The New York Times, July 2005


What Happens When Builders Build Their Own – Redo, Relax, Resell:A Seductive Cycle, and Lucrative Too

Published: July 17, 2005

THE Messer family’s dream home has a swinging bookcase that leads to a secret passage, a treehouse made from 1930’s-era garage doors, a nautically themed master bathroom recently featured in a national magazine, and glass-fronted kitchen drawers filled with jelly beans, Chiclets, Tootsie Rolls and Jolly Ranchers.

But Eric Messer is a contractor; his family, after 12 years in this 4,000-square-foot home abandoned long ago by a bankrupt developer, are overdue for a dream change. Although the house’s transformation took more than a decade – and his wife and two sons put up with various stages of construction for much of that time – the Messers are ready to move into another home-in-progress.

Their destination awaits them across town. It is a splanch – a boxy 2,200-square-foot amalgam of split-level and ranch design that was contemporary when Eisenhower was president.

Despite a rickety carport in front, a healthy crop of moss on the tar-coated roof, and a heating system well beyond its useful life, the family is eager to move inside. The house has great potential – which is all they require.

“The bones are there, and we’ll make it desirable,” said Mr. Messer, owner of Sunrise Building and Remodeling in Briarcliff Manor.

An adventurous home improvement spirit like his is presumably what the rest of us search for when hiring someone to renovate our homes. We want a builder whose own home provides concrete evidence of expertise, talent and taste – even if we never actually see the place.

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For his part, Mr. Messer has solved the privacy problem, as well as the embarrassment of having a nicer home than some of his clients, by anonymously featuring select parts of the house on his Web site, He included three of his bathrooms and his kitchen, although they aren’t labeled as such.

The desire for more expensive materials comes naturally in the business, he said: “If I put granite countertops in 20 kitchens, why would I want to come home to Formica tops?” Moreover he finds it useful to install all the latest plumbing fixtures, hardware and cabinetry in his own home, “because I get to test out the products” before using them on a customer’s house.

This is music to Mrs. Messer’s ears – although she knows she is in for another wait before getting to try out contraptions like a kitchen drawer that is actually a small dishwasher or another that is a minirefrigerator. The canon of Newer is Better is religiously adhered to by builders and contractors – even those who have been in the business for decades.

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