When Dave Matlock launched TriStone Homes in 2008, San Antonio’s housing market was in the process of tanking. For the 12 months ending June 30 of that year, construction of single-family homes plunged nearly 38% from the same period a year earlier. Since then, starts have fallen by more than 30% to around 7,100 units in 2009, according to Metrostudy estimates. Yet TriStone has thrived during this challenging period. Closings at its five communities jumped from 11 in 2008 to just under 90 in 2009, and the young home building business is already turning a profit. Matlock intends to open one or two more communities in 2010 and predicts that his company’s close between 110 and 120 homes this year.

In a market still dominated by big builders such as D.R. Horton, Pulte, Fieldstone, Ryland, and KB Home, TriStone has angled its way into the game by emphasizing “proactive” customer service. “The key is finding your niche, and ours has been to treat people the way you want to be treated,” says Matlock. “What has really driven me is the personal touch we provide to buyers.”

So every month, his company holds “Meet the Builder” nights in its design center, where buyers and prospects can get to know TriStone’s associates. Many of TriStone Homes’ standard features would be considered upgrades by competitors. The builder has 11 house plans, but its in-house designer will make “small changes” during the construction process at buyers’ requests, says Matlock. And to accentuate the integrity of its product, TriStone uses a third-party inspector, Burgess Construction Consultants, to conduct slab, pre-drywall, and completion inspections before the house is handed over to the customer.

TriStone’s other advantage is Matlock’s previous experience working as a division president for Horton, KB Home, and Standard Pacific, which gave him insights into how his competitors operate in this market. When StanPac exited San Antonio in late 2007, Matlock contracted with that builder to complete and sell 135 homes, which provided the seed money for TriStone Homes. For two years, he also worked as an operations manager for Armadillo Homes, where he established a contact with Compass Bank, which in February 2008 provided TriStone’s initial line of credit.

Today, TriStone’s homes range from 1,348 to 3,200 square feet. Prices go from $120s to the $220s, with the best seller being a 2,000-square-foot, one-story house priced at $180,000, “which is a little above the average resale price here,” says Matlock. He notes, too, that the availability of unsold new homes in San Antonio is now down to about two months’ supply, which should be good news for builders.

But even as market conditions improve and TriStone expands, Matlock says he won’t be lured into acquiring land for later use. “We buy a lot; we’re building on it,” he says.

John Caulfield is senior editor for BUILDER magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Antonio, TX.