Brothers create new character for Baltimore's timeworn homes

The hallmark of several Baltimore neighborhoods is the vast number of old, often dilapidated, rowhouses that have been restored and renovated.

The Knoepfle brothers' mark is on hundreds of them. Currently, their company, Building Character, is in the process of rehabbing 16 structures in neighborhoods from Canton to Locust Point.


The business is thriving, say Matt and Mike Knoepfle, and they are buying, renovating and reselling homes.

Fifteen years ago, it was a different scenario. The brothers' journey from naive business school grads to one of the city's most prolific rehabbers is a rags-to-riches tale.


Mike, 43, and Matt, 40, left their hometown of Philadelphia in 2000, each with a business degree in hand and a desire to play a part in Baltimore's rejuvenation. There was, however, a major obstacle blocking the move.

"We knew nothing about rowhouses and very little about construction," Matt said. "We owned a hammer and a drill and some of our dad's tools."

There were other challenges. They knew nothing about the city or how to navigate their way around its neighborhoods. Nor could they find a single Realtor who would talk to two young men in their 20s. They needed to be shown where to build, what to build — and what not to build.

"We found a gentleman named Bob Fisher [who has since died] who worked for Long & Foster on Henrietta Street in Federal Hill," said Mike. "He took the time and energy to teach Matt and me about renovating houses."


The next challenge was finding a shell to renovate. They found a three-story rowhouse on Pratt Street in Upper Fells Point. They purchased it in 2000 using a credit card on an online auction. Their first house, they learned after purchasing it, was a one-time crack house. But the property was in an up-and-coming neighborhood.

They met with a carpenter, Don Thomas, and struck a deal. After hauling loads of trash from the house, the brothers hired Thomas to frame the interior, and the two worked as his helpers — essentially apprentices.

"They had no idea what they were doing at the time," Thomas remembered. "They were determined this was what they wanted to do. Now they are one of the best builders in town."

During the project, Thomas answered their questions and guided them through the phases of construction.

"He helped point us in the direction of other contractors," Matt said of Thomas. "But a large part of us finding people was from calling numbers on the side of trucks we saw in the neighborhood and asking around other job sites."

When the rehab was completed, the brothers went back to Fisher to ask his help selling the house. Upon completion of the sale in 2001, and after paying Thomas and the other subcontractors, the brothers made a $45,000 profit.

It would be the start of something big.

They went from working on one house at a time to two houses, then three and four at a time. They now have six full-time employees.

The delegation of duties is straightforward. Mike runs the business end of operations, dealing with Realtors, title companies, insurance agencies and attorneys. Matt directs employees at the worksites, visiting each one every day, sometimes twice daily.

"We know what to expect from our contractors, and they know what to expect from us," said Matt. "We use our contractors pretty much as employees, [and] we have a long-standing relationship with all of them."

The duo said their business judgment is guided by the motto "Bought right is half sold."

"It doesn't matter what you do to a property; if you paid too much for it, you're not going to make money," Mike said.

Realizing there is no such thing as overnight success, the brothers thought it would take at least 10 years to get the company up and running.

"When we looked back over our sales, the 10-year mark was definitely the turning point for us," Mike noted. "In 2010, we hit double-digit home sales for the first time."

The company's annual sales records illustrate steady growth from the one home bought, rehabbed and resold in 2001 to 25 completions in 2014. This year, the brothers have sold 19 homes and are awaiting settlement on six other properties.

Each home is an individual piece of architectural work, with historical renovation done to CHAP (Baltimore City Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation) guidelines.

Mike said these requirements include restoring a front exterior to its original look, including brick, windows, doors, railings and steps.

Inside a home, it could be retaining a home's vestibule, for example, if one existed in the original architectural footprint.

"The interior scope is dependent on what historic items remain after years of renovations," he said.

The brothers guarantee that every home they sell is move-in-ready. They tell buyer that the only things needed are a hammer and nails to hang pictures.

While new-home builders are required by Maryland law to provide a one-year warranty on materials and labor, the Knoepfle brothers are exempt from this since the state considers their houses renovations, as opposed to newly built.

Still, the brothers offer their guarantee because they stand behind their work. A spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation said there was no record of complaints filed against their company.

"We want [our buyers] to talk in a positive way … about their house," Matt explained. "We want them to refer their friends, colleagues and family to us."

Joy McPeters and her husband, Warren, purchased one of their homes in 2012.

"The entire process of finding the right house to renovate was easy and relatively painless," she said. "They meet deadlines, [which is] rare in this industry. They are good guys, for sure, and produce a very quality product."

As the brothers continue to build their business, their commitment to their craft and to their buyers remains the same.

"We believe in Baltimore and its many unique neighborhoods," said Mike, adding that they have witnessed firsthand the city's revitalization along the Inner Harbor. "For us, what's better than reusing, repurposing and reinvigorating already existing houses and neighborhoods?"

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