JMM building houses under $700k

When I first met Marla Mason and Mark Olshansky, the brother-sister team behind JMM Development, they were converting vintage apartments into condominiums in Albany Park, a neighborhood most builders wouldn’t give a second look.

That was in the early ’90s. Since then, Albany Park has become “hot,” in the parlance of real estate, and property values have skyrocketed. As builders, Mason and Olshansky have matured with the community. They’re still building in Albany Park, as well as in the Ravenswood and North Center areas, and they’re still bucking trends, this time by building single-family houses.

“We’re doing all single-family homes,” Mason says. “We have 11 on the market now, and we’re priced between $679,000 and $999,000. We try to stay below the $1 million mark, and we really like to stay below $700,000. About half of our stuff is below $700,000.”

That’s certainly not cheap, but take a look at the cost of brand new detached single-family homes on the North Side, and you’ll have trouble finding much for less than $1 million. In fact, you’ll have trouble finding much at all.

The condominium is the coin of the realm in city housing these days, and most developers don’t want to bother building single-families. The lots for single-family development are increasingly hard to find (“impossible,” Mason says), the profit margins are tighter and the pool of potential buyers is much smaller than in condominium development.

So why build single-families? Part of the switch was pure economics. The multi-unit buildings JMM used to buy for $25,000 an apartment (sometimes half that, or less) now cost $100,000 per apartment, and after a wave of conversions, many of the best buildings are gone, Mason says. Fewer builders are interested in building single-family houses, so there’s less competition, and JMM,, has developed a system that works.

Of the dozen or so houses Mason and Olshansky have on the market at any given time, some are complete, or close to it, while others have yet to break ground.

“The day we buy (a lot) we put it on the market because we always have a house to show buyers,” Mason says. About 40 percent of JMM’s houses are sold in the preconstruction phase, and buyers are able to view another JMM home to see the developer’s work.

The typical JMM house has four or five bedrooms, 3.5 baths, a detached two-car garage and around 3,600 square feet of space. Standard features usually include granite countertops, master suites with walk-in closets, Jacuzzi tubs, rear decks and large front porches. Mason says that in addition to the two floor plans they have been offering – one more formal and the other more casual – she and Olshansky have added a third larger plan that divides the living space evenly.

Current JMM homes are located in a variety of locations between Addison and Montrose on both sides of the Chicago River. Typical JMM buyers are young families (“usually the wife is pregnant,” Mason says) trading up from a condo or townhouse, often in Lakeview or Bucktown.

“We also have a lot of people who live in Ravenswood and North Center and jump across the river because they want more space and a newer house, but they don’t want to spend $1 million,” Mason says.

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