Percentage of Members Needed to Build

These are select responses to Susan Adams (Jubilee Cohousing, Floyd, VA) query on Cohousing-L: What percentage of your anticipated membership did you have before you began to build your homes?

From Maraiah Lynn Nadeau, RoseWind Cohousing (Port Townsend WA)

How many buy-ins does it take to build? There is no universal number. It depends on how you are proceeding, so others can respond regarding up-front building, and work with developers. Just for contrast, RoseWind Cohousing in Port Townsend WA was what's called a "lot-development" model. Buy-in cost (20+ years ago it was about $36K) went in about equal thirds to land purchase, infrastructure we were required to install (to convert pasture land into City roads, parking, drainage, sewer, water, power, etc.), and our common house.

The cost, design, timing, and construction of homes was up to the individual households. Once you were bought in, you had a designated lot on which to eventually build, and RoseWind had its development money.

Had we had 24 households ready to buy in, we could have proceeded with land purchase, redesign work with the City (to make a Planned Unit Development in place of the gridded platting already in place), installation of infrastructure, and building our Common House. Instead, we grew gradually from 3 households to 24, using the first income to buy the land, then the next for infrastructure, then the Common House.

The advantage was mainly that otherwise we simply didn't have the capital, and couldn't have done it at all. We did it with no financing, no developers, very minimal professional help. Which took extra years, but it worked. Working together on the development phases, we were also building social community. Some of us were already living here by the time we built the Common House, but that meant that we were volunteering to help build and finish it, day by day-- another joint venture and another way we invested our time, energy and creativity into the construction.

Twenty seven years in, we have long been fully-built, with a beautifully hand crafted Common House that is well used, and a solid community. Many of the early members are still here.

If you have enough capital, I encourage you to explore fast-track modes--- Chuck and Katie are now speeding competently through the development of the new Quimper Village in our town and it looks like it will be very successful. I share the RoseWind experience, however, as an example of how creative planning and persistence can also succeed: our cohousing turned out to be wonderful and worth the extra years it took to get here.

From Ann Zabaldo, Takoma Village Cohousing (Washington DC) + Cohousing Collaborative, LLC

For both Takoma Village in Washington, DC and Eastern Village in Silver Spring, MD we looked for 75% sell through.

Regardless of 5, 10 or 15 committed buyers the real issue is: do you have enough financing (cash, loans, etc.) to cover the construction? Have you qualified for a construction loan? Can you cover all the carrying fees?

From Lew Bowers, PDX Commons (Portland OR)

Our new senior cohousing community - PDX Commons - decided that we would start the participatory design process when we had 12 of our 27 homes committed. We felt that was enough support to make us confident that we would be a success but not so many that we ran the risk of members starting to design their own customized home. For construction, our construction lender required that we have 21 of the 27 homes committed before they would close the construction loan. This was in addition to the guarantee of the developer on the construction loan. We accomplished this on schedule and began construction early this year.

From Katie McCamant, Nevada City Cohousing (CA) + CoHousing Solutions

Most cohousing groups would scare away banks (and developers) if they talk to them early on. And you never get another shot at “introducing” your project cleanly again. If their take away from that first meeting is that you are a bunch of nice, well intentioned folks who have no idea what you’re getting into…… it will be hard to convince them to take a fresh look later when you’ve gotten your shit together. The construction lending world is a small world, even in big markets, so I have found it much more effective to build up a group, make sure they are “real” about costs and the money, and then put together a really strong package to send out to banks, and actively “shop” the construction loan. As developer Jim Leach always reminds me, if you have the buyers (that will/can buy for what it is really going to cost to build your project), you can find the money to build it. The bigger challenge tends to be finding enough qualified cohousing buyers ready to put their funds into a forming project.

Sharon Villines (Takoma Village) asks, I wonder if this has gotten harder or easier?

Getting construction loans for cohousing hasn’t gotten any easier, largely because of the great recession and the additional regulations that went into place after that. And, of course, banks got a big reminder about how much money they could lose in a big downturn. Unfortunately, it was the smaller banks, and often the ones that are more likely to fund cohousing projects, that got hit hardest during the recession (much harder than the large banks that caused the problems!), so they are much more conservative now. That means that banks are more focused than ever on having significant assets to back the construction loan guarantees. So it’s all about finding the right bank at the right time, and if you are seeking a development partner, finding the right developer at the right time. And then giving them a great, well thought out, package that addresses all their concerns so they don’t have to work too hard to work with you.

This is a lot of the work I do at Cohousing Solutions. Helping groups understand their options, putting together a strong professional team, assisting in finding an appropriate developer and putting together that partnership, and then finding construction financing. I work all over the country. For any of you in the development process, feel free to give me a call to discuss how we can help you get your community built.