St. Johns County homebuilder would like to see the sales tax increased and impact fees on new home development reduced.
MasterCraft Builder Group founder and CEO Christopher Shee, a fifth-generation resident of St. Johns County, wanted to be the best homebuilder in the county when he started the business in 2011.
Shee, 41, entered the industry in 2001 with Mercedes Homes, working in areas from sales to land acquisition and construction to gain experience.
The recession of 2007-09 and continued economic softness shifted his plans to other opportunities.
Coming out of the recession, he sought to move from the production side of homebuilding.
He started MasterCraft, a semi-custom builder, with two partners and two lots.
“We wanted to build to a higher quality, doing the right thing and just being committed to that,” he said.
His initial plan was to build almost exclusively in northern St. Johns County, but he expanded to the rest of the county because he said it was underserved.
Shee bought out his partners early on and structured his company on four pillars:
• Craftsmanship: Build to a higher quality with better materials and a high level of included features.
“Instead of starting out with a lower base-price house and upgrading to the hilt, I wanted to start off with a home that I would be proud of even if we never did an upgrade,” he said.
• Choice: As a semi-custom builder, customers have choices. Shee said it is rare for any of the homes to be exactly the same.
• Customer service: Doing the right thing.
• Community: Investing in St. Johns County. “I am a firm believer in fixing what is in our backyard before we go out. My money is more impactful here in my community,” he said.
Shee or his brother, Brad Shee, president of MasterCraft, have attended the closings of the company’s almost 400 completed homes.
They will have closed 100 homes this year, and Shee expects to sell 167 homes next year.
But Shee isn’t planning to keep increasing his volume.
Shee said his company’s strategy of building 200-300 homes a year will lessen exposure to changes in the economy. It also will keep the company from growing to the point where it is attractive for a buyout.
“I think that’s where we are going to stop. I want to be the best builder. I feel once we get into too much, I feel I will not be able to control our quality,” he said.
Watching the timing of the economy is critical because “if you don’t, when a recession comes, you’re toast,” he said.
Housing is becoming less formal, Shee said.
Years ago, designers eliminated the living room, replacing it with an office, reasoning that having furniture that is used three times a year is not needed, he said.
The formal dining room was the next to go.
Shee said most of MasterCraft’s homes don’t have a formal dining room, but rather a nook for a table and a large island with four chairs.
New communities also emphasize natural features, such as a creek system for kayaking, nature preserves and golf cart, bicycle and walking trails.
The future of St. Johns
St. Johns County has a lot going for it, Shee said.
He said the county has one of the state’s best school systems; it has beachfront, the Intracoastal Waterway and the St. Johns River; and other attractions.
Shee advises planning for growth correctly. He said that piecemeal growth burdens the infrastructure and restrains community enhancement, leading to a lower quality of life.
Undertaxing affects the county negatively, he said. Increasing the county sales tax from 6.5% to 7% would generate money to improve infrastructure and provide amenities like parks, sidewalks, boat ramps and trails.
Shee said the St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners needs to put the sales tax question on the ballot to let constituents decide.
The county also generates income from impact fees on new home development.
“Basing the county’s budget on one of the most cyclical industries, real estate, makes no sense,” he said.
Plus, the county cannot bond against impact fees, he said.
Shee said affordable housing is another test for the county.
He advocates letting the market dictate affordable housing, rather than applying restrictions.
“I think we are going about solving the problem the wrong way,” he said.
Instead of trying to build a home to a price point, he said the county needs to lower development fees, such as impact fees, and reduce regulations that increase the cost of homes.
Homebuilding isn’t Shee’s only business.
Through Heritage Development Group, for the past 20 years Shee has been investing in commercial, industrial and residential properties.
He is developing Parrish Farms, a 2,782-acre mixed-use community in southern St. Johns County at Interstate 95, south of Florida 207.