When planning a major new-home community, it’s critical for builders and developers to intimately understand their target buyers.
Developer Haythem Dawlett, founder and principal of Legend Communities, had a unique buyer profile in mind when he launched the Rough Hollow master-planned community in 2005. The 1,800-acre project on the shores of Lake Travis near Austin, Texas, would serve buyers seeking easy access to the city but with the perks of a lakeside lifestyle.
So Rough Hollow went heavy on resort-style amenities, becoming an early example of what’s now known as a lifestyle community. The Rough Hollow Yacht Club & Marina, for instance, offers easy access to boating with concierge service and complimentary kayaks and paddleboards alongside a waterfront community restaurant, negative-edge pool, and fitness center. The water-themed Highland Village Community Center includes a pool with a swim-up bar, a splash pad, and a lazy river.
“We wanted to make it more of an active curriculum that engages the homeowners, versus having a little pool and a little playground,” Dawlett says. “We did a lot more than that. We have a full-time activities director that does nothing but program things. There’s stuff going on in that community every day, all day long.”
Market demand for gas
Dawlett also knew that buyers at this price point would demand gas amenities, whether for comfortable furnace heating, chef-style cooking, or heated backyard pools. So when the natural gas utility couldn’t commit to providing gas service, he knew he had to put an alternative plan in place. For a large development with 2,200 homes planned, a propane community system was an ideal solution.
“Unfortunately, the natural gas guys are slow to move,” Dawlett says. “Their timing was, ‘Maybe a year, maybe three years.’ When you’ve got a multi-phase, multi-hundred-million-dollar production going on, you can’t wait on that kind of timeline.”
The propane community system offered an option that was economical and wouldn’t overtax the community’s infrastructure. Rather than building it around one large, central propane storage facility, the system is designed around several smaller storage areas and built in cost-effective phases to grow with the community. “So far, it’s been really successful,” Dawlett says. “Every single home is hooked up to it, and every single home has appliances, everything from barbecues to fireplaces to gas cooking.”
Amenities offer a competitive advantage
The community includes a variety of custom and regional builders, and a variety of products and price points, from the $300,000s all the way up to $7 million. For both the developer and the builders, access to gas provides an advantage in the market. “In these particular situations, we have an edge on our competition because we have gas; they don’t, unless they get natural gas,” Dawlett says.
The average house at Rough Hollow sells for about $30,000 to $40,000 more than a same-size house in a neighboring community, Dawlett says. At that higher price point, builders are frequently equipping their homes with swimming pools, multiple propane water heaters, and two or three propane cooking appliances. “I would say 90–95 percent of the people that come into homes, especially when they come from the West Coast, where they’re used to natural gas, prefer to have the gas cooking appliances,” he says.
In fact, the typical Rough Hollow dwelling makes extensive use of propane both inside and outside the home, with a furnace, water heating (often tankless), pool heater, patio fireplace, one or more indoor fireplaces, outdoor grills, and fire pits. Similarly, community amenities such as the Yacht Club & Marina achieve better performance and energy efficiency by using propane for heating, water heating, and more, and the community restaurant employs gas cooking.
Communitywide gas service
Choosing to fuel Rough Hollow with a community propane system also makes life easier for builders and homeowners, who don’t need to worry about burying a storage tank in their yard or having a delivery truck driving through their neighborhood. Instead, each homeowner’s gas usage is metered and billed in the same way as a natural gas system. “When people buy a house, they don’t think about all that stuff,” Dawlett says. “They just want to be able to turn their grill on and their water heater on, and they don’t think about what it takes to get that gas there.”
Dawlett also appreciates the communication and service of his propane provider, Direct Propane Services, a difference that became particularly stark after the natural gas company abruptly stopped communicating. “It’s like you’re doing deals with a utility in a conglomerate, whereas with propane, you’re dealing with a small servicer and usually privately held,” he says. “So it’s easier to communicate and negotiate with those guys.”
Fourteen years after the first lot was delivered, Rough Hollow is approximately 50 percent built out and is on track for about 200 sales this year, many at a price point nearly double the surrounding communities. The community’s first elementary school is set to open shortly, adding yet another amenity that makes the community stand out within its market. “The idea for me was to be able to make it attractive for a wide variety of people, especially price points,” Dawlett says. “If you come in the Austin market and you come see us, chances are better than half that you’re going to buy from us.”