Ashton Gray Development
Ashton Gray Development’s distinctive style and high-end standards keep it successful in both residential and commercial markets.
By Janice Hoppe-Spiers
When Ashton Gray Development builds a new multi-million-dollar home, hotel or retirement community, it leaves behind a mark of elegance, sophistication and luxury that is unsurpassed in the Houston market. “Everything we do has to look a certain way: high-end, luxurious and upscale,” President Shaun Vembutty says. “It has to be consistent with the brand. We are known for ‘Building Luxury, Creating Equity.’”
With nearly a decade of experience in real estate development, Vembutty found the luxury residential market to be his niche. Although Ashton Gray Development used to build custom homes for private clients in the past, they only focus on building spec homes now. “We have turned down at least a dozen custom build projects in the past 6 months”, adds Vembutty.
“We are in the super luxury homebuilding market,” he continues. “Typically, spec builders are nervous to operate in the luxury market because it requires a lot more capital. As a result, we have very little competition in the luxury market; our margins are much larger on these projects and we have investors who participate in a lot of projects, which gives us the ability to execute multiple high-dollar projects at the same time.”
Ashton Gray Development builds luxury spec homes between $2 million and $7 million and the company’s homes appeal to retired doctors, executives and businessmen who want a large home in a great location. “At this price point, we are kind of immune to recessions and job climate changes because our buyers have already made their money and are not worried about job layoffs and oil prices,” Vembutty explains. “In addition to that, we don’t build all over the place. We build specifically in a few neighborhoods – River Oaks, West University Place, Sugar Land, Afton Oaks, SouthSide Place and Houston Heights. These are the most desirable locations and we don’t stray outside of these areas.”
Ashton Gray Development partners with brokers who are prominent in the neighborhoods in which it develops to begin building a new home. “Every market is different and buyers are looking for different things,” Vembutty explains. “Once we acquire a lot, we usually sit down for a two-hour design session with the broker and the architect to finalize all the requirements and design features in the home. We also make a list of things we would like to have and see what we can fit in. The whole process takes about two months to make sure everything is just right.”
The home must be located in an area that is 100 percent desirable with no caveat. “If its four lots away from a busy street, has commercial developments you can see from the backyard or a school nearby, for example, I won’t touch it,” Vembutty adds. “The location has to be perfect. I have had brokers sometimes ask me if I would buy a certain lot close to a commercial building for $200,000 less than market value. I would not buy it even if they gave it away for half price.”
The interior of the home has to have it all, including an exceptional floor plan. In addition to placing the master bedroom on the first floor, Ashton Gray Development includes an additional guest bedroom on the same level as long as the lot size accommodates it. Master suites and closets are paid a lot of attention and some of these closets are so large that a person could live in it.
Other features include cast stone surround fireplaces, massive kitchens and living spaces, two staircases with custom wrought iron railings, top-of-the-line appliance packages, designer lighting and plumbing fixtures and Smart-Home systems. “One of the opportunities we have at this price point is for every single project to have a unique floor plan, design theme and elevation,” Vembutty adds. “We want to build showcase homes that redefine the word ‘luxury’ and make every room in the house a talking point.”
Ashton Gray Development really steps up its game when it comes to custom work inside each home from wall to ceiling treatments. Every home is different in terms of the overall design, but the company sticks mostly to soft contemporary looks with clean lines, a lot of gray and white patterns, with large windows throughout the home.
Homebuilding remains at the core of Ashton Gray Development, but the company started taking on commercial projectslast year. In collaboration with a Dallas-based development firm, Ashton Gray Development is developing a 120-room Four Points Sheraton Hotel in Frisco, Texas. The hotel is located next to Frisco Town Square, across from the Toyota Stadium and one mile from the Dallas Cowboys’ new practice facility.
Ashton Gray Development also is working on a 100-room Tru Hilton hotel development on 2.62 acres in the Pearland Town Center, a 1.2 million-square-foot mixed-use development in Pearland, Texas. Finding the perfect location for the hotel took three months and the preliminary feasibility work on the project is underway.
“Commercial projects are more long-term and the way the deal is structured for investors is very different from a spec home project,” Vembutty notes about the difference between commercial and residential building. “[Some] investors don’t mind having capital tied up in a commercial project because they prefer equity stakes in the project, but other investors want to invest their money in spec home development because the investment timeframe is a year or less.”
Ashton Gray Development also has begun targeting locations in Houston for luxury, gated retirement communities for active adults. Each community will feature 90 to 130 single-family homes, as well as full-service amenities, such as a clubhouse, dining hall, concierge services, linen service and gated access. “Houston has a huge need for these communities and so many investors want to be a part of this,” Vembutty attests. “We know it is the right time, so we are launching the project as we speak and have started pre-selling the houses.”
Ashton Gray Development prides itself on the relationships it has developed with investors over the years. “We have never solicited one investor,” Vembutty says. “Every investor has come to us through referrals and word-of-mouth. It’s all organic growth and we don’t advertise or solicit people, primarily because we don’t need to.”
The company maintains a core group of investors and is loyal to those who have been there from the early stages. “Those who came in early took a leap of faith and invested in me,” Vembutty says. “I’m very loyal to them and if we have a new development coming up, there are always certain people I’ll call first before reaching out to a broader audience.”
The key to long-term success with investors is connecting and developing relationships, Vembutty says. “If we don’t connect on the same level and have an easy working relationship, there’s no point in working together,” he adds. “Raising capital and finding investors for real estate development is easy once you have established a track record with investors. The harder part is to make sure you are only working with investors that you can see yourself working with long term.”
Moving forward, Ashton Gray Development will continue to increase its capacity as investors continue to support its projects. “We can pull off any development project now up to a certain level since we have the financial backing,” Vembutty says. “We don’t settle for marginal projects with average returns. If we take something on, it has to be a homerun with little to no downside. We look at about five deals a day but sign off on maybe one project a month. Regardless of the project we are doing, it has to scream luxury and class in addition to being profitable.”