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Influx of newcomers, expats keeps business strong for homebuilders in the suburbs

Western New York’s population hasn’t grown in years, but you’d never know it from standing along Garden Walk Drive in Clarence and watching the beehive of construction activity.

Welcome to Spaulding Green, where more than a dozen homebuilders are busy putting up the latest round in Dominic Piestrak’s 500-lot project that features a wide blend of styles. Located next to the tony Spaulding Lake community, the homes are primarily for upper-income buyers.

“There’s only one problem with this house. You have to be able to afford it,” Piestrak said, as he took a visitor through a $720,000 patio home.

The homes, while pricey, are just some of the many new houses at various price levels that are going up in a host of new developments throughout Western New York.

“It’s been a terrific year,” said John Manns, vice president of sales and marketing for Marrano/Marc Equity, citing a 20 percent jump in sales this year, after a 35 percent leap the year before. “We could have been on cruise control. We’re really hustling to get everything done.”

While not setting new records, the strong market for new construction is driven by a mixture of renewed confidence in Western New York by those living here, and an influx of both newcomers and returning expatriates.

“I think people’s outlook on living in the Buffalo and Western New York area is stronger than it’s been with all the great new things happening around here,” said David L. Capretto, president of Forbes-Capretto Homes. “In the last couple of years, we have built more new homes for people relocating back to Buffalo or moving to Buffalo than we’ve ever seen before.”

Many of these are successful business people or doctors, in their 30s, 40s and 50s. On the other end of the age scale, there is also a growing pool of retiring baby boomers who are ready to “cut back” to smaller patio homes, but still want something new and upscale, and are willing to pay for it.

“A very large portion of the population is downsizing, especially in Western New York, where you have a large elderly population,” said Richard Tesmer Jr., co-owner of Tesmer Builders, a custom home builder in East Amherst. “Then you have a portion of the population that’s successful and wants to buy a large home to show off their success. They want a large house that fits their needs and they want to buy something new.”

That’s not to say new construction is for everybody.

“The entry level for a new build is a little higher,” said Philip J. Nanula, president and CEO of Essex Homes of Western New York. “An existing home, you can buy a $69,000 home in Kenmore or Cheektowaga. You can’t build for that.”

It’s also harder for potential homeowners to get mortgages because tougher regulations are making banks scrutinize transactions more closely. And even the developers themselves are having a more difficult time getting construction loans, which makes it harder for them to stay on schedule with homes.

Still, builders are thrilled with the turnaround – especially compared to the harsh first three months of last year when the bitter cold and heavy snow stymied sales. Capretto, for example, said sales are stronger than they’ve been in the last five to six years.

“We’re tickled,” Marrano’s Manns said. “We’re having a Cinderella year. It’s all coming together.”

And they’re more bullish on the future. “I see 2015 being another good year from what I can see,” said David Burke, owner of Burke Homes, which is working with developer David Gordon to push out the second phase of Colvin Estates in Buffalo, with 30 additional lots on top of the 24 that were sold in the first stage. “There’s still a demand. The interest climate is favorable, and the economy has been rolling very well for the last three years.”

Patio homes seem to be particularly strong, builders say, particularly in communities like Amherst, Clarence and Orchard Park, with subdivisions like Spaulding Green, Essex Greens and Avalon Meadow. Such homes are typically one story with large patios, although some builders have added a small second level or a walk-out basement to offer more living and entertainment space.

But the primary focus of the house is on the first floor, which makes them particularly attractive to older buyers moving out of much larger multistory homes.

Another hot trend is the energy-efficient or “green” home, including features like geothermal heating. That’s an area that Natale Building Corp. has focused on with its Clarence Rivera Greens. “It has helped us distinguish ourselves from standard-built homes,” said President and CEO Angelo S. Natale.

Masonry exteriors – more stone than brick now – are particularly popular, as well as craftsman-style shake shingle roofs and siding. There’s more focus on cultured or man-made stone that looks natural but is more flexible in its use, and can be more easily and inexpensively applied to a home.

Inside the houses, granite countertops, white wood cabinets and stainless steel appliances remain attractive for kitchens, along with wider-plank hardwood floors, ceramic tiles and high-end laminates that look like hardwood. Specialized wine cooler drawers, spice drawers and towel cabinets are more common. Bathrooms are getting larger showers and double-sink vanities. And high ceilings, glass transoms, direct-vent fireplaces, built-in bookcases and detailed crown moulding are attractive.

Many homebuyers also are seeking convenient and open floor plans, lots of storage space, walk-in pantries, and either “daylight” or walk-out basements that can be used for recreation rooms, home theaters or extra sleeping space. Home automation is also popular, with controlled lighting and theater systems, whole-house audio and speakers or remote-monitored video cameras.