Berks Homes & Firefly Homes
Firefly Homes takes off in the Pennsylvania market.
By Kat Zeman
As a child, Mike Benshoof used to chase fireflies in his back yard in central Pennsylvania. These winged beetles, known for their conspicuous use of bioluminescence during twilight, were a source of fascination and a reminder that life circles around people at all times. Pursuing these flickering creatures felt almost magical.
“You had fun and you felt really safe,” Benshoof says. “So when we were trying to figure what to call the company, we kept talking about what it was like growing up in central Pennsylvania and what the summers were like – and we kept circling back to fireflies.”
Firefly Homes was born in 2015. It’s an extension of Berks Homes, a Mohnton, Pa.-based semi-custom homebuilder with roots in central Pennsylvania and Delaware. Like its name suggests, Firefly Homes represents life, fun and wonder.
“It’s a play on that life is happening in and around our homes,” says Benshoof, Firefly and Berks president and COO. “We thought it was a really appropriate fit.”
Together, Berks and Firefly build roughly 350 homes on an annual basis. Currently, that number is split almost evenly between the two brands. But Firefly, at barely two years old, is picking up speed.
“It’s been doing better than our original expectations,” Benshoof says. “We saw a need in the marketplace and have been fortunate to have filled that need.”
Attention to Detail
Though both brands operate under similar philosophies, Firefly builds homes that are slightly more modern, smaller and less expensive than Berks. Firefly homes range from $170,000 to $375,000 while Berks focuses on bigger homes with more amenities that sell for $300,000 and $600,000.
Referring to Firefly, Benshoof says: “We wanted to do something a little more hip with great exteriors but keep it affordable.”
A typical Firefly home has an open floor plan with a modern farmhouse or craftsman exterior. The interior generally features stainless steel appliances, twilight cabinets and accessories with bold contrasting colors.
“What we always try to do is pay attention to every square inch of the house,” Benshoof says. “If there is space under the stairs, we’re going to figure out how to utilize it.”
Firefly and Berks place heavy focus on utilizing space and paying attention to key dimensions, framing, depth foundations and other design elements. “The majority of what we’re focusing on is keeping the costs down,” Benshoof says. “If you don’t pay attention to every detail, the costs can get out of control. We take the same approach on Berks. It’s just that Berks [homes] have more amenities.”
Though it was predicted that Firefly homes would likely be popular with a younger generation, that isn’t completely the case. Their popularity turned out to be multi-generational.
“Our homes are timeless,” Benshoof says. “We try to stick with timeless exteriors and keep them up to date with the materials that we are using. We want to keep them fresh.”
Berks’ homes tend to feature traditional designs like large trims, high ceilings and two-story foyers and family rooms. Its largest home can be up to 4,000 square feet compared to the largest Firefly home at 3,200 square feet.
Berks is working on a high-end development in the West Shore neighborhood of Harrisburg, Pa. Called Laurel Ridge, the development will eventually consist of 225 luxury townhomes. Sixty-five homes have been completed since Berks broke ground in December 2015. The entire development is targeted for completion in 2020, with townhomes ranging in price from $204,900 to $270,000.
“It’s incredibly popular because it’s less than a mile from West Shore Hospital and every single store you can imagine is in that area,” Benshoof says. “It’s one of the fastest-growing areas and probably the most sought-after area in central Pennsylvania.”
Show Me, Don’t Tell Me
A custom builder, Berks offers a variety of floor plans in more than 20 communities in eastern and central Pennsylvania and Delaware. Homes are designed to appeal to a wide range of demographics including first-time, move-up and active adult buyers.
The firm offers one- and two-story single-family, duplex and townhome designs in a variety of sizes, architectural styles and price ranges. Homebuyers have more than 40 models and over 2,000 options with which to personalize their homes.
To make it easier for homebuyers to personalize their new homes, Berks invites them to its 5,000-square-foot gallery in Mohnton. It’s designed to give them a hands-on experience of choosing colors, amenities and options for the interior and exterior of their new home. “You come to the design gallery to pick out features for your home,” Benshoof says. “It’s like a showroom.”
The gallery gives them the opportunity to see what their kitchens, living rooms, dining rooms, baths and outdoor spaces could look like. They can select colors and textures for siding, shutters, doors and interior selections like carpet, floors and kitchen counters.
In November, Berks will open another design gallery in Harrisburg. The firm hired one of the leading designers in the country, Jane Meagher, owner of Success Strategies in New Jersey, to help it design the new 2,000-square-foot facility.
Decades of Experience
Berks Homes was founded in 1973 and incorporated in 1977, and later formed its own land development, real estate and title companies. Benshoof shares ownership of both Berks and Firefly with CEO LaVern Horning. Both men have been in the homebuilding business for more than three decades.
“LaVern is one of the most disciplined homebuilders I’ve ever met,” Benshoof says, crediting Horning with a large chunk of the firm’s success. “What helps both brands is the people. They are very passionate about home building.”
Benshoof also cites the firm’s ability to adapt to change as a key factor in its success. Its employees often attend seminars on the best practices of homebuilding and design trends. “Being able to adapt over the years has helped us stay on top,” he says.
Berks and Firefly add that good design skills – the firm’s “secret sauce” – give it an edge over other remodelers and builders. The firm has its own drafting department and does not employ outside architects.
In addition to building new homes, Berks and Firefly offers residential remodeling services that include whole house remodeling, home additions, reconfigured home spaces and layouts like kitchens, baths, garages and covered decks and patios.
Calling for higher standards
Choosing a contractor to build a new custom home or to work on a remodeling project could mean the difference between a good investment and a nightmare. An incompetent contractor that cuts corners can turn a project into a horror story filled with behind schedule installations, costs that exceed the initial quote and shoddy workmanship.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) releases an annual report that names the top five most complained about, inquired about and reviewed industries. Those that have appeared on the list include general contractors, roofers, new and used-car dealers, car repair shops, plumbers, mortgage brokers, construction/remodeling services, heating and air conditioning and airlines. In 2016, the BBB sampled its members in Arizona and discovered that general contractors ranked second on the top five lists for the most inquired about industries.
Citing BBB statistics about customer dissatisfaction with general contractors, Berks Homes’ BH Design & Build pioneered a set of standards called the Code of Ethics and Competency For Contractors. It calls for all contractors to uphold a higher set of standards that allow the client to make direct comparisons and better judge what to expect from a contractor prior to making a decision. Prior to hiring a contractor, BH Design & Build encourages home and business owners to consult its guide.
The guide outlines the elements of a reputable contractor. It gives examples of how to find out about a contractor’s stability, reputation, professionalism and workmanship. According to the guide, a quality contractor will have an office with normal business functions, a business license, proof of insurance and can provide its clients with letters from its suppliers/vendors.
It encourages clients to look for the company’s BBB accreditation, membership in industry groups and associations, customer references and industry awards. It discusses the importance of detailed proposals and change orders, no pressure sales agreements, a jobsite cleanup roster and a worker conduct agreement. Finally, offering a quality warrantee and showing past examples of the contractor’s work is a must. The guide can be found on BH Design & Build’s website.