Saturday, March 25, 2006

Student-built housing combines quality, affordability

By Liz Garone
Special to Valley Homes

For most people, the terms "high school students" and "well-built homes" don't go hand-in-hand. Former contractors Mark Countryman and Al Scoles would like to change that, one house at a time.

As a teacher in the Regional Occupation Program at Downey High School, Countryman is overseeing the construction of a three-bedroom, two-bath, 1700-square-foot home. The builders are his ROP students in a class called Building Construction Technologies. Countryman is proud of the work his students are doing. "I'd put our house up against any others," he says. "Modesto has been here for 150 years. I would like our houses to last that long."

ROP students in Stanislaus County have been building homes for more than two decades, but only recently have the homes started to catch the interest of prospective homebuyers looking for an affordable way into the valley's pricey real estate market. The biggest stumbling block to homeownership through the program is that the houses are built one at a time and take anywhere from a year to two years to build. So, the volume just isn't there.

But for the lucky buyer who does get one, it is well worth it, says Countryman. While the houses are sold "as is," they meet all building code requirements. In many cases, the work performed is more extensive than required by the city and county. "We're not in a hurry," Countryman says. "We're not here to make a profit."

In general, the houses Countryman and his students build take about a year to build and still need some additional work when the students finally put their hammers down. For example, the house the students are currently building does not have Sheetrock, says Countryman - something the students won't install because it is easier to put up once the house has been moved to its permanent location, when there is less chance for cracking and settling.

Still, it's hard to beat the price. At a closed-bid auction last fall, a house sold for a cool $35,000. This is a great price when compared to the open market, says Rodney Owen, director of School to Career Education for Modesto City Schools. "Houses in Modesto are out of sight," he says. "This house is a good deal, but there's a lot more expense to it than most people think."

There are the costs to move the house: around $10,000 to $12,000, according to Owen. Buyers need to have purchased a residential lot, which can range from $80,000 to $150,000 or more. Plus, the house still needs the Sheetrock and plumbing, among other things. In addition, it is the buyer's responsibility to get all of the required permits and water, electrical and sewer hook-ups at the house's new location as well as to have a foundation built.

Many of the past buyers of ROP homes have been owners of dairies or farms who were looking for well-built structures that could easily be moved and quickly put up, Owen says. Only in more recent years have single-family buyers considered them.

Over at Riverbank High School, Scoles and his students are putting the finishing touches on a house they have been constructing over the last two years. Building over a two-year period rather than one year gives Scoles' students the time to complete the house. The only two large items not done are the flooring and cabinets, which will be left unfinished so the buyer can choose his or her own materials. Currently, the students are testing the electrical and plumbing systems. The house already has a 30-year roof that the students installed themselves.

The extra time and work involved mean extra money. Bids are currently being accepted on the house. While there is no minimum bid required, the district is looking for bids in the range of $74,000 - the amount the program needs to recoup its costs, says Ron Costa, assistant superintendent of Business and Educational Services for the Riverbank Unified School District. If the highest bid comes in a lot lower than cost, the district can choose not to accept it and put the house out for bid again.

But Scoles is confident that the home will find the right bidder. "It will be money well spent," he says. "I do think this house is worth that. It is built at least as well as any of the homes in the subdivisions around here, and in some cases, even better." Using thicker insulation than required and adding extra space for storage, Scoles and his students try to upgrade features whenever feasible.

Scoles, a former private-industry remodeling contractor, has already had a number of prospective buyers take a tour of the one-story, 1,860-square-foot home, which he describes as having "an imaginative floorplan." In some ways, the house is better suited to more rural areas, says Scoles, since it is 60 feet wide - the width of many city lots. "It doesn't always translate well to all places within the city limits."

If Scoles were in the market for a new home, he says he would consider purchasing the house. "While it doesn't fit everyone's needs, I would be very comfortable buying this house. Would I live in this house? Absolutely," he says.

For more information on purchasing the house built by Scoles and his students, pick up a bid packet at the Riverbank Unified School District office. The phone number is (209) 869-2538 and the deadline for submitting bids is April 12. Tours of the house are available to prospective buyers by appointment.

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