Levy in tune with buyers’ needs

February 13, 2009 | By Leslie Mann, Special to the Tribune

Growing up in Freeport, Ill., Jane Levy spent her allowance on two things, she recalls: “Seventeen magazine, for the girl side of me, and floor plan books, for the future builder in me.”

Decades later, Levy has outgrown fashion magazines but not her passion for floor plans. As the owner/president of Levy Custom Homes in River Forest, she still delights in reading them.

Levy builds custom houses in the western and northern suburbs and in Chicago. Although she’s been in the business for 22 years, Levy chooses to keep her company small, building one or two houses a year, plus remodeling projects that range from bathroom to whole-house re-dos.

Levy works with several architects in the Chicago area to design her clients’ houses, depending on their budgets and their houses’ architectural styles.

Her name is on the company shingle by intention. “It says, ‘The buck stops here,'” she says. “The client works directly with me, not a superintendent, and I’m responsible for whatever goes wrong. My goal is to under-promise and over-deliver.”

Levy’s strategy has not only won her a steady flow of clients, but the approval of her colleagues. From the Home Builders Association of Greater Chicago, she has earned Crystal Key, Gold Key and Silver Key awards.

Being female in the male-dominated home-building business is to her advantage, says Levy, although she still encounters peers who assume she is the “wife of.”

“Women know how families live, entertain and really use houses,” she says. “And we know intuitively what questions to ask the clients. When a client told me she had eight kids, for example, I asked her how many laundry rooms she wanted and where she wanted them. It turns out she had been putting a lot of thought into them and, yes, they were a priority for her.”

Although her clients’ houses are large by most people’s standards, Levy says, “Quality is their first concern, not size.

My clients are not interested in following trends or building monuments to themselves. They want houses that work for their families.”

Now that travel is more difficult than it was pre-9/11, many of Levy’s clients want to equip their houses for summer “staycations” by adding extras such as outdoor kitchens and fireplaces.

Although each Levy house has its own collection of amenities, one of Levy’s favorites is the heated bathroom floor. “I usually recommend it if it isn’t on their wish list,” she says. “They are never sorry they have it.”

A fan of historic houses, Levy takes care when demolishing houses slated to be replaced with new ones. She has salvaged parts such as newel posts, then incorporated them into the new houses.

Becoming a CGP (certified green professional) equipped Levy to help her clients build eco-friendly houses. “This is important to them and they’ve done their homework. They tell me they want houses without products with formaldehyde or toxic glues, for example,” she says.

Becoming a CAPS (certified aging in place specialist) gave Levy the know-how to build houses for Baby Boomers who plan to stay in their houses. “It’s a matter of thinking ahead. It can be as simple as putting plywood behind bathroom walls so grab bars can be added later,” Levy explains.

As construction proceeds, Levy likens her role to that of an orchestra leader. “Most of my trades have been with me for years and are specialists at what they do,” she says. “My job is to coordinate it all and make sure the client’s wishes are being considered with every detail, every inch of the house.”

Levy’s own dream house is a log cabin in Colorado, with enough rooms for her two sons and two stepsons to visit. “And a babbling brook!” she adds.

Asked if she plans to retire, though, she is quick to answer, “No. The closest thing we have to the fountain of youth is keeping our minds and bodies active.”

Success, to Levy, is more of a guiding principle than a goal. “It’s maintaining a flawless reputation, personally and professionally,” says Levy. “When you have your own business, the camera’s always rolling, whether you’re out at a restaurant or at the job site. You have to be a class act all the time.”

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