Harford development opens despite widespread slump


Most homebuilders wouldn't want to launch a new community in a typically dead time of year, in a particularly depressed period for real estate.

Brothers Don and Dale Stephen of Bel Air-based Stephen Homes concede that they face a few obstacles as they begin to build 37 single-family homes at Bynum Overlook in Harford County. Yet they expect the prices and value of their homes to persuade cautious consumers to buy.

Stephen Homes announced the opening of its community at Bynum Overlook Dec. 17, when the homebuilding market was so slow that many builders and suppliers were shutting down for the rest of the year.

And recent reports indicate that consumers aren't in the buying mood, especially for single-family homes. According to the Harford County Permits Office, the number of building permits issued in November 1990 for single-family, detached homes in the area was well behind 1989 and 1988.

Also, the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors reports that contracts for new-home sales were down 29 percent in the region in November 1990 compared with November 1989.

Dale Stephen acknowledges that in the current down market, Stephen Homes is under pressure to cut its prices to the bone and that the risks of launching a new community can be intimidating.

"There is a lot of competition right now. It is a challenge," he said. "We just try to keep prices and profits down and offer quality products, same as we've been doing all along.

"Basically we've had the same subcontractors since we started in business," he said. "They work with us. And we try to keep a lot of the work in-house." The company does much of its own excavation, for instance.

Richard Tracey, Stephen Homes' general sales manager, said many of the same subcontractors who work with the Stephen brothers also have teamed with their father, H. Carl Stephen, since he started the company nearly 40 years ago. Such long-term relationships are helpful, he said.

"We've cut back, and we're asking our [subcontractors] to keep their prices down. We tell them we're in for tough times, and we're asking them to work with us." Most are more than willing, he said.

"It depends on how much people want to stay in business. When times are good everyone does well. When times are tough, they work together," he said.

Stephen Homes at Bynum Overlook offers four models, all single-family, two-story Colonial homes with three and four bedrooms.

"We've got 1,500 to 2,300 square feet of house selling from $129,900 to $168,990," Mr. Tracey said.

The company broke ground in mid-December on its first model, the Avondale, priced between $140,000 and $150,000. Mr. Tracey said it will be completed within 90 days.

Homes based on the Avondale design can be expanded from three to four bedrooms, and from 1,800 to 2,100 square feet, depending on the options chosen in the master bath and other areas.

"All our houses are expandable," Mr. Tracey said. "The public can choose what they want."

Large foyers, first-floor powder rooms, large kitchens with pantries, formal dining rooms and one-car garages are standard in each home.

It's too soon to tell how well cutting pricing and profits will work for Stephen Homes at Bynum Overlook.

"People haven't had a chance to see the floor plans yet," Mr. Tracey said. "We're just now putting the models up and starting an advertising campaign."

Developed by Morris Wolf of Harford County, Bynum Overlook is a 67-acre community on Hookers Mill Road. In addition to Stephen Homes, both Rylea Homes and Leigh Homes have lots there. Bynum Run borders the community.

Adding to the value of the homes at Bynum Overlook is the area's special significance to the state of Maryland. Bynum Run is the primary stream leading into the Bush Creek Marsh in south central Harford County. The marsh has been designated by the state as an important fish and wildlife habitat. As a result, nearly half of the acreage at Bynum Overlook has been designated a preserved natural resource district.

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