The idea sounded great on paper, but MHI-McGuyer Homebuilders president Gary Tesch was a little apprehensive when he first heard it. Helping veterans this way was a daunting task with a lot of responsibility.
“At the beginning I was a little unsure how it was all going to work out,” Tesch says. “We have done a lot of work with the Houston Habitat [for Humanity], but this was a little different, where all our trade partners and all our vendors, contractors, labor—everybody—chips in.”
Would MHI, the parent company of three builder brands—Wilshire Homes, Coventry Homes, and Plantation Homes—have the time and resources to plan and execute this project while keeping pace in the competitive Texas home building landscape?
What MHI—specifically, its Wilshire Homes brand, which builds in Austin and San Antonio—accepted was an invitation from Operation Finally Home to construct a home in Round Rock, Texas. A nonprofit organization based in New Braunfels, Texas, Operation Finally Home supplies mortgage-free homes to veterans and their families.
Founded in 2005, Operation Finally Home has its fingerprints on more than 200 homes in 33 states that alternatively have been completed, are currently in construction, or are currently in planning. Its team selects veterans who are wounded, ill, or injured, or widows of the fallen, and offers them a home. It also finds a builder willing to construct the home and a lot on which to build it.
“We don’t tell the builders how to build or what to build,” says Dan Wallrath, president and founder of Operation Finally Home. “I was a builder for over 30 years. Building a home is the easiest thing a builder can do so we don’t get involved in the construction itself. What we do is an assessment of needs on the family, and we give it to the builder.”
Wallrath has focused on Operation Finally Home full time since walking away from his Houston-based company, Dan Wallrath Custom Home, in 2015.
“Everybody wants to help our veterans but some people don’t know how,” Wallrath says. “We provide the process and the infrastructure to let builders do what they do best, which is build homes, and then we’re able to utilize their resources to get as many of the materials and supplies donated as possible to make it affordable.”
One challenge Tesch was apprehensive about when Operation Finally Home first reached out to him was that of bringing enough suppliers and contractors on board. “Everybody is so busy, [I was] nervous where the dollars were going to come from if they weren’t able to chip in,” he says.
The nerves quickly dissipated after meeting with local suppliers and contractors in spring 2016. “The response was overwhelming,” he says. “I had both AC companies that I work with angling to see who could do more.”
And the big question as to where the home would be built was soon answered after local developer Blake Magee donated a lot in the Paloma Lake master-planned community.
Wallrath wasn’t surprised by the industry’s response. It’s something he’s seen for 12 years. “They come out of the woodwork to build for a veteran,” he says.
In this instance, the involved parties would build a 2,752-square-foot home for the Nelms family. Nick and Shelby Nelms, who have two children, both suffered combat injuries when serving in Afghanistan.
Following a surprise announcement on live radio telling the Nelms about their new home, the project broke ground on May 17, 2016.
“Everything changed for us when we met the family,” Tesch recalls. “It made it that much more special.”
This was not just another house for MHI—which ranked No. 36 on the latest BUILDER 100 list with 1,504 deliveries in 2016. In addition to the pomp and circumstance that surrounded its construction, it was different, Tesch says. “Our trade partners were willing to be ‘Johnny on the Spot’ for this project,” he says. “It’s a little different from my subdivisions (where) my for-sale units are. It seemed like this one went up faster because everyone was so eager.”
Tesch was one of the handful of people who accompanied the Nelms inside their home for the first time in December, and he recalls that Shelby began to cry after walking into her daughter’s bedroom. Shelby said it was the first time her daughter would have her own room, according to Tesch. “That part was extremely rewarding and life changing to be a part of,” he says.
Molly Halliday, senior vice president of marketing and project management for Operation Finally Home, says Tesch’s experience is nothing new. “It changes the lives of the veterans, but it also changes the lives of everyone associated with the project because you really feel you’re helping your community and you’re making the world a better place,” she says.
For Tesch and the team at MHI, the experience was something they won’t soon forget. And that new experience will come in handy when MHI breaks ground on its next Operation Finally Home project, in Houston, this year, under its Coventry Homes brand.
“We’re just doing one house,” Tesch says of the home in Round Rock, “when there need to be thousands to help everybody who has made these sacrifices.”
To find out more information about Operation Finally Home, click here.