Back in December 2008, most home builders were feeling grim, at best, as home prices in free fall were joined by the collapse on Wall Street. Zinn Design Build, however, was sitting pretty, having placed nine homes under contract in the previous 11 weeks. Not bad for a family-owned business in Chapel Hill, N.C., that builds just 17 to 25 houses annually.
Also not bad considering sales of other nearby homes in the same price range ($519,000 to $1.3 million) were collectively down 40 percent from the previous year.
Owner Carol Ann Zinn attributes her company’s buoyancy, at least in part, to a couple of fortuitous moves. One was relieving her existing salesforce and starting over with a more experienced team. But of course the new salespeople needed something good to sell—and that’s where it matters that Zinn has always treated building as part art, part business.
A former artisan potter, Zinn began dabbling in Carolina real estate development in 1976 when her sons were small. It wasn’t long before the creative energy she’d been pouring into ceramics was redirected into single-family homes with a boutique sensibility.
That approach has served her well over the years—even now. Although most of her firm’s homes are based on a portfolio of in-house plans (all designed by Zinn herself), no two are alike. One might offer clapboard siding, clean-lined Scandinavian window treatments, and subway tile, for example, while another might be shingle-clad with hand-turned newel posts and British-inspired cabinetry. Custom fireplace mantels and built-ins are often commissioned from master furniture makers in nearby Durham. “People either like what we do or they don’t,” Zinn says. “If they do, they certainly can’t find anything else like it in the area.”
Zinn residences often beguile with an eclectic charm you’d be more likely to find in remodeled older houses, but each also provides the best that new construction can offer. All homes are Energy Star and GBI certified, and feature airtight insulation, high-performance appliances, tankless water heaters, green label carpeting, specially filtered air handling sys-tems, reflective roof sheathing, and zoned irrigation landscaping. For buyers, those ingredients can mean energy savings of up to $740 per year, compared to conventionally built new homes, Zinn says. Roughly 70 percent of the builder’s business is spec homes, while the other 30 percent is custom commissions.
Granted, the business model hasn’t been completely recession proof. “We have come down slightly in our pricing, although not hugely,” says Omar Zinn, one of Carol Ann’s two sons who now run the development side of the business. “A year ago, we were getting 99 percent to 100 percent of asking price, whereas now it’s more like 95 percent or 96 percent.”
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Durham, NC.