Crown Point home builder Craig Rich is taking advantage of opportunities not often seen in older communities — the chance to build new, upscale homes within walking distance of a thriving downtown.
Rich's Homefront Construction has completed one home on South Street and is planning several more near downtown. The projects are an example of a trend that's been growing nationally — building new homes in older neighborhoods, often in prime locations.
"That's our main focus — urban renewal," said Rich, who founded Homefront Construction three years ago and also operates a masonry business, Rich Construction, which is a decade older.
The projects can eliminate an eyesore and increase the value of properties where dilapidated homes are replaced or vacant lots are filled. Such projects are commonly known, respectively, as "teardowns" and "infills."
Location is key
Infill and teardown projects can be of particular benefit in landlocked communities. Munster is one that has seen a significant number of new home construction in old neighborhoods as its space in new neighborhoods continues to fill up.
The town's Comprehensive Plan, approved in 2010, states the goal. "Areas with older housing stock can be gradually replaced with new infill development that respects the existing scale and character of the area," the plan suggested in its section on northwest Munster.
"It's a tip of the cap to the town of Munster that home builders are actually interested in going into established neighborhoods to build new homes," said the town's chief building inspector, Charles Collins.
Location, always a key, is particularly important for the type of projects Homefront undertakes in Crown Point, a community that still has room to expand. Homefront's next teardown project is a home at the intersection of Clark and Jackson streets that has been vacant a few years.
"It's so old, the basement is dirt," Rich said. Its demolition will add expense to the project, "but with the location, it's worthwhile."
The property sits across Jackson Street from the city's East Side Historic District. A project in a historic district would require city approval, both for a demolition and a new construction, but outside the districts, the builder has freedom to undertake any project that fits building and zoning codes.
A new market
In addition to location, the amenities of a new home can enhance the value of a project for builders. Beyond current trends in home design, Rich touts the energy savings available with up-to-date "green" construction.
The completed South Street home sold for $260,000, well above the city's median home value of $175,600, as estimated by the real estate database company Zillow.
Builders around the country have been pursuing more of this type of project in recent years. Some have generated criticism, if the scale or design seems not to fit a neighborhood, but teardowns, in particular, have increased significantly in number as infill opportunities diminish.
"More builders are ripping down existing homes because well-located vacant lots are becoming difficult to find and structures in communities close to urban areas are among the oldest," according to a National Association of Home Builders report.
The NAHB began a project two years ago to determine the number of teardown projects members have undertaken. Last year's survey, covering 2015, led to an estimate of 55,000 teardown projects from among 715,000 total single-family housing starts. That was an increase from an estimated 32,000 in 2014.
Munster mainly works with property owners and builders to redevelop dilapidated properties in its long-established residential areas, and "teardowns are few and far between," Collins said.
But nearly 8 percent of home builders nationally did teardown projects in 2015, according to the NAHB. A "substantial share" of the companies surveyed were relatively small, and many built only one home in 2015, its study concluded.
Homefront, whose website is at homefront-construction.com, is one of the builders that has started small, focused on the area around Crown Point's downtown.
"I'm trying to create a new market around here," Rich said. "We're trying to stay right there around the square as much as we can. People love to be around the square. Everything is there."