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Santa Rosa wildfire rebuilder Synergy Group questions demand for homes after thousands are replaced

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Since his 20s, Andy Christopherson, a partner of Santa Rosa-based Synergy Group, has been involved in buying land for and running sizable projects for his parents’ company, Christopherson Homes.

He and his partners started Synergy in 2014 and dived into the rebuild just after over 5,000 Santa Rosa-area homes were destroyed in the 2017 fires. So far, Synergy has put in 85 foundations for its 16 standard rebuild plans and moved in nearly 40 families. The company also is rebuilding 30-unit Stonefield condominiums in Fountaingrove in the northeast of the city.

Six months ago, Synergy Custom launched to provide personalized rebuild options in Fountaingrove and down Sonoma Valley as far as Kenwood.

Near Coffey Park and acquired before the fire, Synergy has 20 lots ready to build in two projects. A 29-lot upscale plan is in the works for Windsor.

Has demand for rebuilds changed?

It’s much different. So many people waited so long, and their insurance expires in October. “Okay? It’s May. Can somebody build me a house now, because I need to get back in by October?” Were like, “It doesn’t work that fast, unfortunately.” I wish it did.

People are getting a little shocked at the timing (of how long the project takes), but at the same time, they’re having a hard time making a decision. I don’t blame them, because they did not ask to do any of this. This is all really new for somebody that’s not used to building homes and being around that industry.

Our customers are all across the board. We see if they’re a good fit for one of our (rebuild) programs versus buying one of our existing plans, taking a look at what they want designed and going to the custom side with them.

It all depends how difficult people want to make it. Our first rebuild program is set up so simple. You get a phenomenal product, all the same finishes I have in my own house. Or you can make it very, very complicated — go the custom route. It looks so easy when you watch it on HGTV.

What’s the outlook for homebuilding?

We’re treading lightly. We want to help people get back in their homes. We know there’s a big need for that. But in terms of us going out and buying a bunch of lots and doing a bunch of speculative building, we’re not too into that.

It’s just weird right now. How many people really did move out of the county? So many people could be working remotely.

What are the biggest opportunities for your company?

If it’s a simple project or a difficult project, it doesn’t matter. It’s just working with people and getting them back in their homes. We won’t make as much money than speculative building, but there’s a lot less risk.

Have you worked out things with your subcontractors?

We had some big sub issues to begin with, and primarily just one contractor. Since then, we severed ties with them, and now we’re back rolling again.

What are your biggest challenges?

Everything is sort of running pretty smooth. Team is great. All of our systems are great.

My biggest challenge is what we’re going to do next year. We could fill our pipeline easy, but we just want to be selective.

Is it challenging to transition to nonrebuild projects?

Yeah, it’s different. If it’s a “spec build,” it’s a little easier than if it’s for a customer — less chefs in the kitchen.

But at the same time, we’re looking at doing custom home building. That adds a lot more complexity to the recipe. Where an average superintendent had 15–20 homes under their belt (with rebuilds), now with semicustom stuff they can only have seven homes.

It’s hard to meet in the number of units what your bandwidth is (now), the real need of your pipeline. This downhill Stonefield project is taking a tremendous amount of bandwidth and focus. It’s a whole different deal than a flat Coffey Park lot.

From day one, we knew we could build about five simpler Coffey Park homes for every one custom home we do, because there’s just that much more going into it.

That was why I originally got into our standard plans to try to get people back in their houses. It worked out really well. We got a lot of people in fast.

Other challenges?

We have maybe a reputation of a heavy production builder that can’t do and won’t do custom work, but that’s not the case at all. When the fires first happened, we didn’t take on any custom work because we didn’t have the bandwidth to take it on. Since about six months ago, we have the bandwidth now.

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