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More Women Making Impact on Custom Home Building Market

Written by Peter L. Mosca on Tuesday, 09 June 2009 7:00 pm

Cathleen Gallagher could have bulldozed the home at 750 Toyopa in the glorious Huntington Palisades (CA) and turned over the rebuild to a "different" kind of builder. She could have hired someone to plan where each room would go, how they would work together to create the home’s flow, and pick all the finishes.

After all, men dominate the home building industry, and when it comes to custom homes, women are but a speck on the builder spectrum. Which is unfortunate, given the fact that, if Gallagher’s home--a magnificent display of smart floorplan choices and exquisite finishes--is any indication (and it is), women make mighty fine custom homebuilders.

"The reality is that the larger-scale builders have invested a lot of money to get a female perspective on their product, usually through the services of an interior designer," said Tom Weston, president/CEO of Weston/Mason Marketing, a top Los Angeles-based independent advertising agency. "Typically these builders are male, and while very talented and capable of overcoming enormous challenges, they do sometimes overlook some of the realities of building a home that works for today’s family, which means emphasizing the woman’s perspective.

“In the custom market, it’s about anticipating needs at a more personal and detailed level," he added. "Someone who naturally comes equipped with the female perspective and who also brings the necessary building/planning/designing skills offers a tremendous advantage." National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Women’s Council statistics from 2007 show that of the 2.8 million home construction firms in the U.S., only 201,000 of them are owned by women. Yet women play the major role in up to 91 percent of home purchases. It’s not hard to figure out the cavernous void that is being left--one that talented builders like Gallagher can ably fill.

“It’s not only that women make more of the home buying decisions; it’s also that they decide differently," said Dave Harding, CMP, an NAHB National Sales Manager of the Year and Principal, Western Market Forces. "The single-greatest identifiable group of prospects--indeed constituting a majority of the population--is women. Male builders try to design homes then merchandise them to appeal to that largest demographic. But just as women (and men for that matter) dress for other women, what is more logical than women building for women? Not to exclude men, but to supplement man-think.

“Women are more often heads of state, secretaries of state and practitioners of real estate," he added. "But, so few are actual builders. Look at the annual reports of the biggest public builders and you'll see few pictures of women in leadership positions. It’s a huge missed opportunity. Cathleen has a built-in constituency. Her design and execution are superb. Not superb as a woman builder. Superb for a builder." The Toyopa property was the first that Gallagher built, with seven more to follow in the past five years, and the intensive process she endures remains the same.

“When I look at a property before I buy it, I know what it will look like finished and how it will live," she said. "I imagine everything from the style of the home to the rooflines to how the individual rooms will look." Gallagher does all of the preliminary planning herself, and then turns over the plans to her architect for hand drawing. With finished plans in hand, she oversees the build every day on site to ensure that her vision is fully realized.

“The flexibility it would give me as a mom (to two daughters with her commercial director husband) was also important," she added. "And, I saw there was a need for a woman’s touch, especially among the Pacific Palisades spec builders. In this niche, there were a lot of the same finishes and a pretty consistent lack of individuality. I wanted to bring together a great layout, great functionality, and exceptional style. I asked myself how a house could best function for both a man and a woman to be happy, and then I started designing."

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