Heather Brand

Jeff Benton Homes of Huntsville, Ala., enjoyed the bestsales month in its 22-year history in May 2008, when it sold 28 houses for $8.3 million, despite the market being off 23.5 percent. In June, it sold another 25. Jeff Benton, the builder’s 50-year-old founder and owner, is feeling more confident these days that his company can repeat last year’s success, when it was one of the few top-200 builders nationally that increased their revenue and closings.

Benton attributes those gains to fertile market conditions and the fact that public production builders in his area came and went. Also, Huntsville’s unemployment is kept low by a defense industry that’s expanding, thanks to the federal government’s military base realignment and closure program, which is expected to relocate 4,700 jobs to the area’s Redstone Arsenal and create as many as 11,000 new jobs by 2011.

But because of the operational and marketing improvements it has been making in recent years, Jeff Benton Homes was eminently prepared to exploit that growth. “It was a matter of timing and a culmination of everything we have been working toward,” says Wendy Lee, who joined the company as a model-home decorator in 1998 and is now vice president of marketing and sales.

Quality Is Job No. 1

With 10 active communities, Jeff Benton Homes grew last year even though Huntsville’s housing market did not. The 1,939 permits issued by the county in 2008 were the lowest since 2004, says Lynn Kilgore, executive director of the Huntsville/Madison County HBA.

In a market that Kilgore describes as still having “a small-town feel to it,” Jeff Benton Homes is established as a high-quality production builder. Its reputation stems partly from the integrity of its warranty program, which Benton takes very seriously. Lee recalls that when she interviewed for a job at the company, she asked about its warranty policy, a headache for the previous builder she worked for. Benton told her that the warranties included his cell phone number as the emergency contact. “I thought he was either crazy,” she remembers, “or wasn’t afraid about hearing from angry owners.”

Benton doesn’t include his phone number on warranty contracts anymore, explaining that he has built his production department “around eliminating those things that people would call us about on warranty.” No home is closed until it has “zero” problems on its checklist.