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Tuesday, September 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Front & Center: Ken Marsh has built homes and a business with passion and a Skilsaw

Ken Marsh has been a Spokane homebuilder for the past 30 years. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Ken Marsh has been a Spokane homebuilder for the past 30 years. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Almost three decades ago, an article previewing the annual Spokane Home Show focused on the event’s relatively young participants – in particular, 32-year-old Ken Marsh.

Having launched his own company when he was 22, Marsh had survived the economically perilous early ’80s, when mortgage rates peaked at 18 percent, and he looked forward to retiring comfortably by age 47.

“I guess when you’re 32, 47 sounds pretty old,” Marsh joked recently.

Standing inside a $1 million contemporary home he’s currently building on the northern fringe of Manito Golf and Country Club, Marsh reflected on his career, how the homebuilding industry has evolved, and what else he got wrong in that 1988 interview.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Marsh: On the North Side. I went to Mead High School.

S-R: Did you have any particular interests?

Marsh: Goofing off. (laugh) I loved playing sports, but had no idea what I would do for a living.

S-R: When did you start working construction?

Marsh: In 1974, when I was 19. At the time it was just a job that paid $3 an hour. But after a few months I realized I was kind of a natural at it, and gradually rose to the top.

S-R: How much did it cost to start your own business?

Marsh: All I needed was a pickup truck, a Skilsaw and a level, so not too much – probably $1,000. But I had worked on a foundation crew and for a framer, so I had some experience.

S-R: Could someone launch their own construction company that inexpensively today?

Marsh: Things are a little more complicated. You’d need more tools – and you gotta have a cellphone. But you could probably start one for less than $5,000.

S-R: How much do your employees earn?

Marsh: They start at $11.50 and go up from there.

S-R: Were the mid-1970s a good time for builders?

Marsh: Yes, but in 1979 interest rates skyrocketed, and things got really bad.

S-R: Did you ever consider getting out of the trade?

Marsh: Sure. If I knew how to do anything else, I probably would have.

S-R: How did you learn the business side of being a builder?

Marsh: I’m still doing that. (laugh)

S-R: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

Marsh: Treat everyone honestly and fairly – the same with any business.

S-R: Have you ever turned away potential clients?

Marsh: A few, when I didn’t get a good feeling from them. This is a one-year relationship – a lifetime relationship, if they want it to be.

S-R: How have the homes you build changed?

Marsh: They’re more expensive, of course, and a little smaller – 2,200 to 2,500 square feet, compared with my 1988 Home Show entry, which was over 3,000. Homes used to have formal living rooms and dining rooms. Now they’re more informal, so you can get away with fewer rooms. And probably 70 percent of my clients are empty-nesters.

S-R: Is there a busiest time of year?

Marsh: Early spring. And again in early fall, because people want to get projects buttoned up before winter.

S-R: What’s your typical work schedule?

Marsh: Right now it’s seven days a week because I’m building my own home for the seventh time.

S-R: You’re building your seventh home for yourself?

Marsh: I know it’s a little crazy. We lived in the last one for eight years and loved it, but our needs and tastes keep changing.

S-R: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

Marsh: There are a few homes I wish I hadn’t built because of downturns in the economy. I build a spec home about every two years, and the problem with this business is that the economy can tank between the time you start a home and finish it. That’s what happened back in ’07 and ’08, and I ended up sitting on an expensive home for five years.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Marsh: I love designing homes, and then going back later and seeing how people decorated them.

S-R: What do you like least?

Marsh: Collecting money.

S-R: Do you ever wish you’d gone to college and become an architect?

Marsh: If I had known then what I know now, definitely. But I think I’m doing what I was supposed to do.

S-R: Are you always looking for new ideas?

Marsh: Constantly.

S-R: Where do you find them?

Marsh: Sometimes in magazines. Sometimes driving around.

S-R: How many of the homes you’ve built did you design?

Marsh: About 80 percent. The home I’m currently building (at 1014 E. Club Court) was designed by Larry Swartz at Uptic Studios. The owners purchased the lot five or six years ago with the thought of remodeling the existing home for their retirement. But it didn’t work for them, so they tore it down.

S-R: When people learn what you do for a living, what do they ask?

Marsh: How much per square foot do my homes cost?

S-R: What do you tell them?

Marsh: It depends on the design. They can cost $250 a foot, $300, or more, depending on what features you want.

S-R: What are some features you consider essential to today’s home?

Marsh: A good kitchen with an island is No. 1. You need an open great room, and a good-size master closet. And energy efficiency, starting with R-30 in the walls and R-60 in the attic.

S-R: What’s the outlook for your industry?

Marsh: I think the next 10 years are going to be pretty good. There’s pent-up demand, and low interest rates are definitely helping.

S-R: What challenges lie ahead?

Marsh: Trying to build affordable homes, which is getting tougher.

S-R: What sort of person is best suited for this career?

Marsh: Someone who’s not too high-strung, and can deal with people. Any builder who tells you they’ve never had a problem is lying. There are always going to be issues. But part of my job is to assure clients that everything is going to be OK, and then make sure it is.

S-R: Is there anything about yourself you’d like to change?

Marsh: I’d like to be younger and better looking. (laugh)

S-R: Back in 1988, you predicted you’d probably retire when you reached 47. Now that you’re 60, what do you foresee?

Marsh: I can’t imagine retiring. Working keeps you young – keeps you on your toes. I hope to do this another 10 or 12 years.

S-R: Also back in ’88, you were asked if any of your four children might follow in your footsteps, and you replied, “One of my daughters has expressed a little interest, but my son doesn’t want to work this hard.” How’d that turn out?

Marsh: The daughter is a dental assistant, and my son has his own business – Kyle Marsh Construction. And he’s the hardest-working man I know.

S-R: If you could travel back to that 1988 home show, what advice would you offer yourself and fellow builders?

Marsh: Be bold. Be passionate about your work. And be cautious, because building is a risky business.

This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to be profiled, contact Michael Guilfoil at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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