Made To Order. Florida's Lee Wetherington Homes has sold four homes thrrough its restarted Signature division, which pursues custom-home  sales opportunities with buyers who own lots.Photos: Lee Wetherington Homes

Made To Order. Florida's Lee Wetherington Homes has sold four homes thrrough its restarted Signature division, which pursues custom-home sales opportunities with buyers who own lots.

Lee Wetherington Homes, the Lakewood Ranch, Fla.–based builder, is reviving its on-your-lot custom home design business that the company mothballed as it scaled back its operations during the housing recession.  

The 38-year-old builder recently rehired Steve Nelson as its director of architecture. Nelson had been with the company from 2000 to 2008, and had worked closely with owner Lee Wetherington on developing many of the house plans it continues to use.

Peter Mason, the builder’s vice president of sales and marketing, tells Builder that the company has whittled its house plans to around 30. “The models we have open at any given time” typically represent the plans most popular with customers in the Sarasota/Manatee county region, he says. For years, Lee Wetherington Homes has built on customers’ lots, but now it will pursue that business systematically through its Wetherington Signature Homes division, which the builder launched in 2000 but put on hold when business conditions soured mid decade.

The timing of the re-launch corresponds with the local housing market’s slow but steady recovery, which Mason notes is creating a shortage of available lots in preferable locations such as Lakewood Ranch, the 8,500-acre, seven-village community along Florida’s Gulf Coast. “So people are looking for alternatives to master-planned communities,” says Mason. “We’ve been getting inundated with requests for custom homes on buyers’ lots.”

At one time, Wetherington was closing 350 homes per year. In 2012, it will close 30, and more than 10% of those will have been on-your-lot projects. Mason thinks that number could eventually rise to between 20% and 25%, and contribute to Wetherington’s goal of building and closing 50 homes per year. “This is an opportunity to expand our business,” he says.

While Wetherington is willing to build a home from scratch, its preference is to customize from its existing plans. Mason points out, too, that on-your-lot homes can fetch a premium: The company’s average price point on all sales is around $650,000, but the price of its custom homes has averaged $800,000, “and that’s without the land [price],” says Mason. The new division has already sold four homes, all of which have been more than 3,000 square feet.

Most of the 16 builders active at Lakewood Ranch do custom work, although that’s been no guarantee of success. Last month, one of those builders, Paradise Homes, filed court papers to liquidate its operations, with a dozen homes under construction and 18 others sold but yet to be started. Mason says another builder in Lakewood Ranch, which he did not identify, is on shaky ground.

“So be careful what you wish for,” he laughs.

John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.