Making it his way Still growing: Bob Ward began small, identified his niche and now is Harford County's second-largest residential builder.

January 28, 1996|By Daniel H. Barkin | Daniel H. Barkin,SUN STAFF

A decade ago, Bob Ward sold his first home, a modular unit with components purchased from the area's largest builder, Ryland Homes.

Mr. Ward was one of Harford's smallest builders, by choice, even though his career didn't have to start that way. His father was a veteran developer, well-known in the homebuilding industry. But Ward was determined to run his own shop.

"I love my dad, but I preferred not to work for him," said Mr. Ward, 37. "I wanted to own a business of my own."

As recently as five years ago, Mr. Ward was just one of dozens of small local builders competing for the slice of the Harford County market that Ryland, Ryan and other construction giants hadn't already gobbled.

"You had some big merchant builders -- regional and national builders -- come into the area," said Mr. Ward, "more volume-driven than profit-driven. They've kept things very competitive."

Many of the locals didn't survive. But Mr. Ward did.

By his own count, he has sold close to 1,000 homes since he launched his business with a partner, a bookkeeper, and one laborer in the mid-1980s. Bob Ward Homes -- now staffed with 40 employees in a renovated church in Edgewood -- has become the second-largest residential builder in Harford County. Another two dozen employees work for his Bel Air real estate brokerage, ERA Robert Ward Realty.

"You've got to hand it to him for surviving," said Harvey Singer, senior vice president of the Legg Mason Realty Group. "Not only surviving, but prospering."

Today, Bob Ward Homes sells one in every eight new homes in Harford, a 12.5 percent market share, trailing only Ryland's nearly 17 percent.

Now Mr. Ward is heading south, west and north for opportunities. For the first time, Mr. Ward is building in Baltimore County. He has also started a project in southern Pennsylvania, and is considering sites in Cecil County and in Delaware. He has even looked at property in Carroll County.

This year, his company hopes to sell 300 homes in Maryland and Pennsylvania, a 25 percent increase over 1995.

Competitors, friends and housing industry analysts link his growth to his decision early on to sell in the low-priced end of the market, the so-called "affordable" niche. According to Legg Mason surveys, the average detached new home in Harford sold for $188,181 last fall; Mr. Ward's detached homes averaged around $151,800, and started as low as $119,900 in the Edgewood area, one of the hottest markets in the Baltimore region. His condos sold for $65,900, well below the Harford average of $96,800. His townhomes, hovering around $106,400, are priced around $4,000 less than the county average.

"I think we've fared better than those who cater strictly to move-up buyers," said Mr. Ward, whose father, Walter Ward, began developing and building in rural Harford 50 years ago, before the county became an Interstate 95 bedroom of Baltimore.

Bob Ward, who has a master's degree in business administration from Loyola College, is also credited with an innovative, and even unconventional approach to the business of building homes.

"He's not doing it the way we did it 20 years ago," said Dwight Griffith, a Harford builder who last year was president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

His willingness to experiment is being recognized this weekend at the National Association of Home Builders' annual convention in Houston. Mr. Ward is being cited for his aggressive use of

energy-saving techniques. This morning, Bob Ward Homes will receive the NAHB Research Center's "EnergyValue Housing Award" for single-family attached homes built in moderate-climate regions.

Mr. Ward was one of the first participants in Baltimore Gas & Electric's 15-month-old program promoting energy-efficient residential construction; in 1995, his company had 110 townhomes and detached dwellings certified by BGE's "EnergyWi$e" program.

BGE reimburses builders for the extra costs they incur for energy-efficient construction and appliances: better insulation, less air infiltration, kilowatt-stingy water heaters and windows that help keep homes cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Mr. Ward and some other builders in the "affordable" segment saw the program as a way to help more entry-level buyers qualify for mortgages. Instead of going to high utility bills, more of a family's income would be available to pay the mortgage.

Some builders, however, have been reluctant to participate in the program because they feared that, after spending thousands of dollars on more expensive appliances and tighter construction, their homes might flunk BGE's tests.

"The bigger companies, they thought that was a pretty big risk," said Mr. Ward.

He solved this problem by hiring an energy contractor who promised, "You let us seal your home, we'll guarantee you that we'll meet that standard," Mr. Ward said.

BTC "He has been a champion of this cause," said Larry Shannahan, BGE sales director, "when very few other builders were doing this."

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