Home inventory in Lancaster County is at a premium these days, but that wasn’t the case 30 years ago.
A sluggish economy stalled home sales in 1991, and local builders had a glut of inventory on their hands.
“A lot of the builders had housing stock to sell and we were trying to think of ways to do it,” recalls Earl Hess, retired president of Hess Home Builders, who was serving as vice president of the Building Industry Association of Lancaster County that year.
In search of a way to jump-start the industry, they launched the county’s first-ever Parade of Homes, an open house tour of 50 homes representing some 31 builders. Entries ranged from a two-bedroom in Grandview Chase priced at $76,900 to a four-bedroom colonial in Millpond with a $493,500 price tag.
“The internet was almost nonexistent. What better way for publicity and to try to drum up business,” says Shawn Garman, president of Garman Builders, a participant in that inaugural tour of homes. “The rest is history.”
History will continue this year with an in-person and virtual version of the annual tour June 12-20.
Garman was in his early 20s back then, newly married and working full time in the family business. He recalls the company looked to the Parade as a way to raise awareness about new communities where they were building. Their entry in Ephrata’s Brickyard development took best of show honors in its division.
“We kind of got hooked on the Parade,” Garman says, noting the annual event not only drives business but also helps local builders see how they stack up against their peers.
In the three decades since it began, it has done much more. What started out as a way for builders to sell their spec homes turned into a premier showcase of homes, Hess says.
“Builders started building houses just for the show,” Hess says. “It kind of grew from there.”
Changing with times
The Parade has evolved over the years to meet the changing times and an ever-fluctuating housing market, but it’s still a powerful tool for builders, says Melanie Capanelli, director of programs and communications for the Building Industry Association of Lancaster County.
“We have had years with 60-plus homes and years with fewer. The housing market has certainly had its peaks and valleys through the years but one thing remains: our beloved Parade,” Capanelli says.
In recent years, the Parade has grown to be not only a sales booster but also a source of inspiration.
Parade visitors might tour a home so they can explore a particular community or builder, or because they are in the market for a house. They might also go for decorating ideas or to check out the latest building trends, like subway tile or barn doors, Capanelli says.
“The Parade to us is really about awareness and really being able to showcase our product,” Garman says. “If I travel, we’ll hit parades in other states as well. Everyone puts their best foot forward with innovations, new products, home designs. It helps drive us builders to be on the forefront and make sure we’re staying current.”
The Parade has not seen a year with 60-plus homes in some time. Over the past decade, participation has gone from 47 entries in 2012 to 29 entries in 2019. However, traffic through each home has remained fairly steady, Capanelli notes. The BIA keeps statistics on the total number of visitors, based on each builder’s count of the people that visit their homes. The numbers reflect total home visits, not unique visitors, since many people tour more than one home.
In 2009, for instance, there were 48,752 visits to 52 homes, meaning each home attracted 937 visitors on average. In 2019, the tally was 24,030 visits to 29 homes, or an average of 828 visitors per home.
The number of entries in a particular year is reflective of many factors, Capanelli notes, from the housing market to whether the winter and spring weather allows builders to lay their foundations and complete their homes by the tour deadline.
And, of course, there was the pandemic.
The 2020 home tour, an all-virtual event, featured 18 homes. There are 18 entries again this year.
“The market is very hot right now,” she says. “Even some of the houses that were entered (this year) had to be switched because they were sold.”
For students at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, the Parade of Homes is not simply a way to market a home or offer design inspiration. It’s also a learning experience and a step toward their future. The pandemic has made that particularly challenging.
Thaddeus Stevens students have been entering the Parade of Homes since 2017. Building a home is part of the curriculum for each class, with framing in the fall and finishing in the spring.
The class of 2020 was ahead of schedule on its townhome entry at 1 Hull Court, in a small development off Route 741, when the lockdown hit last year, recalls carpentry instructor Dan McCord.
“We literally were working on it one day, and the next day we were told, ‘You can’t come back,’ ” he says.
This year’s graduating class was not able to start their own home in the fall due to COVID-19, McCord says. Instead, they’ve been tasked with finishing last year’s home.
“They totally had an uphill climb,” he says. “They had to finish someone else’s work.”
When they were able to re-enter the home at the start of the spring semester in January, they were met with an eerie scene: tools scattered about and projects half-finished, a sign of the abrupt halt to the project nearly a year earlier.
Since then, the class of 2021 has been putting their own stamp on the project, finishing the master bath, the basement with custom bar, and more, McCord says.
The Thaddeus Stevens Parade of Homes entry also will feature a first-floor owner’s suite with a smartphone-controlled shower, a patio and a large open balcony.
“The houses have gotten progressively more involved,” McCord says. “This one this year is the biggest one we’ve done.”
For the students, building a home to enter in the Parade means more than just a grade. It’s a chance for them to compete against other local builders who could be their potential employers.
“It is a tool for the student. It gives them a goal. It’s a culmination of what they learn here,” McCord says. “They have to buy into it. There’s deadlines, commitments. So far they’ve always come through.”
The school will build one more house in the current development; then they will need to find land elsewhere, McCord says.
That search for land in some ways reflects another evolution in the life of the Parade of Homes. As many of the communities promoted in the early tours began to fill up, Capanelli notes, the Parade became a showcase of possibilities for custom home builders and, more recently, remodelers.
“The BIA is here to serve their members and benefit their members,” Garman says. “They’ve opened up the Parade to their remodelers, and there’s a number of builders that also do multifamily (construction).”
Garman Builders is among those who have entered remodeling projects in the tour of homes over the past few years. Two of those whole-house makeovers have won the Parade’s prestigious Fulton Award.
“In Lancaster County, as land becomes harder and harder to find, we have clientele who love their neighborhood, they love their neighbors, they love the convenience of where they currently live. They might love that big old oak tree in their front yard,” Garman says. “(But) it might be time for an update or the home doesn’t meet their needs.”
For only the second time, this year’s Parade also will feature an apartment — this time from Garman’s Market Square Apartments in Leola. Rental communities, particularly those that include open spaces where people can connect, are popular with millennials, Garman says.
Reflecting the way we live is what keeps the Parade going strong, he says.
“Our fondest memories are made in a home,” he says.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a new home, a remodeled home or a rental complex.
“It’s where we live life … It’s about the community. It’s our lifestyle. We’re happy to be able to showcase that.”
For more information: lancasterparadeofhomes.com