When Andy and Emily Rosenthal were forced to shutter their Washington, D.C.-area custom building business in 2010, the former Custom Home Pacesetter Award winner quickly found a new niche. The husband-wife design/build team launched Build Smart, working with homeowners to navigate the multistep construction process. We caught up with the pair to discuss how they’ve packaged their 30 years of experience in the home building industry into a new business model, and what kind of insight that’s given them into builder-client relations.
You were forced to reinvent yourselves after closing Rosenthal Homes. How is Build Smart influenced by your experience as custom builders?
Andy: Clients are at a real disadvantage because builders, architects, and engineers all speak a different language than they do. Everybody is watching out for themselves but have the right tools to navigate. The clients are being given advice by the pros—who, hopefully, have their interest in mind—but it’s a business and they’re trying to make money. So we’re an owner’s rep. We help the client navigate their project from deciding what they can do within their budget, to the preliminary design, to helping them interview architects, to value-engineering the structure itself.
Emily: We were, shall we call it, ‘politely retired’ for a very short time after closing our building business. This was Andy’s brainchild—coming up with a way to package the services we’ve provided to homeowners of new builds for the last 30 years; a way to have the consulting component from soup to nuts. He had the vision for it. We’re obviously doing this to make money. We do this to be active, too, because we don’t want to sit around all day. But we also do it because we love it. Whether clients spend $500, $5,000, $50,000, or $5 million, it’s a lot of money. And if they don’t love the project, they should wait until they can do what they want to do.
So you started over completely. What issues did you face launching the new business?
Andy: Starting up takes time. Getting the word out, marketing through social media. I had to learn Facebook. Our last business had a fabulous website, but I had to create Build Smart’s myself. I got the template online and spent three months building it as well as putting together other marketing items. When we were building, we had volume and we had staff so I could hire people to do these kinds of things. Now, we’re doing it.
Have you tapped your pro network for help getting client referrals?
Emily: Real estate agents have been very helpful and we offer their clients a free consult. Past and more recent clients as well as a lot of the people we work with through our sons’ building business, Cabin John (Md.) Builders, tell their friends about it. We have not yet reached out to the architectural community. We’re working with nine clients right now, and five of them are part of a partnership with Cabin John.
What insight has this given you into ways builders can improve their relationships with clients?
Andy: When you talk with a lot of clients who have done custom houses—and this is probably universal—the biggest complaint they have is the bill for extras they got at the end. They weren’t expecting it. They say, ‘Wow, we spent too much.’ And when you’re done, that’s the wrong time to realize that. So communicate. Set expectations and keep lines of communication open. And if something happens, don’t be afraid to tell clients the truth.