Developer Jay Bell looks for better year

Developer Jay Bell looks for better year

December 27th, 2009 in Business


* All in the family: Bell Development Co., creates the subdivisions that Bell Engineering Co. works to build. But most of the land is under partnerships Father-Son and Father-Son II. Jay's 15-year-old son is already a third generation worker in the family business, helping to run in the summers

* Lawyer turned builder: Jay Bell was accepted and headed to the University of Tennessee law school to be a lawyer in 1990 when he spent the summer working on a Hixson subdivision and decided to change careers.

* No place like home. Jay Bell has never lived or built outside of Hamilton County. He says there is still plenty enough land to develop new subdivisions in Hamilton County for many more years

* A city within a city: Bell has built the region's biggest subdivision - Hamilton on Hunter - over the past two decades. Nearly 1,500 home lots housing more than 3,000 person have been built since the project began more than 20 years ago.

Jay Bell was preparing to go to law school at the University of Tennessee in 1990 when his father asked him to work the summer helping out with the family's home-building business.

"By the end of the summer, I had six or seven houses going so I asked for a one-year deferment on law school," the younger Bell recalled.

That one-year deferment has turned into a 19-year career with Bell Development and its related Bell Engineering Corp., which Julian Bell started in 1975.

"I may retire some day and go back to law school, but I'm having too much fun in the meantime," Jay Bell said during a recent interview in his North Chattanooga office.

The 41-year-old home- builder concedes that the past couple of years haven't been as much fun in the home building industry, where home starts in the Chattanooga area have dropped to only a third of the peak level reached in 2005. Bell Development started building 65 houses this year and sold 58. That's up from the 45 houses sold in 2008 but still well below the peak sales year of 103 two year ago.

David Crowe, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders, said most homebuilders "remain very cautious about starting new homes," with unemployment at double-digit levels and home sales still at sluggish levels.

But Mr. Bell, a self-described optimist, insists the worst of the housing slump is over, at least in Chattanooga.

"You can't build 75 or 80 houses and not think you are going to sell them," he said. "Even at the bottom of the recession, I knew we were going to come out of it because Americans are optimistic in their gut."

At the trough of the downturn last year, Chattanooga got a major boost with the announcement that Volkswagen would build a $1 billion auto assembly plant at the Enterprise South Industrial Park.

That's only a couple of miles from the largest subdivision Bell has built - Hamilton on Hunter - which is now in its 17th phase of development. The subdivision has grown to include nearly 1,500 lots.

"Our biggest and most profitable subdivision is poised in the exact price range for those workers and it is the closest subdivision in that price range to the VW plant," Mr. Bell said.

Hamilton on Hunter is among 23 subdivisions that Bell Engineering has developed over the past quarter century. Laying out those developments has proven exciting for Mr. Bell and his crew of nearly two dozen workers.

"It's a wonderful thing to take a raw piece of land, get a vision of where roads should run through it and where houses could be built and then finally meet someone some day who is excited and needs a new home," Mr. Bell said. "To be able to sell them a home and a part of the American dream is a very satisfying thing. I'm extremely lucky to be born into a family that has such a good base to built upon and to be in a county where we have so many opportunities."

No company has done more in the past decade than Bell Development, which has been Chattanooga's biggest home building company for nearly a decade. The company has stayed in Hamilton County and not veered from mid-market prices where most homes sell.

Most of Bell's lot sales to other home builders have dried up over the past couple of years as sales have slowed and banks have tightened credit standards. So most of the lots Bell sells now include homes.

Staff Photo by TIm Barber Jay Bell is owner of Bell Development, a home building and real estate company in Chattanooga.

Staff Photo by TIm Barber Jay Bell is owner...

"Luckily for us, the banks are still lending us money to build houses so we can absorb a little bit of those lost lot sales by building homes ourselves," he said. "But I'm confident the market is coming back and we'll be selling lots to many more homebuilders in the next year."

The younger Bell may help develop new subdivisions and houses. But Julian Bell still collects the money.

"That's sort of our joke," the younger Bell says of his father. "I have a crew that builds our houses, then I sell them and he gets to go and collect all the money."