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Discovering she'd rather do it herself

She was overseeing the rehab work anyway, so becoming the developer was the next logical step.

Sheila Dragon is renovating the interior of 473 King of Prussia Road in Wayne, Pennsylvania. (Matthew Hall / Staff Photographer )
Sheila Dragon is renovating the interior of 473 King of Prussia Road in Wayne, Pennsylvania. (Matthew Hall / Staff Photographer )Read more

She's already completed a half-dozen real estate development projects, and Sheila Dragon is just getting started.

"Nicole Curtis, watch out!" Dragon said, referring to her television inspiration, the host of the DIY Network reality show Rehab Addict, who rescues historic houses.

Dragon is one of a small but growing number of female developers in the Philadelphia area. Working for many years as a home stager through her West Chester-based company Dragon Design, she realized she was increasingly overseeing renovations and architects, completing the sales process from start to finish but not being paid for the end result.

"I was doing all the work to help sell the house, while the real estate agent was standing there collecting the commission on my efforts," she said. She figured that "I could get the client a higher asking price, use my brains, and get the commission."

Dragon Design now offers full-service start-to-finish development: advising homeowners on staging; deciding which renovations may be needed; contracting out those repairs, and, now that she has her real estate license, acting as agent for broker Keller Williams.

Her latest project, on King of Prussia Road in Wayne, is a property she purchased through an estate sale. The 1½-acre site includes a 1970s house, in the again-popular mid-century-modern style, that was in disrepair and vacant for some time.

Dragon envisioned an "updated Western style with a retro twist," an opportunity for a gut renovation featuring a pass-through kitchen, two master-suite bedrooms, a new stand-up shower, and energy efficiencies like converting to natural gas from oil.

By the time Dragon is finished, a two-bedroom/2½-bath house will have four bedrooms, 3½ baths, a deck and an expanded patio.

What prompted her move into the developer's role?

"This market in Philadelphia is shifting from a seller's to a buyer's market. I don't want to get caught in the cross fire. It's all renovations now, and staging is going away," she said. "I needed to think forward and keep up. A lot of home stagers don't have the experience to go into development, and I had already learned on the job."

As a stager, Dragon had done design work with clients, then had overseen contractors on the homeowners' budget.

"I also now find deals for investors, for a finder's fee. But I really like being the brains behind the vision, acting as project manager," she said.

She has completed projects in Havertown and Wallingford, and is looking at one in Overbrook. In Wallingford, she partnered with a home inspector to buy a $204,000 house, invested $130,000 in the renovation, and sold it for $520,000, splitting the profits after commissions and taxes.

With development comes the cost of carrying homes she's buying for investment. "It's a couple of hundred bucks a day to carry a house, especially when you pay cash," Dragon said.

She has been able to finance her projects using both "hard" and "soft" money. Soft money is financing from private investors, such as friends and family. Hard money costs a lot more, about 15 percent, to borrow.

The day after she bought the King of Prussia Road property, Dragon figured out the scope of the work to be done with her contractors and immediately budgeted $130,000 to gut the place and clean it.

The yard was littered with downed trees, 18 flatbed trucks worth of wood and bamboo. Contractors ripped off the entire rotted wood exterior and replaced it with siding. She plans to repair the outside chimney for a working fireplace and to refloor the interiors with bamboo.

What lessons has she learned? Don't hire cheap contractors.

"I need a team that I don't have to babysit. . . . I'll pay top dollar for not having any issues at inspection time. Penny-wise, pound foolish I am not."

That said, she's careful to write into contracts lien-release waivers, whereby contractors deduct $75 a day off the final bill for every day they're late finishing the work.