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Business Observer Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020 1 year ago

Homebuilder sees success by sticking to niche

Focusing on one neighborhood has been a boon for an enterprising businessman. One advantage? He can ride his bike to job sites.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

It’s not uncommon to spot several people pedaling down the street on three-wheel bicycles in Pinecraft. One of those people might be Albert Miller, owner of Sand Dollar Homes & Construction.

Miller, who is Amish, travels to his construction projects in Pinecraft by bike — a frequent mode of transit for car-eschewing Amish. The Sarasota neighborhood off Bahia Vista Street has been a popular destination for decades for Amish and Mennonite residents who come from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky.

Courtesy. Sand Dollar Homes & Construction is focusing on new construction home projects in Sarasota’s Pinecraft neighborhood.

Capitalizing on the neighborhood's longtime popularity — and ensuing demand for updated properties — Miller is now managing 14 projects in the neighborhood, including 12 new construction houses and two extensive home remodels. “I can supervise all of the jobs off my bike,” he says. “With 12 new houses going at one time, it makes for some long nights.”

The Pinecraft Neighborhood Overlay District that went into effect in March 2018 also laid the groundwork for more building activity, Miller says. It allowed property owners to maximize lots by changing setback requirements and the lot coverage percentage allowed. “It’s tight, it’s maximized to the inch, but it allows for more people,” he says.

While far away in miles, now Pinecraft, with its limited boundaries, high per-square-foot prices and big demand, is reminiscent of another locale: Manhattan.  

‘I can supervise all of the jobs off my bike. With 12 new houses going at one time, it makes for some long nights.’ — Albert Miller, Sand Dollar Homes & Construction

Demand like that will likely keep Miller busy for the foreseeable future. His strategy is a tried-and-true business principle: stick to your niche and do it well. He’s had a few projects outside Pinecraft in the last couple years, but the travel was time-consuming. “I’m so much farther ahead to focus on Pinecraft,” he says. “I just feel like the building in Pinecraft won’t fluctuate quite as much as it will in other areas. There are always more new people who would like to come into Pinecraft.”

Miller moved to Florida from West-Central Kentucky six years ago. Before that he specialized in insulated concrete form construction. Miller built schools and other projects using the premade, block-like forms. In Sarasota, he decided to put his construction experience to good use, founding Sand Dollar Homes & Construction.

In most cases, property owners contact Miller to demolish an old house and build a new one in its place. Sand Dollar has also partnered with other investors on a few homes.

Courtesy. Sand Dollar Homes & Construction has built one-story homes in Pinecraft as well as two-story homes on somewhat larger lots, creating space for a garage and second story.

Most homes in the neighborhood are modestly sized. Miller, for instance, focuses on 800-square-foot homes, the maximum now allowed on 40-by-40-foot lots. Although modestly sized, prices in Pinecraft aren’t low. Investors Miller built 800-square-foot houses for have sold them for $270,000 to $295,000. That puts the price-per-square-foot at about $340 to $370. By contrast, the Realtor Association of Sarasota & Manatee says according to data pulled from Stellar MLS, the average price per square foot of residential homes in Sarasota County was $200 in September 2020. 

Miller has also built homes on somewhat larger lots, creating space for a garage and second story. Two-story homes go for about $550,000.

“It’s all about being close enough together,” says Miller, who declines to disclose 2019 revenue for Sand Dollar. “As a church or as a group, we have to be close enough together that we can get together. We can’t go 20 miles to go to church. That’s what really drives the price up in Pinecraft. That’s what creates the Pinecraft rush.”

Miller wants to make sure he’s delivering a product that meets his end-users’ needs, so he’s made a point of asking residents questions. “One of the demands is a porch,” he says. So Miller added porches and another common request: washers and dryers. The homes also have tile floors, custom kitchen cabinets, custom showers and bathtubs.

Courtesy. Day-to-day, Albert Miller of Sand Dollar Homes & Construction keeps busy with permitting, inspections and overseeing subcontractors.

Day-to-day Miller keeps busy with permitting, inspections and overseeing subcontractors. One recent day included nine subcontractors working at different sites. “Sometimes you feel like a schoolteacher teaching them,” says Miller. One “student” will raise his hand, and he runs to that project to answer the question. “It’s fun, it really is,” he says. “I’m in a position now that I dreamed about for years.”

With so many projects going on simultaneously, it helps that Miller is laser-focused on moving things forward. “Efficiency has always been a top priority,” he says. As soon as a project is ready for the next step, he’s on it, giving workers a heads up so they can jump on board.

During the coronavirus, Sand Dollar has faced some supply challenges. There were issues getting appliances, plus the price for pressure-treated lumber jumped. There was a shortage at one point, but now, it’s available again. On the labor side, subcontractors have been hard at work at his sites and others. “Everyone’s just super busy,” he says. “Sometimes you have to wait a day or two to get an electrician out.”

Much of Sand Dollar’s business comes via word of mouth — and from people admiring the final products. “There are people who have seen the houses we’ve done and they just want something built just like we did before,” says Miller. “When they come to me, I don’t have to sell anything.”

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