It would be easy to say the success of Opelika, Alabama-based Stone Martin Builders is down to fortunate timing—emerging from nowhere a decade ago to building more than 200 houses in 2015.
The real story, however, is rooted in how principal Mitchell Martin took advantage of not only the post-2008 recession recovery, but also of new technologies and buyer characteristics of the time.
“We built three houses in 2005, our first year in business,” Martin says. “But shortly after that was when the faucet was being turned off.”
Nevertheless, he found good deals on land in partially developed subdivisions. “You could do well if you had no debt,” he says.
Martin determined the company could succeed on higher-quality, well-built homes offered at reasonable prices. “Before the recession, it was a builder’s market,” he recalls. “We learned it was now a buyer’s market that demanded a higher standard.” The company largely builds in Auburn, Dothan, Montgomery, and Prattville, Alabama.
Timing mattered because Martin was increasingly impressed with the performance of spray foam insulation. He discovered that HVAC contractors were installing mechanical systems—notably in southeastern Alabama, where the season for air conditioning is nine months long—that were larger than what spray foam-insulated homes required.
Mitchell Martin understands what Millennial buyers expect from their homes, which includes electronically-enabled conveniences. This is why his construction firm has an exclusive agreement to offer ZeroWire home management and security system, which essentially enables remote control of “anything plugged into a wall,” he says.
The system essentially enables users to turn things on and unlock doors—while monitoring activity from a security camera, if need be—via an iOS or Android device. That could mean turning on a coffee maker from bed or admitting a service technician to the house from an office many miles away.
“This is a luxury item that we can make standard in starter homes,” Martin says.
“We discovered the HVAC systems we needed were only half the size of what otherwise would be put in,” he says. Rather than trying to teach contractors how to do their work, Mitchell took classes, achieved certifications, and bought equipment that enabled his company to have its own foam insulation and HVAC capabilities.
To maximize the effectiveness of the insulation, Martin framed houses with two-by-sixes in place of two-by-fours, providing a larger cavity for the spray foam, as well as better storm resistance.
Stone Martin’s homes, which yield energy bills as much as $300 lower than comparably sized houses—as well as electric bills of less than $100 per month—are particularly appealing to younger buyers. So too is the overall cost of Stone Martin homes, which average between $74 and $89 per-square-foot with finishes and upgrades included. Compare that to $130 per-square-foot from other builders in the same market, and the savings are apparent.
Savings also are achieved by the use of other technologies in the sales and construction process. On job sites, every supervisor works from an iPad that accesses a program called BuilderLinq.
“I always look for better ways to do things,” Martin says. “This program overcomes the inefficiencies that happen when you rely on different folks making different decisions of monetary impact. Not everyone’s brain works in the same way.”
BuilderLinq is used as a sales tool with buyers, showing them various models (about 50 percent of the company’s homes are sold pre-construction) and creating the required legal documents, from contracts through closings, and even into the warranty period. On the construction side, it generates purchase orders for all building materials and subcontracting, as well as punch lists. The program helps to ensure that home models of the same type are not built next to each other, as well as preventing adjacent houses from having the same color schemes and other exterior finishes. Most importantly, BuilderLinq shows which plans can’t be built on certain lots within a subdivision, helping to eliminate confusion and buyer frustrations.
The software is proprietary, developed for the company by local software programmers. As such, Stone Martin Builders has BuilderLinq in a constant state of evolution to adjust to both the ever-changing marketplace and home buyer demands.
“The program helps us identify where our customers are coming from,” Martin says. “If we see, for example, that a number of buyers are in the military, then we know to market more to military families.”
Younger buyers are impressed by this kind of seamless digital project management. They also are impressed by a whole-home automation package that allows homeowners to remotely control just about anything that is plugged into an electrical outlet.
Equally important are the other energy performance features of the homes. This includes low-E or argon-filled windows, as well as tankless water heaters. Flooring and carpeting are from recycled materials, which provide an additional green benefit.
Maybe Martin’s ability to connect with the right product and the right time is a function of the fact that he, as well as most of his employees, are under the age of 35.
“I think we are more willing to be innovative,” he says. “We have a lot of energy, a lot of hope for the future.”
It’s a future that looks bright, and Stone Martin Builders plans to keep in time with the rhythm of economics, technology, and buyer hot buttons.