Moving past recession, developer Fred Overton puts subdivisions on the map

Sunday, April 21, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:46 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Developer Fred Overton uses heavy-duty equipment to scoop snow for his residents at Wyndham Ridge Subdivision on March 7. Whether it's moving snow, shoveling dirt or building relationships with the residents, Overton has a different task each day. "It's all about customer service," he said. "That's why I love this job."

COLUMBIA — Fred Overton still tears up when he recounts the worst days of the recession.

"It was pretty rough there for a while," he says, his voice quieting as he speaks.

Overton develops lots for new subdivisions, getting them in shape for builders or individuals to put up houses. When demand dwindled to an all-time low in 2008, his business reached a standstill.

His savings were gone. His earnings were gone. His retirement fund was gone.

The housing market finally turned around three years ago, and Overton survived.

"You can't quit. You've just got to keep going," he said, wiping moisture from his eyes. "No matter how bad it is."

In the past 10 years, Overton has watched housing sales boom, and he's watched them bust. As the market recovers, he's regaining ground while clawing his way through the obstacles to a full recovery.

From 2003 to 2005, the city grew, almost too big and too fast for him. In 2005, Overton sold hundreds of lots, and he averaged 75 sales a year.

The recession hit him hardest in 2008. He sold only 14 lots that year.

He noticed the market begin to come back to life in 2009, and his sales have slowly rebuilt since. He sold 41 lots in 2012.

Overton is now in the process of selling lots in the Wyndham Ridge Subdivision on the southwest edge of Columbia.

In March, he met with builders to talk about 36 lots he is getting ready to sell. He thinks he could sell all of them by this fall.

"For the first time in eight years, I'm in the driver's seat instead of being run over," he said.

He survived the three difficult years with the help of his good financial standing, a loyal clientele and extra income from baling hay on his farm.

In addition to the extra income, his farm kept him sane. Working the land helped relieve his frustration, and the scenery of the outdoors reminded him of his faith, which he relied on during the worst days of the downturn. 

"A whole lot of it was having faith and trust in the man upstairs because there wasn't any other place to turn at times," he said.

As his business begins to bounce back, he's fighting to turn a profit as land and lot values remain low but prices rise for supplies such as lumber, concrete and drywall.He also has to pay interest on his vacant lots while he waits for sales to take off.

To him, it’s a constant uphill battle.

"On this project, with as much interest and taxes as I've paid, I don't know if I ever will make any money," he said. "I've lost so much. What I'm doing now is working just trying to cut my losses, and I don't know if there ever will be any profit."

But he can't quit. He grew up in building and development and doesn't know any other life. It has never been in his nature to give up.

When his sales plummeted, Overton could have left the business and salvaged his remaining savings.

But he loved his work, comparing it to a marriage that takes the bad with the good or a sports team that comes back from behind to win the game.

"I've fought so hard to get here, why am I not going to fight to keep it?"

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