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It's a new assignment for me, and it's a lot of fun because it gets me out of the office to meet some interesting people. I also get to learn about all sorts houses, from those that exist only in a developer's mind, to those that have been lived in for hundreds of years. Did you see the story about the dome home?
It's the perfect time and place to be covering the real-estate and construction industries. Not only are they strong around here, they have been credited with keeping the nation's economy from falling off the chart as it limped though 2001 and suffers through the aftermath of Sept. 11.
No matter what your view of the Fredericksburg area's expansion over the last decade or two, whether you lament the sprawl or celebrate the growth, you can't deny its news value or that the changes to the region's landscape continue unabated.
Once you get past the controversies associated with the area's growth, and the cold, nuts-and-bolts stories about interest rates, investment opportunities, and insulation, you get to the really important stuff: the joy and pride people take in their homes.
A recent such story had its beginnings when I noticed a row of three homes being built on a hill in Mayfield overlooking Dixon Street. New development in the city's older neighborhoods is always interesting, and I figured the construction of these houses would make for a straightforward story about some new homes going up.
Going by recent experience, I should have known better:
A story I thought would be about an expensive old house changing hands on Caroline Street turned into a fascinating history lesson about the earliest days of Fredericksburg.
A story I thought would be about some new housing wedged into an available lot along Lafayette Boulevard turned into a look at efforts to provide barrier-free housing for the area's disabled.
Some stories may have more to them than I'm aware of when they're published. Certainly not all stories about home builders have happy endings for all parties involved. Not to discount the concerns of dissatisfied customers and subcontractors, but there's probably not a builder alive who hasn't had unhappy clients along the way.
When I stopped by the Mayfield construction site and found some subcontactors who gave me the name of the builder, I had no recollection of Doug Rothell or his company, Top-Notch Builders Inc. I didn't recall, as I learned from our newspaper archives, that we'd featured him in a story a few years back about the "Street of Affordability," or that he's responsible for those "New Victorians" along Washington Avenue near Kenmore.
It wasn't until after he chugged up in his 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity wagon that I learned he's already built some 30 houses in Mayfield, helping people become the owners of brand-new homes that exceeded their wildest dreams.
If you want to discover a definition of happiness, go meet someone who has paid rent for some lousy apartment for 30 years and now lives in a home
he can call his own.
Talk to him (or her) about the day he decided to look for a way out, and about the hurdles he faced. Talk to that person about finding people who can help you get past such obstacles as overdue bills, poor credit, lack of a down payment, and a basic fear of the commitment that homeownership requires.
He'll tell you a story that will warm your soul on the coldest winter day. There's an unmistakable blend of pride and appreciation that you can see in such a person's eyes.
Of the 30 homes that Rothell's built in Mayfield, some are very modest, while others could be found in any middle-class suburb. But each exudes the pride of ownership its owner feels. It shows in the house and in the yard. Owners care. They aren't paying to live somewhere; they're investing in the property they own.
One might wonder why a builder wouldn't spend all of his time building $300,000 homes. After all, buyers of those houses probably know the ins and outs of buying a house. They've got established credit and a ready source of funds for a down payment. That would be easier and certainly more lucrative.
But Rothell has seen the impossible dream come true too many times to stop now. He has seen the tears of happiness when someone walks for the first time into a home he or she never imagined owning. He wants to make people feel that way again and again.
And when you see the expression on his face, you know why he does it.