Cora Johnston loves homes and has for as long as she can remember.
When she was 12, growing up in Illinois, she even chronicled her budding passion by creating a scrapbook that included pages from a real estate magazine featuring homes for sale.
As the years went by, Johnston forged a lifelong career in real estate.
First in traditional residential sales, then as a builder’s sales representative, followed by management positions and now as owner of her custom design firm, Generation Homes.
She had forgotten all about that scrapbook until her father brought it to her after she moved to Northeast Florida.
It delighted her. It triggered memories. And it confirmed her choice of career.
“I always say, ‘Be conscious of the conscious and subconscious goals you set for yourself,’” Johnston says. “I was 12 years old. I’ve loved homes my whole life. And since I got into the homebuilding industry, there has never been a day when I didn’t want to go to work.”
Generation Homes, based in St. Augustine Beach, custom designs and builds homes from South Ponte Vedra Beach to just south of Marineland.
This year the company will build about 30, in a wide expanse of price ranges.
It also has begun its first subdivision, SeaView, a community of 28 homes, just south of St. Augustine Beach.
As company president, Johnston gets to do what she loves best. She enjoys working directly with people, “helping them find their dream home and helping them find a way to buy it.”
And she enjoys collaborating with her trade partners: the framers, electricians, plumbers, roofers, dry wallers, landscapers and other specialists.
Johnston relishes the creativity involved in sitting down with homeowners, their architect and their Realtor to flesh out their dream.
Sometimes she will design floor plans herself. Ninety percent of her customers own their lots, but if not, she will help them locate one.
Generation Homes also does “a handful” of complete remodels a year. That, she said, “can be just as creative — taking an older home and giving it a new life.”
The company recently completed remodeling what had been a small box of a house, directly across from the ocean.
It had small windows and a side front door that didn’t allow for what should have been a spectacular beach view.
They gutted the interior and redesigned rooms based on a new floor plan, which included adding a wide deck off a front great room with floor-to-ceiling windows.
The expansive ocean view is now the home’s centerpiece.
Johnston walked through the house days before the owners planned to move back in, assessing the project’s progress while First Coast Closets and Window Fashions worked on finishing touches.
One of the homeowners arrived while she was there, so Johnston was able to discuss last-minute tweaks with him.
She limits her company’s geographic range so she can get to all jobs, she says.
“I’m very hands-on,” she said.
Johnston was inspired to start her own company in part because she grew tired of the travel required in management positions.
Before the economic downturn, she traveled the eastern U.S. as division president for Mercedes Homes.
After the recession, she traveled throughout Florida for the company, working to reduce an overload of inventory.
“It wore me out,” she says. “I like to be home. I like home. And I really missed the building part of it. Being in the field.”
She obtained her first real estate licenses in Illinois and Wisconsin, where she lived and worked as an agent in the late 1970s.
But she quickly realized traditional residential sales weren’t for her, because they weren’t in her “comfort level” and weren’t “fun.”
After Johnston and her husband moved to Orange Park in 1982 for his job, she decided she would rather work for a builder.
In 1983, she began as an agent for Summerhomes, where she sold in Arlington, Mandarin and Argyle.
It was a great company to work for, she says, because “they trained their sales team to understand construction and they trained their construction team to understand customer service.”
In 1992 she went to work for Mercedes Homes, where she stayed for 16 years, most of the time in management.
She loved the diversity of the management side, designing homes, model homes and communities — and the experience she gained in doing that later proved invaluable.
During the worst of the recession, when there was basically no work, she took two years off to study the First Coast market.
She drove all over, into communities under construction from Fernandina Beach south, with an eye on launching her own company when conditions improved.
“I would talk to the sales people and ask them, what don’t you have?” she says. “What are people looking for in a home that you don’t have?”
Taking what she learned — which was basically that much of what they had to offer was too large or too expensive — she told herself if she could sell homes in the early 1980s, when interest rates were sky high, then she could sell them at a time when interest rates were low and the economy was recovering.
In 2009, she hired Stuart McDonald as her vice president of operations. Because one of the first homes they built was in St. Augustine Beach, they decided to grow the company there.
“We designed homes and then we priced them equal to short sales and foreclosures on the market,” she says.
Her management years gave her a deep understanding of the business side of homebuilding, which is “understanding what things would cost.”
Getting quality materials at the right price is important, she said.
“It is rare in life, business and particularly new homebuilding, when the end result far exceeds what you initially dreamed was possible,” wrote customers Wade and Dinah Robertson on the generationhomes.com website.
That is what Johnston says drives her.
She fondly remembers the first open house she worked. She was 13 and handed out brochures for a friend’s father, who was a builder.
In those days, female builders were unusual. Now, she doesn’t believe they are.
“There are a lot of good women out there building homes today,” she says.
And she is glad to be one of them.
“I love the smell of dirt,” she says. “I love the smell of lumber.”