Top homebuilder keeps passion for real estate

Top homebuilder keeps passion for real estate

January 12th, 2012 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Karl Sodergren, the new president of the newly-renamed Homebuilders Association of Greater Chattanooga, sits in the group's offices on Old Harrison Pike.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

KARL SODERGREN

Job: Owner, principal broker and auctioneer for First Commerce - Real Estate & Auction

Age: 46

Education: 1988 graduate of real estate finance from the University of Alabama

Career: He entered the real estate industry as a broker in 1987. He worked as a private investigator in Nashville and a claims adjuster for the former Provident Life & Accident Insurance Co. in Chattanooga before starting his own home building company in 1997.

Real estate involvement: He is the new president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga, a member of the Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors and the National Auctioneers Association and a licensed general contractor.

Personal: He and his wife have two children and reside in Ooltewah

Karl Sodergren still was studying real estate finance at the University of Alabama when he built his first home in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Backed by the boss of the real estate company where he worked in college, Sodergren built a 1,700-square-foot, single-story home and sold it for $76,000.

"I only made $250, but I learned a lot," the 46-year-old builder and real estate broker recalled during an interview Wednesday. "I always knew I wanted to be in real estate in some form or fashion, and that proved it to me."

Nearly three decades later, Sodergren still is building homes, and this month he became president of the newly renamed Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga.

Sodergren has worked other jobs through his career, including a stint as a private investigator in Nashville and several years as a claims adjuster and life insurance marketer for the predecessor of Unum Corp., Provident Life and Accident Insurance Co.

But his entrepreneurial passion remains in real estate. Although Sodergren says he is not handy himself with carpentry tools and construction, he has successfully built more than 100 homes through his career by picking good properties, builders, styles and markets.

Amid the worst housing slump since World War II during the past four years, however, Sodergren had to virtually suspend his construction of new homes for sale at one point and lay off one of his workers.

"It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," he said.

Sodergren kept his First Commerce real estate and auction business going by focusing on other lines of businesses, including investment properties - both commercial and residential.

"The recession has made home building very tough, but it has also created some opportunities in real estate," he said.

Home starts in the Chattanooga region declined last year to the lowest level since 1993, according to preliminary building permit figures compiled by The Market Edge in Knoxville.

But Sodergren said Chattanooga's 450-member homebuilders association has kept most of its members and is planning one of the state's biggest home shows Feb. 24-26 at the downtown Trade and Convention Center.

Sodergren said his work on the board of the local homebuilders group, formerly known as the Home Builders Association of Southern Tennessee, has convinced him of the extra professionalism, training and community involvement of home builders who belong to the association over those who do not.

"We've gone through some very, very difficult times in the housing industry, but we are one of the strongest home builders' associations in the country," he said. "Members have had to shift and refocus and in some instances get out of the business. But with the investments we've seen in Chattanooga from Volkswagen, Amazon, Wacker and others, I definitely would rather be in Chattanooga than most other markets.

"We didn't see the boom that some markets did in the 1990s," he added. "But we're also not seeing the bust that some of those formerly hot markets are now experiencing."