OPaL LLC prides itself on building homes in Washington, D.C., that elicit excitement from new homeowners.
By Jim Harris
Coming from a successful career in new home sales, Sean Ruppert has taken many homeowners through their new homes for the first time, both on behalf of his own company as well as for previous employers. While he says everyone he’s encountered has had complimentary things to say about their new surroundings, it’s the homes built by his company, OPaL LLC, that have elicited the most amazement.
“I’m proud of the brand we’ve developed and the reviews people have given us when they describe their experience buying a home with us or their reactions walking through one of our homes the first time,” he says. “Everyone is going to be nice at first, but the vocabulary people use to describe their homes makes it clear to us that they’ve taken a lot of time to think about it.
“Our brand is unique and clever, which completely matches our personalities and the homes we build.”
The company specializes in designing and building homes that are casual, approachable and unpretentious while also eliciting emotional responses from prospective buyers. “I believe a model home has to serve an aspirational purpose,” Ruppert says. “People have to be able to think, ‘I want to live this way,’ while also thinking that lifestyle is achievable to them. I think the new home experience has to be aspirational and emotional, and I think all of our homes do that in spades.”
OPaL’s philosophy of building comfortable, warm and reliable homes is reflected in its name. Ruppert named the company after his past and present dogs Oliver, Parker and Lucy. “[The name] conjures special moments of the day when everyone is home and safe and together,” the company says. “It summons an innate feeling of security and cushioning from the coarseness of the outside world.”
OPaL has closed on more than 150 single-family homes, condominiums and townhomes since Ruppert founded it in 2001. Before starting OPaL, Ruppert worked for five years in home sales for a national homebuilder and a local builder in the Washington, D.C., area.
The company’s initial five years in business were highly successful, with homes selling at a rapid clip, emboldening Ruppert to expand beyond his home base in the D.C. market. Ruppert also self-financed several of the company╒s speculative projects during its formative period. OPaL’s rapid growth, however, ceased following the burst of housing market bubble in 2006.
At the time of the Great Recession, the company had 88 townhomes under construction in Baltimore and Silver Spring, Md. Although the company struggled like many of its competitors, OPaL had a homeowner cancellation rate of only 14 percent on its projects. The recession proved to be an education, says Ruppert. In negotiating with the banks, his business partner told him, “Sean, this is your Harvard.”
“We were selling a half of a home a month in Baltimore,” he notes. “At least we were selling homes, most builders in Baltimore were not selling any homes.”
Ruppert learned a valuable lesson during the market crash. After settling on a refinance of two projects, Ruppert promised himself three things on the car ride home: He would be willing to pay for land in only the best locations, he would never put his own money into projects and he would never do any based in ego, ever. Ruppert has stuck to these three tenants since day in 2009, and this has made all the difference, he notes.
OPaL today builds solely within the Washington, D.C., market, and emphasizes quality over quantity when it comes to its projects. Most of its projects are on previously developed land, reducing the impact of new construction in their neighborhoods and preserving open spaces. The company serves a diverse profile of clients ranging from young professionals to “empty nesters,” but has found that many of its target buyers are attracted to city living. Many of OPaL’s homes are close to regional and public transportation as well as shopping, dining and entertainment options.
The company’s homes range in size from 1,200 to 2,600-square-foot condominiums and townhomes to 7,000-square-foot single-family homes. OPaL’s single-family homes range in price from $1.5 million to $2.5 million; two-bedroom condos range from $700,000 to $1.2 million, and three-bedroom townhomes value between $1.2 million and $1.5 million, Ruppert notes.
OPaL has two custom spec homes and three multifamily residential projects under development and construction. Townhomes are now for sale in Morton Street Mews in Columbia Heights, D.C., which will include 24 two- and three-level homes. Six of the homes are located in a redeveloped historic church designed by architect William Sidney Pittman and built in 1905, while the other 16 are built on surrounding land. “We’re setting price records there,” Ruppert notes. “The way we build our homes is quite special, and we market them with pin-point accuracy, so typically they sell for quite a bit more than other new homes in the same neighborhood. Buying a home is an emotional purchase. To achieve higher prices you must demonstrate to your buyers why your homes are worth it with more than just a better faucet or modern cabinets.
“You must tie your merchandising, marketing and even your sale people to the entire, emotional experience of buying a home,” he adds.
The company’s other projects include Watkins Alley, a community of 44 condominium townhomes designed to resemble an industrial building from the 1930’s on Capital Hill, which is expected to begin selling next year. OPaL is also developing three family-sized condominiums in the Union Garage, another historic building built on Capital Hill in 1906.
OPaL has used the same architect since 2001, GPS Designs. Ruppert credits a large portion of OPaL’s success and national awards to GPS Designs. “We use them on purpose, with roots in the Pacific Northwest, they bring a completely fresh point of view to our homes,” he says. “GPS Designs is one of the reasons our homes have such a great engery about them.╙ The company has worked with many of the same subcontractors or material suppliers for the past several years.
“We don╒t deviate from our regular vendors,” Ruppert adds. “We stick with them because we know their work is exemplary, we know their pricing is fair and we kow they show up for us. So we show up for them.”
One of the company╒s most important suppliers is Universal Forest Products (UFP) New Windsor LLC, which provides the lumber, windows and interior trims used in OPaL’s homes. UFP has worked with the company for the past six years. “Our Senior VP of Construction, Peter Nelson, has a great relationship with their salespeople, this relationship and their shared homework prevents many errors that are typically found in lumber and window packages,” Ruppert says.