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Olson News

This Builder Bets on 'Infill' Strategy

December 16th, 2013

Scott Laurie is having fun.
It’s not that he’s just been promoted to CEO of builder Olson Homes of Seal Beach. It’s that selling homes is an enjoyable job once again. That’s easy for a guy running a company that’s sold 40 homes in the past two months, has a backlog of 82 more homes contracted for sale that are now being built – and owns an inventory of just one unsold home.
“It’s happening so quick,” Laurie says of the local homebuying market’s turnabout. “Soon, we’ll see market stabilization. And I think stable is great … it means getting back to more of a healthy market.”
Like most house sellers in Southern California, it’s been a hot spring for Laurie’s team. Especially since Olson sells in a pricing “sweet spot” – homes from $400,000 to the middle of the $700,000 range. Olson concentrates on middle-income communities in north Orange County, the South Bay and the San Gabriel Valley.
The projects are high-density. Design is heavy on feng shui principles, appealing to Olson’s key demographic – 72 percent of its customers are Asians. Olson is also appealing to multigenerational buyers by including downstairs bedrooms in many floor plans.
“There’s a tremendous amount of pent-up demand,” says Laurie, who previously was Olson’s president.
Olson works in the less glamorous slice of the homebuilding trade, what they call in the business an “infill” specialist. The chore is to find odd pieces of land in established communities, working with cities to rezone or retool the entitlements, and then turning those underutilized spaces into small housing projects.
Ponder three Orange County projects Olson is selling:
In Fountain Valley, Solana Walk is 88 homes on the site that included an old insurance company office building. The site includes a new hotel.
In Los Alamitos, Sausalito Walk is 17 homes where a boat painting business used to operate.
In Garden Grove, 17 homes known as Harmony Walk sit where deteriorated housing once was.
Laurie says Olson views itself as a “solution provider” to cities seeking fresh ideas for old corners. The infill game means working with local politicians, city planners and a property’s neighbors, just to name a few stakeholders, to bring in new housing. It’s not easy work.
“Most builders associate it with risk; there are lots of unknowns,” Laurie says. It isn’t quick money, either. That Fountain Valley project, Laurie says, took two-plus years to get moving.
Laurie described the challenge of crafting a community consensus to get construction approval like this: “We’re the hole in the middle of the doughnut.”
While the Olson CEO is as surprised as many industry executives at the robustness of homebuying this year, he was one of the few real estate insiders who had a serious clue that the previous boom was facing severe challenges in the middle of the last decade.
Laurie sold his Hollywood residence in 2006, as prices were skyrocketing amid a buying mania fueled by easy credit. (By the way, he rented until 2009 – when he bought in Santa Monica.)
Also, in 2007 he left a job as a divisional head for building giant KB Home – primarily, a suburban tract builder – to join the much smaller Olson. Why? Laurie says he had a hunch that Olson would fare better in rough times.
“I thought urban was a better place to be as the market was turning,” Laurie says.
Homebuilders are an optimistic group. How else could one survive in a craft that seems to ruthlessly and frequently cull its flock?
So Laurie is quick to note numerous economic patterns that back the current chances of an extended housing revival: relatively cheap mortgages; favorable pricing, even after recent appreciation; shrinking impact of financially troubled properties; a solid local job market. Add to that what he said was “the most positive coverage in seven years” of housing in the news media.
But Laurie acknowledges there are housing skeptics, too, who think this rebound won’t last.
“The trend’s been going on for 15, 16 months. To me, it is real,” he says. “There hasn’t been any slowdown. Each month it feels like it’s more real.”

BYLINE: Jonathan Lansner Register columnist, The Orange County Register
949-777-6727 or