Ralph Smykal has never seen the nation's housing market as bad off as it is right now, and that's saying a lot for an octogenarian whose family-owned company has weathered recession, the Depression and two World Wars.
Despite his take on the market, he says it's still a good time for some people to sign on the dotted line and become homeowners.
"There are people that come in and want to buy [but say] we don't know when it's going to hit bottom," Smykal said. "Who does?"
Smykal turned 80 a few weeks ago and shortly thereafter announced the sale of his family-owned company, which started as a lumber hauler in 1854. It changed its focus to building houses and its name to Smykal Homes in the aftermath of the Chicago Fire.
Relinquishing control is a big step back for Smykal, who vividly remembers his career starting at age 10, standing inside one of the family's homes, handing out brochures. Over the past 137 years, the company's local projects have ranged from Chicago bungalows to subdivisions on the North Shore, from homes in Oak Park, Elmhurst and Hinsdale to several subdivisions in Naperville. Now much of its efforts are concentrated in Joliet, Channahon and Minooka.
Smykal estimates the company has built more than 15,000 area homes, and over the years he's seen plenty of buyers who've done it right and done it wrong. His observations include:
•Do your research because the buyer sitting next to you has done theirs. So have home builders, Smykal said, who surf the Internet like everyone else and expect buyers to be educated at the initial meeting. That means having an idea of what you want in a house and knowing what you can afford.
"It's no fun for us to deal with Lizzie Lipschiltz who wants a $2 million home but can't afford it," he said. "It's not an impulse purchase, so there's time to study and research and compare."
•A lot of developments really are just well-hidden tract housing, but pre-made components means buyers can personalize a home, so go ahead and ask.
"You can have practically anything," Smykal said. "People can still get an individualized result, and that's what they're after. Grandpa's bungalows up and down the street, you would not have much chance with those because of the monotony. As Marshall Field said, give the lady what she wants."
•Be careful how many upgrades you put in your home, Smykal warns. The extra features you pick should depend on, and fit in with, the neighborhood and the price of the home. Don't put a swimming pool in the backyard of a $180,000 home because you'll never recoup the investment.
•Once construction begins, don't show up at the project unannounced every day because builders have liability concerns to worry about if the buyer is injured. After all, he reminds buyers, it is a construction site. At the same time, don't wait until the home is almost completed to check on its progress because you might be unhappy.
He likes to let insurance companies know that buyers will be at the site and then accompany them on tours. "It's a hope and a prayer after that," he said.
•Don't be surprised by how fast a home is built and figure it must be shoddy. Technology has benefited the home-building industry, too. Smykal said it used to take his grandfather a year to construct a house. Weather permitting, the company can build one now in 45 days.
•The first step in the process should be to ask plenty of questions. Some will have a quick answer, some won't. Potential customers have asked Smykal things like who decided on the size of the footings. Those type of questions are fine and the answers don't change. But Smykal advises people to go beyond questions about what's within the four walls of a home.
"Ask about the community, the taxes, the financing," he said. "Those do change."
THE LOCAL SCENE