Grayhawk Homes had no place to grow. The builder already rules the Columbus, Ga., market. And extra home demand sparked by the expansion of nearby Fort Benning was winding down. Grayhawk was looking at a flat sales future.

“I can’t get to 500 houses here,” said Grayhawk President David Erickson. “It just isn’t going to work. I already have 54% market share in the core and 21% in the regional market.”

So every six weeks or so Erickson wakes up early, drives an hour and a half north to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and catches a plane to his new second home-building operation in Des Moines, Iowa, just shy of 1,000 miles away.

Expanding well beyond home turf is becoming more common among mid-sized builders faced with local markets that have shrunk so small that they can’t offer a decent living, says Erickson. Technology and easy commercial plane rides can make it work, he said.

Last year, between the expansion and the final sales related to Fort Benning's growth, Greyhawk's closings grew from 180 in 2010 to 303, a 68% gain. Revenue climbed as well from $36.6 million to $62.2 million.

Grayhawk’s expansion from the cotton fields of Georgia to the corn fields of Iowa was triggered more by happenstance than forethought. Erickson had a relationship with a Des Moines developer who mostly sold lots to builders, but who sometimes built-out remnant lots himself.

“These were scrap lots nobody wanted to buy,” said Erickson. The developer ended up with excess lots that it needed to build out to monetize and asked Erickson for help.

“We were a little cautious to get into the partnership,” he said. “We didn’t know if we could execute.”  But the plan worked, and the developer was able to work through the lots. However, a more permanent partnership agreement was never reached.

Then last fall, a deal that Erickson couldn’t refuse dropped into his lap. Rottlund Homes wanted out of Des Moines. It was looking for a quick cash deal in return for land with rights to build 144 homes. The deal included four standing model homes and 20 homes under construction with a few under contract for sale. There were another 30 or 40 lots platted and some raw land around the corner included.

“It was a manageable deal that a modest-sized builder could pull off without too much difficulty,” said Erickson. But cash was required and there was little time for due diligence. Grayhawk jumped on the deal. Erickson didn’t disclose the price, but said it was so low that sales of the 20 homes under construction would be enough to pay for the entire purchase.

By the end of April, only one of the 20 homes remained unsold.

Erickson says he is still in the middle of learning the best processes for building homes from afar. With the early work he did for the developer, he already had a team in place, including one member who knows the Midwest market, a superintendent who used to work for Rottland, and another person who has volume-construction experience.

All the back-office work, estimating and purchasing, takes place in Columbus. And he lets the local Des Moines Realtor community handle sales. “Des Moines is a real Realtor-driven market,” he said. “Every house we sell is Realtor related. It was a low-overhead expansion. We were able to absorb the initial cost without too much difficulty.”

But now he’s got the expansion bug.

“We have hopes of expanding into other markets,” he said. “If it’s a three- or four-hour plane ride from Columbus or Atlanta,” it’s doable.

Teresa Burney is a senior editor for Builder magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Columbus, GA, Des Moines, IA, Atlanta, GA.