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."
BGE topped its 1995 goals for EnergyWi$e in no small measure because of Mr. Ward's participation and also because of involvement by one of the other major "affordable" housing companies in the region, Masonry Contractors Inc. of Carroll County, which had the most homes certified last year, 150.
But Masonry and Bob Ward Homes have more in common than the BGE program. Both are the locally owned homebuilders in counties where rapid suburban growth has periodically placed both at the hub of controversy. As the fastest-growing builder in Harford, Mr. Ward has found his rising profile a mixed blessing.
Last year, several residents who bought houses from his company in Otter Creek Landing sued, claiming they were not informed by Bob Ward Homes of the proximity of their subdivision to a chemical weapons disposal site at the Edgewood Area of the Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Mr. Ward's firm had agreed in 1993 to a memorandum with the county recommending, but not requiring, that prospective buyers be told of the base's weapons-testing activities. Initial purchasers in the development weren't notified, however.
Mr. Ward has said his firm acted in good faith and relied on engineering reports that showed no environmental problems in the subdivision, and his lawyers have sought dismissal of the suit. The plaintiffs' lawyer, Baltimore attorney Ransom J. Davis, said the suit is in the discovery phase and may be a year from trial.
Those close to Mr. Ward say the controversy bothered him because he has prided himself on good customer relations. Mr. Ward's company holds frequent focus groups to learn what buyers want. He puts his picture and telephone number on company sales brochures, and takes calls from customers with problems.
"I get very few of them," he said.
When he's not touring his building sites -- which are spread over some 15 communities in Maryland and Pennsylvania -- most of his time is spent finding land and negotiating regulatory hurdles.
"I've focused this company on affordable housing, but the lot prices often make it difficult to do," Mr. Ward said.
He's building more than 50 homes in New Freedom, Pa., just across the state line, starting at $109,000 on quarter to half-acre lots. He can't sell for that price in Harford because sewer and water tap fees are about $5,000 more, and finished lots cost around $20,000 more, said Mr. Ward.
But buildable lots are dwindling in southern Pennsylvania, so he's looking across the Susquehanna River at Cecil County.
"We've done very well in Havre de Grace, and Cecil's only one more exit on 95," Mr. Ward said. "My dad tells me that 20 years ago, when he was building, people were saying Cecil County's going to come, and he hasn't seen it yet. But it's got to."
Mr. Ward and his wife, Barbara, are raising their three children in Harford, and the county will continue to be the dominant source of business, he says. But Harford's slower-growth policies and what Mr. Griffith calls an "unbelievably competitive" new-homes market make it less hospitable for volume builders like Mr. Ward. The Harford market peaked in 1993, when builders sold more than 1,800 new homes, well above the 1,500-home annual rate for the first half of this decade, according to Legg Mason.
"We're basing our business plan for  on a flat local market as a whole," Mr. Ward said. "We don't see it growing that much. But we're projecting about a 25 percent growth in our volume due primarily from adding on more projects."
These include the Baltimore County projects: More than 70 townhomes at the Claybrooke community in Woodlawn, the two dozen single-family detached homes he will build at Claybrooke, and the 40 townhomes in the White Marsh community of Castle && Stone. Claybrooke is one of the fastest-selling communities in the region. Ryland sold a dozen detached homes there in the third quarter of 1995, at an average base price of around $136,550. In Castle Stone, Mr. Ward will be going up in the low-end segment against Ryan's townhome project.
But he won't compete simply on price. Mr. Ward positions himself as an entry-level builder who will make changes.
"You're buying an affordable home, but then you can customize," he said. All the company's home plans are computerized, and customers can mix and match features. "If you want to change this or that, we've got a system devised to do it."
But the next step -- probably in 1997 -- is a small home he plans to build in the cavernous old sanctuary in the rear of his headquarters, where customers can look at different shutters, slide siding panels on and off, and see all the kitchen cabinet arrangements.
"You'll still have models, but you could almost come here and buy a home without having to go out, except maybe to look at your lot," said Mr. Ward. The largest national builders already feature home stores featuring a variety of interiors, such as Ryland's in Lutherville.
"He has defined what his market niche is," said Mr. Shannahan of BGE. "He's built in an area he understands, not only his customers, but the government he deals with."