Stacy: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of Between Two Brokers. Today we have John Frick from Level Building Projects. John has been on the show before and is
a local celebrity in town. And we are here to catch up about all things, real estate and construction. And why the hell are you still doing it?
John: That’s a damn good question.
Stacy: It’s probably been two years since we’ve had you on the podcast and I’m not sure much has changed, except you’re probably just much busier.
John: Yeah, definitely. I mean, our business has grown substantially since 2020. And I don’t know what that’s due to, but I guess the influx of people like Covid seemed to send a lot of people in a frenzy coming to Charleston. Even though it was growing quickly already.
Erin: I would like to throw in the hat that your appearance on our first podcast gave you a big boost.
John: Well, that was it. I mean, as soon as it aired, like the phone did not stop ringing.
Erin: I’m sure.
Stacy: Okay. Well, so, that brings up a good point. So who, the people that are building with you now, are they, they’re transplants that have moved to your post COVID mostly?
John: A lot of them are, I think you ladies know this cause you’ve I’ve now sold one of my houses twice in Kiawah River.
Stacy: Yes, they’re very easy to sell, John.
John: Thank you. Kiawah River, I would say, is more of a transplant client base but like our Sullivan’s, IOP, Mount Pleasant, more of those are local people, maybe either you know, renovating because interest rates are crazy and their families are growing, but they can’t do what they want to do on a new house. So doing large scale renovations you know, we do a lot of teardowns in Mount Pleasant just because there’s not great dirt. I’m trying to think what project this was for. But anyways, I needed to pay a tap fee for water meter and I hadn’t done that in a long time because everything’s a teardown, you know, and there is no tap fee.
Erin: I think when we tore our house down in 2015, I want to say that the the tear down and dumpster fee was about $22,000.
Erin: What’s that cost today?
John: In Mount pleasant, we did the donation thing where they came and took usable stuff from your house. Right. So I’m really not involved in the demo process much more these days.
Erin: Carolina housemover?
John: Yeah. No, it’s sustainable warehouse. But you get a tax benefit if you have this company come in and they take all of the salvageable stuff. And you know, I don’t know if they resell it. I don’t 100 percent understand the process, but I know it’s beneficial for people on a tax side and hopefully it’s beneficial for people down the road too. But so we’re not typically doing the demo, but it’s, I, I want to say $30,000 bucks.
Erin: Okay, so it hadn’t gone up that much.
John: It hadn’t gone up that much.
Erin: Dumpsters are expensive, though.
John: Dumpsters are expensive. I mean, our dumpsters, when we built your house, were probably in the 350 average range, and they’re probably 6 to 6.50 average range now. Yeah.
John: Yeah, it is. I mean, I think, how long have y’all been in your house?
Erin: We moved in on July ‘16.
John: Okay. So yeah.
Erin: Seven years.
John: Seven years. You know, we were probably still building things in the two hundreds a square foot then. Right.
Erin: but it’s like 250.
John: Yeah. And you know, I would say even a few years past that, it’s still the upper twos and. Maybe I’m, I’m talking myself out of future business to people that are listening, but it’s pretty rare that we’re under 500 bucks a square foot anymore. And that’s just wild to me.
Erin: And but are you, do you consider yourself a luxury builder?
John: I would like to think we’re a versatile builder. You know, we’ve got some really high end projects that we do. Like, I feel like we can do anything. You know, I would love for every project that comes across my desk to be a $800 plus a foot project. But that’s not the way the cookie crumbles. But we’re versatile. And, you know, if somebody comes to us with We’ll call it a $450 a foot budget. Maybe I can’t hit that, but I can figure out ways to get close to it and still have a really nice product. It’s just, look, my mind’s blown to every time I put together a proposal. It’s, it’s definitely planed off. You know, through, we’ll go back to the COVID conversation. I’m kind of tired of talking about that, but through that time, like in 2020, it was crazy to jump from bid to bid, like how much it was just like almost reckless, like how quickly it was going up, whether it was window manufacturers, appliances, you know, labor shortage, like everything was just jumping and it changed every 30 days.
Erin: Did anything come back down or did it jump and stay stuck?
John: Some of our labor has come back down. I think drywall has come back down some. Lumber has definitely come back down. But like the manufactured stuff, metals, windows and doors, appliances again, they haven’t. And in fact, we still get our normal annual increases on those type of items. It’s people hadn’t stopped buying it yet. You know, why are they going to stop increasing their prices until they see a problem with their books, keep doing the same thing.
Stacy: Real estate agents. You need to be telling your clients how much it costs to build a house.
John: And it needs to be realistic.
Stacy: It needs to be realistic cause I will tell you, I just helped some clients buy a house in Old Mount Pleasant and they made a friend and they kept telling me that he said it was 275 to 300 to build a new construction house. And I was like, give me his telephone number. I mean, and he, they kept saying it over and over again. And I said, guys, I’m a hundred percent sure you’re not going to build a house with that. Now, what we’ve seen in Mount Pleasant especially in like Old Mount Pleasant is people would buy a house and then it would come back on the market a year later. And I’m sure that’s why is they had no idea how much it actually was going to cost them to either renovate or build. And then they put it back on the market.
John: I’ve seen it.
Stacy: shame on the real estate. allowing that to happen. That’s ridiculous.
Erin: The other piece of the puzzle is you have to have somewhere to live while this is going. So not only are you paying these high prices to build or renovate, but you’re also paying extremely high rent or mortgage on wherever you’re going to stay while this is happening.
John: A 100%. And it’s I’ve seen it happen with potential clients of mine that they just didn’t realize what they were getting into. And somebody had told them something unrealistic. And I don’t want to discredit any builders that can and have found ways to build cheaper than me. Like we have our processes that work really well for us and our clients. But you know, there there probably are some guys that are putting out a great product in the three hundreds a foot. I don’t know how to do that. to get the product that I think is quality, but, you know, I’m not the end all be all on it. So I would just be careful with the information you’re passing along because you’re already paying elevated, you know, real estate prices. And, you know, there’s big transaction fees that come with those deals. And, you know, you can’t like, let’s say it costs what on a million dollar property, what’s your, you’re going to have 60, 000 in transaction fees basically. So now you got to sell that thing for a million 60 to break even
Stacy: People that are coming to you.The renovations I’m a little bit curious about because we actually had Bill Payne on not too long ago and they were talking about an old village and old Mount Pleasant like a lot of people tearing down versus renovating. The people that are renovating, is it like strictly budget that is preventing them from tearing down? Because tearing down is essentially the ideal, right?
John: Yeah. I’ve had some clients that I wish would have torn down and I think I tried to persuade them to. And by the time we got to a certain point in the project, they wish that they’d taken that advice. But the projects turned out incredible, but yeah, they touched new construction prices and maybe their master bedroom would have been two feet bigger.
John: You know So ask me what was the
Stacy: Well, yeah I mean the people that are coming to you and you’re doing the renovation project. My question is like are Is new construction tearing down a building an option that you’re considering and say you’re pricing out the renovation and you’re pricing out the build
John: Well, a lot of our renovation is historic stuff that we can’t tear down but Yeah, I think you know. People might have been living in their house for a while, too, and don’t just don’t want to tear it down.
John: But a lot of these houses you know, we’ve done some big renovations in Creekside lately, and those houses had great bones like there was good structure there and to just completely knock it down. It wouldn’t have been as cost effective as what we did. I mean, the renovation budgets were still big budgets. But to get, I can’t remember the square footage of the one we’re finishing now, but to match that square footage, new construction would have been a substantial difference,
Stacy: Right. So what are the things that people are doing in their homes now that has changed over the last like three or four years? What are some of the things that people are coming to you with in terms of design that you’re seeing pretty common commonly in homes?
John: Well, I feel like people are tired of, getting tired of European White Oak with Loba Invisible Finish on the floors.
Stacy: I guess it’s time to change.
John: Yeah. That’s come up a couple of times recently.
Erin: Wait. And so what are they picking instead?
John: Still white oak, but they want more character. So the European white oak is very clean. You know, it’s you’re getting very consistent graining, but not a lot of knots. People like I’m looking at your floors. You’ve got a little more character in your floors. I think people are trending back that way in my experience. I’m trying to think what, I mean, we’re doing more plaster.
Stacy: Oh yeah, yeah.
John: Plaster seems to be coming in. Why? Because it looks cool.
Erin: Why would someone go with plaster?
John: Well one of the things, so we’ve done a lot of smooth stucco in the past and stucco does not touch up very well. Like plaster you can actually repair, like if there’s a crack or anything like that.
Erin: So you’re talking about exterior?
John: Interior like on a fireplace.
Erin: Oh, stucco inside. I see. Okay.
Stacy: I’ve already got cracks. I don’t know what I’m doing.
John: Yeah. So like stucco over wood framing like that, it’s going to move some, it’s going to crack and you, it’s really hard to repair and make it look good with plaster. You can.
Stacy: Too bad I didn’t have you do this fireplace.
John: I know, man.
Erin: Well, I I saw you when we were still recording the other episode and you got here you were checking out the shoe molding over there. Everything. Okay.
John: There, you know, I might’ve done a few things differently, but no, I mean, it looks great in here. You did a good job. You know, I’m always going to look at, look around and make my own judgment.
Stacy: But so talk about the way your business has changed. So you’ve obviously, you’ve had to take on much more business, so, who have you had to hire? Who’s working in your company? Are there new systems that you have? Or is it like literally like somebody wants to build a house with you? They call you like, what does that look like?
John: Well, the business has grown with the amount of volume that we’re doing now, we’ve got three full time project managers. Yeah. And Canon my business partner who I know you guys know he’s been with me for, I think over 10 years now, but he, he still manages projects and I’m technically still managing projects too, because there’s just so many good opportunities out there. I don’t know how long it’s going to last. So we’re burning the candle at both ends, but I’m happy to obviously have the business. But so three full time project managers, me and Canon business owners. And then we’ve got Canet who handles the important side of the business, which is the bookkeeping and the money. And she’s also been building some software for us for like a client portal that I am not computer savvy, so I’m not gonna describe this properly, but it’s a it’s a good way like we have built in schedules and it’s a good way for us to have checklists to say that’s done and finished. We don’t need to worry about it anymore. And it’s also a good place for our clients to go check in on things and say, Oh, crap, I was supposed to have my plumbing valves picked out by next Friday. I better get on that. So it kind of, and it’s a place we can upload pictures. We’ve got all of our selections uploaded there once they’re complete. So it’s basically everything in one place and the clients have access to everything. So that’s been a new thing that I think has been very beneficial on some projects, but. I’ve found like, we thought it was very important. We actually lost a few projects that we really wanted because we didn’t have a system like that. And so it was a big focus of, of hours to get it. And now looking back, I’m like, man, you know, was it a portal that we didn’t have or were we just not the right fit? Because half of our clients that were like, we have the portal, they’re like, all right, cool. I’m not really interested in it.
Stacy: Right. I mean.
John: I’m like, we just invested a lot of money in this.
Stacy: That’s why I know. I mean, it’s like for us with clients, sometimes clients will say that there’s something about the house that they don’t like. And it’s, I know that it’s the price. You know, I mean, that’s always what it is, but sometimes I think people will tell you something different from whatever they make.
John: Yeah. 100%. And we’re not for everybody. And that’s fine. You know?
Erin: So I know last time we had you on, you said you were I want to say 100 percent of the homes that you were building and had built for a while were white with a metal roof and you were getting real sick of that.
John: We’re still doing it. .
Erin: That hasn’t changed yet.
Stacy: No one’s getting sick of it except John.
John: Yeah. We’re we just painted one that we’re building on Sullivan’s Island. With one of our big. Architecture partners Phil Clark has, we’re building his personal house right now and he went with a Charleston gray color, which it’s not really gray. I feel like it’s got more brown in it, but it looks really good and I’m excited about that.
Erin: Well, that’s a testament to your company that Phil Clark chose you.
John: Yeah. I would say maybe he’s not as smart as we think he is. No, I, I thought so too, man. I love working with Phil and you know, he’s, he’s our go to guy. We just, we, we’re a good team. Yeah.
Erin: So because we have such a lack of raw land, let’s talk about the timeline. If someone closes on a tear down from closing day to move in day. And I know, I mean, circumstances change, but generally permitting, tearing down plans, building.
John: The planning part is the challenging part that I don’t have much control over. You know, I feel like when I’m in these meetings with the architects, they’re, they’re saying, you know, Unless this is, I mean, there’s different caliber of homes and designs, obviously, like some homes take a year to design. But I would say our typical home, I feel like the design phase is going to be about six months. And then once, you know, I’ve got something I can turn in for permitting. Most municipalities are six to eight weeks on a permit. And then once I have the permit, I would say our average build time is 12 to 14 months, depending on the, on the project. I mean, some of the houses are a little more straightforward. We’re, we’re going to finish those in 12 months and some of them are, you know, have a little more detail or whatever it is that take a little bit longer.
Erin: I remember when you built our house, you were pretty spot on, on your time estimating.And I do feel that two things that buyers are not realistic about is price and timeline, especially for renovations.
Erin: So 12 to 14, are you, are you still pretty spot on with your estimating?
John: I think so. Yeah. I mean That’s something about me that I tell all my clients and it’s, you know, they’re meeting me for the first time typically, but I’m like, I’m honest and I’m not going to tell you because I know you want to hear that this is going to take 10 months when I know it’s not going to like, And maybe someone is willing to say, or maybe they even believe that they can do it in 10 months, but then it doesn’t do anybody any favors. So I just I try to be realistic up front with the budget and the timeline. That’s not to say that I haven’t made a mistake. I’ve made plenty of them, and there’s been plenty of challenges that have made things be delayed. And sometimes it’s something I could head off, and sometimes it’s something out of our control. But I think for the most part, I feel very confident in that timeline and our budgets to, I mean, you know our, our clients have a lot of control over a large part of their budgets. But I don’t feel like we’re having to have these conversations where it’s like, Oh, my God, guys, we missed this. Like, I feel terrible, but we’ve got to have this conversation. We can figure out how we’re gonna handle it. I don’t feel like those air conversations that I have to have very often, but it’s happened.
Erin: That’s good.
Erin: Do you feel like there is any neighborhood or area of town that still has kind of undiscovered value?
John: Oak Haven I hope. I bought
Stacy: That’s where John lives.
John: No, I don’t.
Erin: You live in daylight, Daybreak
John: But I just I bought a house in there a couple months ago to flip.
Stacy: And I was going to ask you that I was going to ask you about specs and flips.
John: So our, our spec, we’re only doing spec and Kiawah River now. I mean, y’all know, I mean, Erin, you brought us a great deal that ultimately we didn’t build, but we made some money on the dirt. You know, our model used to be kind of not trying to compete with the masses, but we would try and find a special piece of property. And, you know, maybe it was an expensive piece of property, but we had a good investment group and it kind of set itself apart. So it was risky, but you know, it was a special piece of property. So that was our model. And then we got involved with Kiawah river and that’s just taken our resources for spec and it’s been good for us. So no reason to really leave there. What the dollar value is not what we were doing on an individual spec before. And maybe we were just fortunate on that, but. It’s it’s been good for us in Kiawah River with the spec market.
Erin: What sold you on Kiawah River and what like what gave you pause about it?
John: What sold me I’ve known that property for a long time. One of my partners, their family owned Mullet Hall for, I don’t know, 20 years, they were going to develop it, I believe, in the early 2000s and then the recession came and kind of set things back. So I was always familiar with the property. And then because he’s one of my partners, I’m not gonna say his name. I don’t know if it matters, but we were able to get in on the front end and kind of solidify our partnership with them early on. So I would say the biggest thing that worried me about it is just we weren’t really doing any workout that far. But there really is a big difference in Kiawah River and Kiawah proper. Like it’s another, if you’re, if you’re building out on it, ocean course, that’s another half hour, you know? So it’s, it’s been really good for us. And you know, the other appealing thing was like it was 10 to 15 years worth of work. You just need to get your foot in the door and do a good job and off to the races.
Stacy: Like everybody did on Daniel Island. Yeah. So you’re, how many specs do you have going out there now?
John: We, we just closed on one on Monday actually. And just started another one. So with us, you know, kind of being on the upper end, we’re looking for those special Kiawah River lots. The phases that we’re in right now don’t really have those available. So we’re only doing one right now. We just started it a couple of weeks ago. Just we’re trying to compete with some of the what’s the right word here? It’s it’s not the same thing that we do. It’s an interior lot. Maybe some of the finishes aren’t as high level as we’re used to. So we’re kind of testing those waters before we bite off more than we want to chew.
Stacy: But your specs there are what, three million?
John: Just under. Yeah, I would say two, five to three has been been our market out there.
Stacy: When you are doing a spec, you, how do you, how are you involved in the decision about what to build?
John: Find the best lot we can find, obviously. And then you know, with our prior spec, non Kiawah River spec, we were always wanting to build the biggest house we could build, and that’s not the Kiawah River market. You know, they’ve got a sweet spot out there. A lot of these are second homes, so people don’t want a 5,000 square foot house. They want 32 to 3,600 square feet, and in some cases, 25 to 2, 800 square feet. So, you know, I think that’s the main thing is like if we’re interior lot, we’re probably more in the upper 2000 square foot. And then we’re kind of letting Phil or we’ve been working with David Fisher a lot with Thomas and Denzier out there. We’re having to work around a lot of trees. We let them take it. You know, we’re like, we need four bedrooms, three and a half baths. This is the lot. Show us what you got.
Erin: Wow. Who’s doing the finish selection?
John: It’s been a bunch of different folks. You know, we had an in house selections coordinator for a while. That ultimately didn’t work out. No hard feelings, just wasn’t the right fit. And Then, Mary Welch who I think you are familiar with, has done a bunch with us out there. Wendy Morrow has done a bunch with us out there. I don’t know if y’all know her or not. She’s great.
Erin: It can be overwhelming.
Erin: I mean, there’s so many options now. I mean, it’s just like endless, endless options.
John: There are Tile.
Stacy: And I have to say, cause I sold resold two of John’s spec properties on the resale market. And I had them both listed at the same time. And one had it seemed to have significantly more design and kind of personal touches in it, like dog wallpaper in the laundry room and stuff like that and have showing both of them like normally I would say for a spec like don’t personalize it like easy, you know, easy on color, easy on wallpaper and stuff like that, that appealed to every buyer more than the one that was more plain vanilla. And that really surprised me.
John: Yeah, definitely. I’m trying to remember if, so those folks, they bought it before we wrapped. I’m trying to remember if the dog wallpaper was something that they added.
Stacy: It doesn’t seem like one of your touches.
John: Well, it could be so that those, the two houses that you resold were when we had our In House Selections Designer. Yeah. And she did a great job and she was really good on budgets too. I think she just needed to go be a mom more than she needed to be working at the time. So that was totally understandable. But yeah, we gave her some freedom and we told her to be funky on 2134, you know? And I think it actually turned lot of people off in fact, I think we’re ripping one of the bathrooms out right now with the new buyer, but I, it’s funny, I, someone sent me a design portfolio that they wanted me to review so that we could hopefully work together one day and that tile that turned a lot of people off was in that portfolio and we ripped it out two weeks ago, so more than two people liked it.
Erin: I feel like I’m seeing random stuff in houses now, like much larger laundry rooms than seems necessary. But I don’t have four kids. You can tell me how that is.
John: Well, yeah, I mean, a 10,000 square foot house isn’t big enough. No, I’m kidding. I think our house is right at 4,000 and we’ve got space that we don’t even use in there.
John: Yeah. I mean, the Phil calls it scullery, butler’s pantry, whatever. That’s definitely in every house. And I, that’s actually probably one of my favorite features of our personal house. It gets used the most.
Erin: It’s my favorite room in my house and that’s where everyone ends up when we have a party.
John: Yeah. A hundred percent. That’s where the booze is. Yeah,
Erin: It’s like also where my giant jar of oatmeal is and I don’t know, people end up talking about your grocery shopping. It’s bizarre. But I remember also seeing like, you know, a big trend to look out for was going to be something built on the front porch where you know, Amazon and U.P. S. could leave your packages and I have never come across one when showing a house yet.
John: We hadn’t done that yet either. I will say I’m looking at Stacy’s front door right now. We are seeing a lot of like big open glass front doors where, you know, people used to maybe not want people to be able to see in their house just right off the rip. Is yours a pivot door?
John: We’re doing a lot of pivot doors with like the big handle pulls.
Stacy: Glass is a thing.
John: Yeah, for sure.
Stacy: And very expensive. Here.
John: The big picture windows that go to the floor.
Stacy: Haven Loop had tons of glass
John: And people still want the big stacking or folding doors, which it like makes me cringe. I understand. But like our climate is so brutal and like the way we’re building these houses so tight, you really like we’re creating a mechanical house. You open the door. You just ruined all that, you know and then what ruining that means is mold and mildew, wood pulling off the walls, things that we don’t want to see happen that you know, It’s a tough climate. I think we might have touched on that some in the first podcast that we did.
Erin: Let’s talk about fireplaces. Cause I feel like when I get most of my buyers are like, we would really like a fireplace and when they come from off. I’m like, are you really going to use it? You know, maybe a couple weeks of the year, but people either are like dead set on gas logs or dead set on wood burning. What are you building more of?
John: Well. I’m a pyro, so I want wood burning.
Erin: You want wood burning with a gas starter, I’m sure.
John: I think the perfect combo, honestly, like, is probably gas inside, and if you have an opportunity for outdoor fireplace wood burning outside. It is nice to, especially, this is not supposed to be sexist, but if the man’s out of town, if the, if the wife can just flip switch and have fire. You know, Sarah actually, as long as I got started log, she does a really good job building.
Erin: I’m like weird about starting a fire when Spencer is out as I might not get it. Yeah. I’m just like, I can never tell if the flu is open or not. And I’m not going to risk it.
John: Yeah. So, I mean, we do plenty of, of gas logs. Probably more gas logs, honestly. But I think your good old redneck Southern boy like myself likes to build a fire. So we’ve got some of those clients too.
Stacy: If you have a gas fireplace, can you make it wood burning?
John: You can, as long as it’s got a chimney you know, the insert. Fireplaces don’t do as well I would say on wood burning, the brick liners are just not as beefy as like a fire brick. They will do it. But if you’re building big hot fires, you’re going to ruin those brick liners and you’re going to be replacing them.
Stacy: I have had just like I have the woman who has to have the bathtub and the master bath. I have had the man that will not buy a home without a wood burning fireplace.
Erin: I think it’s funny what people get stuck on. John, we love you, but apparently we’re out of time. That went quickly. We might’ve gone over on our first one. So plug your, you know, Instagram website and you can give people your direct phone number if you want to.
John: Yeah. So Level Building Projects. Our website is levelbuildingprojects.com. We do have an Insta page, but I’m in control of it. So it probably hasn’t been updated in two years. My personal Insta is.
Erin: You don’t even know.
John: FrickJE I believe.
John: But I think levels is just level building projects. You’ll find us if you type it.
Erin: Well, your website’s beautiful.
John: Thank you. We’ve been fortunate in this market. I mean, if I lived in, I don’t know, Columbia, maybe, I don’t know if their market, I feel very fortunate. I haven’t, I don’t need to advertise. I don’t have time to post, you know, we’re busy. I should figure out how to make better emphasis on that, but
Stacy: You don’t need to.
John: I guess I need to.
Stacy: You’re doing a good job. You’re doing the referral thing. That’s everybody’s dream.
John: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. Well, and y’all have given us some great referrals and
Erin: I give your name out to people I like. Cause I don’t want you to come back to me and be like, well, how the fuck did you give me that guy? He was awful.
John: It happens. I mean, you know, we’ve had some tough clients, but I think at the end of the day we, we all finish a project and got along and I mean, you know,
Erin: You’re so easy, too, You just laid back
Stacy: On the outside, right?
John: I appreciate you saying that. I think there’s some people that would disagree, but
Erin: You don’t need them.
Stacy: Well, thanks so much for coming on, John. We appreciate it.
John: Yeah. Thanks for having me. I hope I said something that somebody would want to hear.
Erin: Yeah I think
John: I was hoping we were talking about sex, drugs and rock and roll, but
Erin: We can do that on the after show. I think people are mostly interested in timeline and price per square foot. So we got those answered.
John: It takes a long time and it’s very expensive.
Erin: Yeah, it is. It’s true.
Stacy: Call John.
John: I kid, nobody can do it faster or cheaper.
Stacy: Thanks so much for listening guys. Don’t forget to rate, review and subscribe. Check us out @betweentwobrokers and @SmithSpencerrealestate on Instagram and we will see you next time.