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Philadelphia Inquirer – On the House: Dismantling a Family Firm after 80 Years of Building

It was the most difficult decision Lynda Barness has ever had to make. But she made it, and so in a couple of months the Barness Organization – at 80, the region’s second-oldest residential builder after Orleans Homebuilders of Bensalem – will be history.

“Our marketing material calls this company a family, and it really is,” Barness said shortly after it was announced that DeLuca Homes of Yardley would be acquiring the Warrington-based builder’s 800 remaining lots, which are scattered across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, from Bucks County to the Lehigh Valley.

A purchase price for the lots was not disclosed.

DeLuca will be hiring many of Barness’ employees and will assume the builder’s remaining warranty obligations, to make the transition “seamless.”

“These are people I work with every day,” said Barness, who joined the company in 1985 and became president on the death of her father, Herbert, in 1998. “It’s very hard to imagine not seeing Murray [Hirshorn, chairman of Barness’ board for 32 years] every morning.”

But the pressure of the business had just gotten too great, Barness said.

“Things have changed so much in the seven years since Dad passed away,” she said.

“For example, when he was alive, we never had a land-acquisition department. Farmers would call Dad with land to sell, or he would call them and say, ‘Call me when you’re ready.’ We never had to go scouting for ground.”

Buildable land is now scarce in the suburbs, and the larger builders – both national companies and home-grown ones – tend to have deeper pockets. “We are like the corner hardware store, surrounded by larger national stores,” including Pulte, Toll Bros., Orleans, Beazer and Hovnanian, she said. In addition, municipal rules and regulations have gotten stricter and more complicated, she said, making the time from proposal to completion longer and costlier.

The results of a survey by the Zell/Lurie Real Estate Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School showed that a community’s wealth, income and education level are important drivers of local regulation.

The higher the housing prices, household incomes, and percentage of college graduates in a community, the survey showed, the larger the increases in single-family-lot development costs, the longer the review times even for standard projects, and the longer the permit lags between application and approval (even when rezoning is not required).

Consumers have changed, too, although for the better. “They are better educated about the home-buying process than ever, because the Internet has made so much information so easily available,” Barness said. “When they come in, they know what they want.”

Her decision has saddened other area builders.

Jeff Orleans, whose grandfather began building houses in Philadelphia in 1918, said, “Lynda has been a driving force in our industry, and her expertise and presence will be sorely missed.”

In 1925, Lynda’s grandparents, Joseph and Mary Barness, traded chicken farming for residential construction, building one house, then a second.

The Barness family was well established in Bucks County when Lynda’s father joined Joseph after service in World War II and graduation from Bucknell University. In his 50 years with the company, Herbert Barness moved into multifamily and commercial construction, as well as single-family homes on both sides of the Delaware.

He also exported his expertise in the 1960s, building townhouses in Mexico and apartments in the Virgin Islands, his daughter said. There is no exact count of the houses and apartments the company built in eight decades, but Barness said the figure is easily in the thousands. “Just in the last few years, we have been completing 100 to 200 homes every year,” she said. “It was a hard decision because I have 80 years behind me. Still, I knew it was the right thing to do, and I know my father would have supported me wholeheartedly.”

Will Barness find some other niche in residential building?

“No,” she said. “I’ve been doing wedding consulting on the side, and I’ve decided to go into it full time.”

“It seems like a logical transition. From dream homes to dream weddings.”

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