Building a reputation with his homes


In the secluded hills of western Howard County, where the sounds of hammers banging and power drills humming are about all that can be heard besides the chirping birds, a patch of landscape is dotted with a handful of new homes and skeletons of others going up.

Jim Selfridge sometimes drives by to see it, even when nobody's working. After all, it is his company, James H. Selfridge Builders Inc., that is building all 26 houses in the Ridge View Hunt subdivision in Woodbine.

"I feel proud to drive through and say this is what we created," Selfridge said.

In its 10th year, Selfridge Builders is still considered young in the home-building industry, where successful companies last for generations, said John Kortecamp, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

"However," Kortecamp said, "10 years gives you an awful lot of time to establish a track record, and Jim has certainly done that and ... enjoys an outstanding reputation in the industry."

Selfridge, 41, has seen his company grow from a couple of hundred thousand dollars in sales 10 years ago to a little less than $9 million last year.

He has been in the business for nearly twice as long as his company has been around. And though he has struggled through a poor economy in the late 1980s and has seen three of the companies he built downsize significantly or fade away, Selfridge is relishing the housing boom, and his business is soaring.

"We have gone from having work for two weeks to having work for a year-and-a-half in front of us," said Tim Ragen, Selfridge Builders' vice president of production, who has worked with Selfridge since 1987.

Selfridge started his first construction business in 1984, with only about 18 months of field experience under his tool belt.

Originally from outside Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he moved north to study at Western Maryland College, graduated in 1982 and worked as an assistant superintendent and then a project manager for a company that built Jiffy Lube stores.

"I knew I wanted to have my own business at sometime," Selfridge said, "but did I know I was ready after a year and a half? No."

Still, he hammered away at the notion.

In 1984, with a job renovating apartments in a Washington suburb, Selfridge opened JHS Construction. Within about five years, JHS grew into a $3 million company that built single-use commercial buildings in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington.

The number of employees at the company grew to 40. And, with a commercial building boom in the late 1980s, JHS sprouted two new companies: Quality Concrete Inc. in 1986 and Finishing Touch Painting Inc. in 1987.

But when the economy took a turn in 1989, the concrete and painting companies fizzled out, and JHS went from 40 employees to three, including Selfridge.

"Suddenly that overhead just starts eating you alive," Selfridge said, recalling how the company took an even bigger hit because he waited too long to downsize.

Selfridge and his two employees began doing odd jobs, and in 1990 - shortly after he built his family a house - he created a homebuilding company, Selfridge Builders.

The company has since finished 125 houses, most of them in Howard County. The first house it built cost about $180,000. Now, Selfridge homes average around $550,000, with the lowest being about $400,000 and the highest about $800,000.

With a production office in Clarksville and a sales office in a model home in the Ridge View Hunt subdivision, Selfridge Builders has nine houses under construction in Howard County and one in Anne Arundel County.

Most of the homes Selfridge builds have at least four bedrooms. Because its houses mostly are second, third and fourth homes for residents, its market isn't especially sensitive to interest rate increases.

"For our buyer, it might mean they're not going to get some of the amenities," Selfridge said.

He also said an industry shortage of construction workers has little impact on his business because, with 10 employees, the company subcontracts most of its labor.

Still some challenges may lie ahead.

To ease school crowding, the County Council voted last week to close Bushy Park and Lisbon school districts to development and to stop development around Pointers Run and Atholton elementary schools in 2003. Selfridge said the moratorium could put on hold plans for a subdivision he's working on in West Friendship.

But Selfridge has plans to build beyond Howard County, someday decorating Frederick and Carroll counties with his houses.

"There's excitement in what we're doing," he said.

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