trades as that market picks up in Atlanta.

Will the two-story design stick with Columbus?

I think so, because of the value, because you can get so much more house for the same dollar.

You said over the phone that not enough young folks are coming into the building profession. Why?

Obviously, with the recession and all of the tough publicity about the housing market and people losing their homes -- foreclosures and the like -- there are not a lot of young guys coming into the trade because of the risk. I don't see a generation of new builders coming into play right now. When us old guys fade out, I don't know who's going to carry the torch.

Is it a physically tough job?

In some respects. I used to do a lot of work myself. But I'm too old and don't trust my sense of balance now. (laughs) But there are builders who are hands on, and there are some who don't ever set foot on the job. They do it all via computer. I don't enjoy that. I like to be on the job.

How many builders are there locally?

The home builder's association has 182 members, and maybe 60 of them are builders.

What's the toughest aspect of your job?

For the most part, most buyers are reasonable. But sometimes, there are buyers who you just cannot satisfy. That frustrates me because I want everybody that I build a house for to be happy. And 99 percent of the time they are.

What makes someone unsatisfied?

Sometimes you can't put your finger on it. I repainted a house three or four times and they still weren't satisfied. One thing you have to accept in this profession is you can't satisfy everybody. But most people are pretty reasonable.

What should the local market look like in three or four years?

Hopefully, it's going to improve. I think it's going to be a slow grind. And, obviously, all the foreclosures and distressed properties have got to get off the market.

So you're hopeful things will get easier on sellers?

Yes. A lot of the sellers have lost equity and wound up having to sell their homes at a loss. That's one of the most hurtful things about my profession is some of the people that bought houses during the peak of the market and then wanted to sell later, but the value went down. Some of them mistakenly put blame on developers and builders. We had no control over the markets.

Finally, do Columbus homebuilders construct a good grade of house?

Absolutely, without question. I'm from here and have been here all my life, and I want to build a quality product and be able to walk down the street and not have people throw rocks at me.

Some of these builders that came down from Atlanta -- I'm not throwing stones because some of them are good builders -- but some just came down here and made some money and left and did not come back and follow up and take care of call-backs and the like. The local builders, on the other hand, we live here and we come back and take care of follow-ups.

BIO

Name: Bill Hart

Age: 64

Hometown: Columbus

Current residence: Midland area of Columbus

Education: 1966 graduate of Columbus High School; earned bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Georgia in 1971; earned bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Auburn University in 1974.

Previous jobs: Civil engineer with Delta Associates in Columbus (it later moved to Florida)

Family: Janet, wife of more than three years, and sons, Will Hart, Kyle Sprague and Mitchell Hart.

Leisure time: Enjoys bird hunting and fishing (especially the salt water variety) and watching University of Georgia football.

Of note: Past president (2011) of the Greater Columbus Home Builders Association and currently serves on its board of directors; currently serves on the Columbus Board of Zoning Appeals; received an "Outstanding Contributions" award in October in the area of historic preservation from the Historic Columbus Foundation.

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