Thirty years ago, Rob Rice left his family’s wheat farm in Almira for Washington State University, showing an interest in architecture and, later, construction management. Little did he know that his true calling would be building single-family residences.
His first home was a 2,040-square-foot residence in University Place. It would become the first of more than 3,000 homes he has built, including in Thurston County, that would establish him as a regional land developer and homebuilder. His communities dot the region and more are on the way. He has more than 700 projects in the pipeline, a five-year build-out of homes, he said.
We sat down with Rice to ask him five questions about his profession.
Q: What made you want to be a homebuilder?
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A: Well, it’s weird because I grew up on a wheat farm, but I wanted to go into architecture, so I went to WSU to study architecture as well as construction management. After I graduated and came over here, I started working in Auburn and later partnered up with a guy named Dennis Andrews. We started Gemini Corp. (later to become Rob Rice Homes). I didn’t really plan to get into residential construction. I don’t know. It just happened.
Q: What are the current trends in the homebuilding market?
A: A master bedroom on the main floor. We went though a trend in the 1990s and 2000s when lots got smaller, so everything went vertical and resulted in a lot of two-story homes. An older demographic, though, doesn’t want that, so if you can put the master on the main floor, it will sell. It doesn’t matter if the home, pricewise, is entry level or upscale, it will sell.
Q: How did you get through the recession?
A: I’m a very conservative person, and I serve on a bank board, which I think drives home the point of being financially sound. During the housing run-up in 2004 and 2005, I watched a lot of builder friends plow money into new projects. But I didn’t think it was going to last. It didn’t feel right. So I pulled back from the market, and then when it did implode, we weren’t overleveraged and didn’t have much debt — we had free capital. So we bought numerous projects for 50 cents on the dollar. I bank primarily with Washington Federal, and in 2010, I had their only land development loan across the bank’s entire footprint. We took a very conservative approach. A downturn in housing will happen again. Hopefully, it won’t be as deep, but it will come around again.
Q: Do we have a real inventory problem? If so, why?
A: Yes, we do. The primary reason is that during the recession virtually no new projects came to market. There were old projects that were revitalized and moved forward, but there were no new projects. As the economy picked up, there wasn’t enough supply of lots in the pipeline and nothing behind it. There’s not enough lot inventory to meet the oncoming demand. Other challenges: Environmental concerns and new low-impact development standards, which have a substantial impact on land development.
Q: What do you like best about your work?
A: The people we have working for us. When I hire someone, I don’t take that lightly. That’s why during the downturn, we didn’t let anyone go. We kept moving. It was painful, and it may have made more sense to pause the business and restart it, but we didn’t do that, and we came out of it stronger. It’s not just a business, there’s more to it.
Rob Rice Homes
Location: 1868 State Ave NE, Olympia.
Owners: Rob and Helena Rice.
Type of business: Land developer and homebuilder, single-family residences.
Years in business: Rob Rice began building homes soon after graduating from Washington State University in 1985.
Number of homes built to date: More than 3,000 in Thurston, Pierce and King counties.
Number of homes per year: 110-120.
Homes in the pipeline: More than 700.
Some of his Thurston County developments: Beckonridge, Campus Estates, Campus Peak, Chestnut Village.
Average home prices: Upper $300,000s to lower $400,000s.
Employees: 17. But his work crews, which include various subcontractors, can number as many as 100.
Did you know? Rob grew up on a wheat farm in Almira, not far from Grand Coulee Dam. Co-owner and wife, Helena, managed the advertising department at The Olympian for 11 years. The two met because they both served on the board at Olympia Master Builders. Before Rob Rice Homes, the business was known as Gemini Corp.