One Modesto block bucks nationwide construction trend

College-Enslen neighborhood noted for its longtime sense of community

September 6, 2010 

Construction may be at a standstill elsewhere in Stanislaus County, but it is booming on one block of central Modesto.

The 900 block of Enslen Avenue, in the middle of one of the city's most desired neighborhoods, has one custom home under construction, two major renovations under way, a couple of minor projects just completed and more about to start.

There's hardly a place to park between all the contractor's pickups.

"It's about the busiest street in the county," said architect Sharon Sample, who is overseeing a comprehensive remodeling of 929 Enslen Ave. She and her husband, contractor Steven Tye, are adding two bedrooms and a bathroom to the 61-year-old home. They expect to move in next year.

Construction on two big projects across the street should be wrapped up then. But Sample assured more remodeling is coming.

"We have several projects about to start in the neighborhood. People there are investing in their quality of life," said Sample. "The College-Enslen neighborhood always will be the desirable part of Modesto that people seek to live in. There is a great sense of community there."

Trees are tucked between the street's custom homes, many of which were built in the 1940s. Those well-kept houses are occupied by many doctors, business owners and longtime residents.

"People make a commitment to these neighborhoods," Sample said. Some people who were born and raised there returned as adults with their children, she said, and it why the value of homes there have not dropped as significantly as in other parts of Modesto.

And it's why those homeowners apparently are willing to spend big bucks remodeling.

"When neighbors see neighbors making investments in their homes, it has a ripple effect," Sample said. "Activity breeds activity."

Contractor Rod Lowe agreed there's construction momentum on Enslen. He is building a 3,600-square-foot home at 908 Enslen. The site is one of four lots that previously had been one parcel.

Lowe's client, Irene Angelo, is downsizing from her Del Rio home and moving to Enslen to be closer to the center of town and her friends.

"This is a very high-end custom home with a very contemporary design," said Lowe, noting its metal roof and the 35-foot wall of glass overlooking the back yard. The three-bedroom, four-bathroom house has accessibility features such as 3-foot-wide doorways to accommodate wheelchairs, no-curb showers and grab bars.

Angelo's architect is her granddaughter, Jenna Knudsen of Two Knudsen Architecture in Los Angeles. Angelo's other granddaughter, Lisa Thoukis of Interior/Exterior Design in Modesto, is styling the home.

Lower prices for custom work

"The only way to get exactly what you want is to build it yourself," explained Tom Mac Donald, Angelo's son-in-law. "You are going to pay a premium to build a custom home, but it costs less now than it would have a couple years ago. There are good, longtime subcontractors available right now offering very, very competitive prices."

Billy Foulds confirms that. He owns W.F. Construction, which is doing some of the remodeling at 928 Enslen Ave.

"It's so competitive out there," Foulds said. "Whenever you bid for a job, it's very, very tight."

Labor costs have dropped dramatically, said Foulds. "We've gone back 20 years on prices."

That doesn't mean custom building is cheap.

Lowe said construction costs for a typical subdivision home now runs about $35 to $50 per square foot, not counting land costs and government fees. He estimated construction costs for custom homes at $150 to $200 per square foot.

"In custom homes like this, it's the materials that run the costs up," Lowe said. The Enslen home, for instance, will have all commercial-grade doors and windows.

So while labor costs have declined, material prices have not gone down much.

Neither have government-imposed building permit and impact fees. Lowe said those fees in Modesto can add $50,000 to the cost of a new home.

"Because the permit fees are totally out of control," Foulds said, "it's by far cheaper to remodel than to build new."

Foulds said the renovation project he is working on will cost "a couple hundred thousand dollars," but that is more cost-effective than building from scratch because the owner does not have to pay nearly as many fees.

"We're bringing this home up to date so it's more suitable to the college area," Foulds said about the 1948-vintage house owned by Ruth and John Williams. "It's going to end up like a brand-new home, but it will hold to the area's period-correct Spanish style."

A blight on the block disappears

Enslen hasn't always been a bright spot for home renovation. A couple of years ago the block was marred by a weed-infested, foreclosed mess.

In fall 2005, Mark Runyon and an investment group called Brady Avenue Associates paid $1.75 million in mostly borrowed money for the property at 905 Brady Ave.

That one-acre parcel connecting Brady to Enslen had a grand six-bedroom house in the middle of it. The plan was to move the classic 1941 home onto one corner of the property, then create three additional lots from the remaining land.

"Those guys bought at the peak of the market," Lowe said. "They thought they could sell those three finished lots for $500,000 to $600,000 each."

The parcel split was approved by Modesto city officials, and the home was moved. But before it could be renovated, the housing market crashed and work stopped.

By May 2007, the Brady-Enslen property was foreclosed, sticking lenders with nearly $1.1 million in unpaid debt. Those lenders sold the land and what was left of the old home for $810,000 in 2008. The home was demolished and the lots were sold.

Irene Angelo owns the two lots facing Enslen Avenue, and Evan Zeff owns the two lots facing Brady Avenue.

"I was able to get there in time to save those trees," Evan Zeff said of the huge magnolias on the property. "I grew up in this neighborhood and I always loved it. ... I plan to design and build my own home (at 905 Brady Ave.), once I complete my architecture license."

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or 578-2196.

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