Builder Keith Anthony is packing his bags, closing shop on his Stevensville-based building business of upscale homes and heading off this summer with six staff members to Poland to get on what could be the ground floor of the next building boom: Eastern Europe.
Mr. Anthony, whose company, 18th Century Consulting, has been building homes priced from $70,000 to $150,000, at first was skeptical about building houses in Poland priced from $30,000 to $50,000. "My garages cost that much," he declared.
"The only feasible way to build houses was in a modular form. It's easier to teach someone in one place rather than scatter yourself all over Poland," Mr. Anthony said.
Mr. Anthony is a partner in a company called AmeriDom (dom is Polish for home), now based in Annapolis. As president and CEO, Mr. Anthony is initially negotiating with a lumber plant in Tomaszow Mazowiecki as a possible site for the modular home factory. He estimates it will cost about $1.5 million to convert the lumber factory to a modular home plant.
A modular home is built with the same techniques and materials as a house built on-site, except that it comes in two or three units and is constructed under a factory roof. After it is delivered to the house site, it takes one to two days to assemble.
AmeriDom is applying to several foundations in the United States that support development in Eastern Europe for financial backing.
The former Communist government in Poland had been building concrete high-rise buildings that cost $25 to $30 per square foot for 500- to 800-square-foot apartments that were essentially "a concrete bunker," Mr. Anthony said.
During his several recent trips to Poland, Mr. Anthony showed several designs to people and discovered that American Cape Cod styles containing 1,000 square feet were popular with most people he met. Later, he discovered that similar houses were built before World War II in Poland.
Mr. Anthony believes his product will be especially desirable to Poles, because for the same price as a typical house for sale in Poland, the houses produced by the U.S. company will come equipped with carpet, cabinets, fixtures and paint -- unlike new houses in Poland that are delivered bare.
Housing experts estimate about 6 million houses are needed in Poland. The housing shortage developed when production declined under the Communist government while waiting lists for houses grew.
Figures supplied by the World Bank and the Polish government trace the decline in housing production.
In 1980, eight housing units per 1,000 Poles were produced. The housing rate fell to six units in 1986 and then further declined to four units per 1,000 people in 1989.
This summer, AmeriDom plans to ship two model modular homes from the United States to use as samples. The first houses will be in Czeladzi, a suburb of Katowice.
One of the first pre-development hurdles was to find out who owns the land. After discovering that 85 percent of the land is owned by local governments, Mr. Anthony found out that the government is so eager for new development that they will install roads and utilities.
But instead of selling the land with the house, the government retains ownership of the land and the homeowner will have a 99-year lease on the land that will be renewable.
Mr. Anthony expects to sell houses to miners, government and factory workers, and other midlevel workers who earn about $400 per month. He is also banking on the belief that people have been saving money for many years, because until recently there was not much available to buy.
The business in Poland will operate as a joint venture with 50 percent of the company owned by the construction company in Poland, said William Klawonn, attorney with Stewart & Stewart in Washington for AmeriDom.
Next January the Polish government is scheduled to enact mortgage financing procedures so that banks will be able to provide financing for 80 percent of a house's price and take a security interest in the property.
Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association), a large source of housing credit in the United States, jointly sponsored a conference in October with Poland's Ministry of Finance to help Poland develop a mortgage program.
"There has been a great decline in purchasing power and the average Pole can't afford new housing. When they can borrow money, that will change," said James Robb, international trade specialist with the Eastern Europe Business Information Center of the Department of Commerce in Washington.
To help Polish workers upgrade their construction skills, the Department of Labor along with the AFL-CIO American labor unions and the representatives of the U.S. construction industry are soon opening a crafts training center in Praga, a suburb of Warsaw.