Builders' Edge Magazine

Fall 2004

Jim Katz and Coventry Estates, Inc.:
Building TomorrowÕs Legends

by John Fries

During the 1980Õs, a young entrepreneur named Jim Katz was selling consumer electronics for the Breyhar Corporation, founded by his brother Harry Katz as the Pittsburgh-area distributor for Sony. It was the era of the Walkman and the Betamax, and business was great.

Like most astute businessmen, Katz realized the importance of a great location as key to the success of any endeavor, so when he wasnÕt moving televisions, stereos and radar detectors, he was searching for the right property in which to open his own retail store.

On the way to opening his own store, the road on which he was traveling took a sharp turn, opening his eyes to some new possibilities. Ultimately, it led him to a new career as a land developer and builder of large homes for upscale clients.

Today, Jim Katz is president of Coventry Estates, Inc., which builds upscale custom homes primarily in Fox Chapel on land that his other company, Pittsburgh Land Co., has developed.

Currently, Pittsburgh Land Co. has two developments on 90 acres in Fox Chapel. One plan is named The Enclave; the other is Coventry Estates, the same name as KatzÕs construction company. He has spent more than 11 years developing in Fox Chapel. Coventry Estates (the home builder) features single-family dwellings valued at $900,000 and up, with many homes costing in excess of $1 million.

In an age of cookie-cutter homes, Katz is a hands-on developer and builder, working closely with each client to create a home of the clientÕs dreams.

"Each home is truly unique," said Katz. "My clients, most of whom are very sophisticated individuals, are building a home that they have dreamed about for years. They bring a personal vision of what they believe their ideal dwelling should be, and my job is to create and implement their vision.

"At Coventry Estates," he continued, "each home is not only very large, but also unique in character and flavor, and often incorporating interesting and exotic materials."

The single thread that runs through each home is a strong attention to overall quality and specific details, both of which share the top spot on KatzÕs priority list. He is totally customer-focused, a fact that does not go unnoticed by his clientele. He admits that his quest for client satisfaction keeps him nearly always on the go, meeting with clients, architects, engineers, lawyers, bankers, and, of course, prospective buyers.

ItÕs impressive that Katz has built a loyal following and reputation for excellence in a relatively short time, and even more so, given that he never planned to enter the development and real estate field. He believes, however, that it was inevitable.

"I grew up in Squirrel Hill, in a home that was custom-built by my parents," he explained, "and from a young age, I was exposed to the construction process. Because I had an interest, my parents took me to many meetings with architects, some of whom I use today, and trade people. We were always at the construction site. I loved it."

From a career standpoint, though, he decided to go in a different direction, and attended Boston University, where he majored in business and political science. After earning a BachelorÕs degree, he returned to Pittsburgh and accepted a position at the Bryhar Corporation, where he worked for 13 years. In his spare time, he explored the real estate market.

In 1987, convinced that it was time to make a career change, Katz quit his job with Sony and started the Pittsburgh Land Co.

"The first property I acquired was a large home on South Negley Avenue in Shadyside," he said. "After I bought the property, I immediately began to renovate it. I then purchased several additional properties in Shadyside and renovated them all."

The experience served him well, but his real entrŽe into the world of real estate development didnÕt come until three years later.

"In 1990, while searching for additional properties to renovate, one of the banks I was dealing with approached me with an opportunity to buy a large estate in Fox Chapel. It was then that I thought, Ôwhy not buy this land and build a business as a land developer on the 145-acre parcel of virtually untouched farmland in Fox Chapel?Õ"

Katz envisioned creating a plan of large, upscale, single-family homes that would be nestled in a serene, pristine, woodsy setting. He bought the land for more than $4 million, setting a record for the most expensive home site purchase in Allegheny County historyŅbut the land justified the expense.

In 1993, he introduced The Enclave, which sits on a 49-acre portion of the property. Four years later, he developed an additional parcel of the eastern side of Fox Chapel Road, which he named Coventry Estates.

In the early days, Katz worked with a variety of construction companies. "I would sell the land to builders, then, in some cases, help them design their homes." This was an admittedly ambitious undertaking for someone who doesnÕt have a formal education in architecture, but what he lacked in training, he more than made up for with his design instincts and innate understanding of what would appeal to clients.

Knowing that his electronics experience had no relevance to real estate development, he realized the acute need to build a network of associated professionals. The people and companies with whom he affiliated in the beginning of his career in real estate continue to work closely with him today. They include Steve Victor Associates of Sewickley for land planning and Ron Hartman of Reed Smith for legal assistance. He also works with Scholz Builders of Ohio and a number of local architects, depending on the needs of the project.

In the beginning, an issue that occasionally cropped up was not having an available model home that he could show to interested prospective buyers. "When we were first getting started, contractors were obligated to build specs. But, before they could start a spec, I would often refer a client to one of our builders, who would get a construction contract of more than $1 million, which would delay the construction of the required spec."

Alongside The Enclave, a picturesque, 49-acre plan thatÕs the only one in Allegheny County to exclusively feature homes with an average price tag in excess of $1 million (some cost as much as $3 million), sits Coventry Estates. Located here are some of the regionÕs largest and most grandly designed homes. All of these homes incorporate exacting details requested by the owners--clients who demand the very best.

"Just a few years ago, this plan was a wide-open field," said Katz. "And Longmeadow Drive, the main road that runs through The Enclave, actually was just thatŅa long meadow."

Because the land had not been previously developed in any way, Katz and his associates first needed to build the planÕs infrastructure. To keep vehicle traffic to a minimum and maintain a quiet environment, the plan was designed so that thereÕs only one entrance. Among the flat roads that run through The Enclave are four private lanes.

The EnclaveÕs exclusivity and charm are enhanced by such distinctive amenities as gas street lamps and large, landscaped common areas. The average size of a parcel of land in The Enclave is 1.74 acres. Some lots are as large as two acres and some are as small as one acre. Regardless of size, Katz stressed, "the prices are amazingly conservative, compared to my competitors."

The homes in The Enclave are built of the finest, highest quality materials, and workmanship is nothing less than excellent. "We over-engineer," said Katz, which often means using engineered wood and spending more dollars up front to ensure that the job is done correctly.

Many of the quality features are actually hidden within the walls. As a testament to this high level of attention to quality and detail, Katz proudly noted that "we have very few callbacks (regarding warranty work)." Every home in The Enclave is built to the exact specifications of the buyer. Once a floor plan is designed and a home built, the floor plan is retired and never used again.

Occasionally, Katz said with a laugh, even this can present an issue once in a while.

"Recently, a doctor saw one of the homes weÕd built and really liked it. When he contacted me about building one just like it for him, I had to explain that we simply donÕt do that; that every home we design and build is unique. Ultimately, after discussing his needs with him and his family, we steered him toward something with a similar floor plan--but a different facade."

As illustrated by this story, one of the keys to success in the large home business is an ability to listen to the client and be, at once, a consultant, collaborator and problem solver. Because prospective clients have specific wants and needs, often based on personal likes and dislikes, itÕs not unusual for the builder to use and often even import exotic materials to create a desired effect. "Our homes incorporate lots of mahogany, granite and other high-end material," explained Katz.

Sometimes, the clientÕs desire for a certain type of structure is logistically difficult or even impossible to achieve on the land theyÕve selected. "For example, a client might want to buy a flat lot, then ask us to develop a home that canÕt be built in a flat space," he said. "When that happens, we work closely with him or her to achieve the effect they want, given the parameters we have to work in.

Sometimes it takes several months to finesse it, but, at the end of the day, client satisfaction is paramount." Katz speaks with satisfaction about the homes he builds, most of which are fairly elaborate, and all of which seem to include some type of "Wow!" factor.

"ThereÕs a stone house on Longmeadow Drive that we built four or five years ago, but itÕs designed to look like itÕs 100 years old, with an Old World feel. All the stone was cut on site." He points to another home for which he designed and built a curved trellis that looks very much like a work of fine art. Some kitchens have floral backsplashes.

Then, there was the client who wanted the home design to incorporate inlaid Indian medallions. "There are a number of them in this home," he said, "including a four foot-wide medallion in a hardwood floor in the foyer, under a seven-foot crystal chandelier."

Every home at Coventry Estates and in The Enclave is built to last. Coventry Estates uses both stick and truss construction. Bathrooms feature a high level of quality, from the use of solid porcelain for basins and sinks, to cement board, rather than green board, around tubs and showers. And, of course, theyÕre finished with marble, granite and specialty woods.

For Jim Katz, no project is too complex and no detail is too small, as he continually seeks to implement his clientsÕ visions and create properties that will provide them with many years of enjoyment. He is "Building TomorrowÕs Legends."

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