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Two builders survived the bust

Nino Cutrufello and Marcus Toconita, buddies since their Malvern Prep days in the early 1990s, worked for national builders during the housing-boom years.

An exterior view of a new townhouse project. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )
An exterior view of a new townhouse project. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )Read more

Nino Cutrufello and Marcus Toconita, buddies since their Malvern Prep days in the early 1990s, worked for national builders during the housing-boom years.

In 2007, they decided to strike out on their own as Callahan Ward Cos. (their mothers' maiden names) and begin building the upscale housing they saw was in demand in the emerging Philadelphia neighborhoods of Northern Liberties and Fishtown.

It was August 2007, to be exact - just as the real estate bubble burst.

"We timed the market perfectly," Cutrufello, a Havertown native, said recently, laughing.

They survived and finished their first house, in the 1000 block of North Third Street, in 2008-09 - a 3,000-square-foot, three-story property purchased for $680,000 in June 2010, city records show.

When the market collapsed, prices dropped in Northern Liberties, Toconita said, but interest in living there - and in small-scale building - "wasn't affected."

Since that first house, Callahan Ward has built 16 more units, with 22 more in some form of development or construction - 12 projects in total for the 35-year-old business partners, six completed and one nearing completion in the 900 block of North Leithgow Street and the 400 block of St. John Neumann Way.

Most of the projects are in Northern Liberties, with the rest in Kensington, Fishtown, and Brewerytown. Many of the units were purchased before they were even up out of the ground, the developers said.

All the projects have been named for close friends: Lestrange, Zabels, Ryan, and Bradley.

Their "sweet-spot" price point, Cutrufello said, is $700,000 to $800,000, which buys three bedrooms, 21/2 baths, and parking.

Buyers in that range are married professionals or entrepreneurs "in their late 30s or early 40s, dual income, with young kids, moving from Center City because they need more space," Cutrufello said.

Ryan's Crossing's seven townhouses at North Leithgow and St. John Neumann Way are less expensive, priced from $619,000 to $645,000. Upgrades pushed the price of one sold unit to $665,000.

Of the seven, five have been constructed, with three already settled and one scheduled to close in September. Two sold for cash to the same buyer - with the agreement signed before zoning approvals, Cutrufello said.

"I'm surprised at the speed of the sales," Toconita said, "without a model and all for asking price." He added that he doesn't see cash sales often, and only in the market under $800,000.

The site was once the location of a monument factory, then became a vacant lot and a dumping ground. The developers bought it from the family that owned it.

Buyers at Ryan's Crossing are in their "late 20s or early 30s, couples and some singles, thinking about starting families," said Toconita, who hails from Narberth and is construction manager for the developments.

Every buyer chose an optional third bath in the basement, which is below the garage.

"If you have guests, you might want them to have some privacy," said Cutrufello, pointing to the steel beams in the ceiling of a basement that support the garage above it.

The unit that sold for the highest price had it all, including quartz countertops and a walkout roof deck with a view of Center City, "but she asked for all hardwood and QuietRock drywall," designed to provide a high level of sound dampening between rooms, he said.

The original plan for Ryan's Crossing did not sit well with the neighbors - not an unusual occurrence in areas overwhelmed by infill construction. But the developers acknowledged that the negotiations resulted in "a better-looking project than we had originally presented," Cutrufello said.

He and Toconita say they expect demand for construction to remain high, and that is rapidly pushing up the prices of vacant land.

Eighteen months ago, they bought a lot at Fifth and Master Streets for $35,000, Cutrufello said. Today, a lot in the same block costs $60,000.

215-854-2472@alheavens

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