With four years of success under its belt, Sweetwater Homes is busy building in Utah County, Utah.
WITH THE RIGHT BUSINESS MODEL and the right niche, Richie McDonald decided to jump into the housing market with his own company — even when others would say it was the wrong time.
His instincts proved to be on target. SweetWater Homes has experienced four years of solid growth among its target audience: families looking for move-up homes.
“My main goal is to build a move-up house of lasting quality,” he says. “I didn’t want to build a starter home or a custom home. I wanted something in-between. Others had worked in those spaces. There were not a lot of builders creating between. That’s where I wanted to be.”
To build a home for families looking for the next step, SweetWater focused on spacious kitchens, master bathrooms and living rooms designed with comfort in mind.
“The most important area is the kitchen,” McDonald says. “Standard on our houses are a double oven and a gas cooktop. We do a bigger kitchen. We focus on that and the master bath, and make sure the shower area is nice and big, with two sinks.”
A Family Tradition
With a grandfather who built homes in Salt Lake City, McDonald spent his early years watching homeowners achieve their dreams of beautiful living.
“I grew up around it,” he says. “It was exciting as a kid for me to see a project take shape, starting with a hole being dug and finishing with this beautiful house. It just captivated my attention.”
As a child, McDonald was the first among his friends to build a clubhouse or skateboard ramp, and he took that passion to Brazil where he spent two years doing missionary work in the Amazon rain forest, building homes for the needy and homeless.
He paid for college working as a full-time framer and taking courses in the evening. He earned a degree in construction management from Utah Valley University and then spent four years as a construction manager for another company in the area before launching his own, though the community still was recovering from the Great Recession.
“After I earned four years’ experience, I decided it was time, despite it being the middle of a building recession,” McDonald says. “The recession hit so hard that a lot of the local building companies had been weeded out. I was able to gain market share I might not have been able to in a good market.”
A Steady Start
Last year, the company created 17 houses and generated just over $8 million in sales. This year, it is on track to build as many as 30 houses. Price points range from $300,000 to $700,000.
“It’s been steady growth each year,” he says. “Now, when people think of SweetWater homes, they think of a house that’s going to fit their family needs. It’s not too small, not too big. It’s the perfect size for a family here in Utah County – a nice, spacious kitchen, family room, comfortable living areas.”
Of the company’s three packages — standard, classic and custom — custom offers the most options, but it’s certainly not the limit.
“They can choose a package and upgrade above and beyond,” he says. “Homeowners love it because it’s different from that past experience with other builders, where you go into a design appointment and find that you have to spend an extra $40,000 or $50,000 to actually get what you want in a house. With us, they know what they’re getting.”
That approach is one of the steps SweetWater takes to build trust, McDonald adds.
“I have a very detailed selection sheet for every aspect of the house,” he says.
That paperwork is signed by the homeowner, SweetWater and subcontractors.
“That ensures that everything is being put in the house that needs to be,” McDonald says, adding that he also “walks” each house every week and ensures that homeowners are updated weekly through a realtor.
The most common of SweetWater’s options is the classic package.
“We have tile in our master showers, where others might have a fiberglass insert,” McDonald says. “We do granite in the kitchen and bath where a lot of people do Formica. We do a nicer carpet than normal and often do an 8-pound pad, which makes the carpet last longer.”
Another example of SweetWater’s commitment to not using shortcuts is countertops.
A lot of builders will use 2-centimeter granite because it’s less expensive. But that thickness leaves the granite prone to breaking, McDonald says. SweetWater uses only 3-centimeter granite.
“We use nicer carpet, too,” he says. “You can install cheap carpet, and it only looks good for the first year or two. We only use what’s going to last.”
A one-year builder’s warranty affords a guarantee to homeowners.
“Before the buyers move into their house, I give them a maintenance book and recommendations on how to keep their home looking good forever,” McDonald says. “I also give them instructions on how to fill out a warranty claim. Any of those come directly to me.”
The company offers a mix of options for exteriors, focusing on three styles: Utah traditional, with stucco and rock elements; craftsman style with a fiber/cement/rock blend; and a rustic exterior with reclaimed barn wood and rock.