Corey Barton, president of Corey Barton Homes, one of the Treasure Valley's largest home builders, got his start in a decidedly unconventional way. He helped his mother, Sharon Kirkemo,build a home when he was a teenager.
Barton, 51, graduated from Capital High School in 1985. He dreamed of racing motorcycles professionally but quickly learned it cost a lot to pay his own expenses as he tried to build a reputation.
To earn a living, he began framing houses. Eventually he saved enough money to build his own. He later sold it, but the house, in West Boise, still stands.
Now he runs Idaho's largest home-building company. Builder Magazine, which tracks the industry, ranked CBH as the 47th largest in the United States in 2017, up three spots from the year before.No other Idaho company made the top 100.
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CBH sold 1,075 houses in 2016 and reported $226 million in revenues, the magazine said. It employs about 120 people, not including subcontractors.
Barton drew national attention in 2007 when CBH built a house for TV's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" to benefit a Middleton family.
He spoke with Statesman reporter John Sowell.
Sowell: How did you get into construction?
Barton: My mom and dad got divorced when I was in third grade. When I was in high school, mom decided to build a house herself, without any knowledge. Of course, who would be better workers than my younger brother and I, supplying cheap labor. She's an extremely fearless woman. We helped out how we could, even though we didn't know what we were doing. I learned a little bit. Later, I worked for a little company delivering windows to the new houses, so I was around them.
I went down to Riverside, California, to race motorcycles for a year. I worked on some commercial buildings dealing with glass. In my free time, I was attracted to the homes, and I went around looking at them. I read a few books. I couldn't afford the racing and I struggled over what I was going to do to make money to support myself.
My mom decided to build another house in 1990. Since I had helped her on the first one, I decided to help on this one, too. I caught on to it really easily, so I went to work for a friend and built a couple of houses with him, framing. ... I borrowed my mom's tools and got a friend to help me and started a framing company and just started saving money. I was probably 20, 22.
I built my first one on my own in 1992. It's still standing near Fairview and Five Mile. We worked sunup to sundown six-and-a-half days a week until we didn't have a job and kept saving.
Q: What was the economy and the housing industry like at that time?
A: When I came back from California and helped my mom build her house, there were some experienced builders working in that area, and I was talking to them. At the time interest rates were really high — 18 to 20 percent — and they were saying there was probably another five years left. And I remember that so vividly, because I felt we had to hurry to get in on that. It was going to be over in five years. That five years turned into a boom that lasted until 2006. We had a pretty good run.
'A house a day. How is that possible?'
Q: You build a lot of houses now. How long did it take before it got to that?
A: I remember reading about this builder, Harmon Johnson, who owned Cherry Lane Builders, who built 365 homes the year before. That really resonated with me: That was a house a day. How is that possible? He was like an idol, where I watched him and paid attention to him. There were a couple of others, too.
It was still in the 1990s when we did that many houses, so it didn't take very long. We're well past that now. We have 400 as far as closings for the year and 500 under construction. We're on target this year for between 1,200 and 1,300.
Q: Was there a time where that might have seemed a little overwhelming?
A: Yeah. Yeah. You have all of the real estate professionals that are selling the houses, you have to take care of their needs. The home buyers are spending a lot of money, it's their home, it's their investment. You're not having just one person working on the house. You have hundreds of people that are responsible. And there's mortgage companies, title companies, your own staff. It's like being the conductor of an orchestra, trying to get everyone to work together.
'Today the banks are much more disciplined'
Q: How did banking change after 2008 or so, following the mortgage crisis?
A: Before that, there had been people who overstated their income and banks loaned them money. And we were getting offers on homes from investors sight unseen. They started buying them and flipping them.
I hadn't seen that before 2005, which was a really huge year. Was that a waitress who said she made $500,000 when she was really making $20,000, but she got financed and was able to buy five houses? I don't know. Today, the banks are much more disciplined, and they require much better verification. It's gotten back to what people can afford.
Q: As the Treasure Valley gets more congested, are you having to look farther out?
A: We're already focusing throughout the Valley. We're into Caldwell, Nampa, Kuna, Star, Middleton. We're looking to make sure we stay in those areas, so we're constantly building houses, closing houses and then making sure we've got a future to buy additional property so we can continue.
Caldwell houses look like Eagles at 'a different price'
Q: Do your houses in outlying communities look different from those in Boise?
A: Boise, Meridian and Eagle have become the more expensive areas, because of constraint or the lack of availability. With the larger price on the land, to still make a product affordable, that size of land would probably shrink.
In Kuna, we might have a 70-by-100-foot, or 7,000-square-foot lot. In Boise, it might be skinnier, so that would require a different design. We might use more stone or stucco or a more expensive design.
We have some homes in Caldwell that are the same design as in Eagle, but, of course, they're a different price, because of some of the requirements but also because the land would be less expensive in Caldwell. You would get the same house, but at a lower price than in Eagle.
Q: The median price of a home in Ada County is now above $300,000 and it has gotten harder for many people to afford their own home. Has that affected your company?
A: We are getting pressure from increased costs. The latest is from gas prices going up. The cost of lumber has increased steadily, about 30 percent just in the last year. We had been paying about $20,000 for lumber for a house. It now costs about $6,000 more.
The labor shortage has caused our labor costs to go up. That's the area that has caused the most pressure.
'We're putting pressure on ourselves to get homes out there'
Q: Ada County Assessor Bob McQuade recently told us that housing starts are down. What are you seeing?
A: There's a low supply of homes available, and there hasn't been an abundance of people capable or available to enter the market to buy homes. As we get further and further away from the downturn, there's been more people coming into the market.
Some may have been too young after the downturn. Others may have had financial difficulties and lost their homes then, [and] who are now ready to buy again.
There's a low supply of inventory of houses, and there's a demand this spring for more houses. We have the ability to build, and we're putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to get more homes out there.
Last year, with the bad weather, we had 362 homes being built during the first four months of the year. This year, we had 471 homes. And because of better weather, we're way ahead on those homes than we were last year.
Q: Do any of the TV shows influence what people think they want in a home?
A: I think so. Things like the shiplap interior woods, the crown molding. Some of the buyers ask us about that and some of them say they might do a do-it-yourself project later. We try to pay attention to the colors. The whites have become really popular again. Grays have been popular the last several years. Hanging cabinets, the little ceramic tiles are popular. Stainless steel is popular.
Q: What gives with the popularity of three-car garages in the Treasure Valley? You don't see those in such great numbers in other places.
The three-car storage unit
A: If you look around, not too many people park in their garages. I have to park in the garage because I'm not a big cold person. Even though my garage isn't heated, it's warmer than it is outside, so I don't have to scrape my windows.
But the three-car garage is definitely a good added value. If you went to a storage facility and rented a 10-by-20 unit it would cost you about 100 bucks. So you'd spend less on a three-car garage than on a storage unit. People always have lots of stuff to store. And, of course, it's an added bonus for someone who has toys.
Q: What does the future hold?
A: The truth is, we don't know. This year looks to be already set. We're in the thick of the building season right now. Next year looks to be more of the same but after that we can't tell whether it's fuzzy or bright. We're always prepared to adjust.