J.T. Smith Cos. is able to make subdivisions and developments unfold where others might not.
J.T. SMITH COS. is among the Pacific Northwest’s premier residential developers, an established expert in a region where subdivisions have become an increasingly complex and challenging proposition.
Through long-term relationships and a highly specialized team, the 25-year-old company is able to make subdivisions and developments unfold where others might not, CEO Jeff Smith says.
“I think our strength is in the processing, the entitlement work,” he says. “It’s the least glamorous, but when we think about it, it’s the true development work. The construction is not what we consider the development work. The development work is the vision that you have for land and being able to get somebody to agree with that vision. You work with the landowner to sell it to you and, at the same time, get elected officials to agree with that and then work inside the code to make it actually happen. “To actually have it turn into reality is the hard part,” Smith adds.
The company has been able to achieve that consistently, developing between 500 and 1,000 units annually, including increasing apartment unit developments. J.T. Smith also continues work on a smaller scale to build production homes, anywhere from an average of 30 or 40 to 100 homes, in a busy year.
“We give the customer what he or she wants or needs in a home,” Smith says. “If we do that properly, they will reward us by giving us the price we need or want on that home. If all that comes together, it’s a terrific business to be in. The hardest thing here is to listen to the market. If you think you can push the market, you can make mistakes. We want to produce what the customer wants.”
Though those homes are targeted to market amenities and styles, Smith says the company’s strength still lies in its ability to work the bigger picture.
“I’m not a custom home builder,” he says. “I’m a production home builder. I want to design a neighborhood and build that out.”
Being able to build developments in a region where available lots are diminishing and land-use regulations make subdivisions a difficult landscape, J.T. Smith continues to stay ahead of competition.
“We’ve worked in most jurisdictions over time, so those council members and mayors and elected officials know us and know of our company,” Smith says. “We can point to our subdivisions that are in good standing. We’ve never been in trouble with the government, whether it’s the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of State Lands, or any jurisdiction.”
The company also is known for providing landowners certainty of close and doing everything possible to help them feel good about the decision to part with a property.
“When they go ahead and decide to sell a family farm, they can count on a few things,” Smith says. “One, they’re done and they know it’s going to close, and they can count on that. Secondly, they know we’re going to take care of it. We’re going to build the right things on the land, something they can be proud of later. We try to, to a certain extent, involve landowners, if that’s important to them, whether it’s naming streets or subdivisions or signage to keep that family legacy there."
The shifting land market - one that includes a strong urban growth boundary - has scaled down the subdivisions most developers can deliver, Smith says. Once, his company wouldn't consider a subdivision smaller than 30 lots. Developments in the hundreds - 300 to 500 - was the norm. These days, 30 lots would be a worthwhile project. While J.T. Smith still handles subdivisions of 80 or 90, they also work with four-lot parcels.
"We have to work longer and harder and we're paying more and more," Smith says. "The margins keep getting squeezed. It's the landowners' time now."
Fortunately, the region has plenty to offer, and the right employers to support higher prices for properties.
"People like living in the Portland, area," Smith says. "We have the environment, the good family life here, clean air and clean water and neighborhoods."
"I think that will continue," Smith adds. "We just need to open more land."