When Joyce Greenfield decided to build a house in the Maryland town of Chaptico, she knew she wanted a single-story rambler with at least...
When Joyce Greenfield decided to build a house in the Maryland town of Chaptico, she knew she wanted a single-story rambler with at least three bedrooms and fancy bathrooms. At 49 and inching toward retirement, she needed something affordable — a modular home.
She turned to a community not widely known for homebuilding: the Amish.
Relatives recommended an Amish man in St. Mary’s County, John Hertzler. She drove out to his farm in Mechanicsville — he has no phone, being Amish — and described what she wanted. She was thrilled with the price he quoted, $90,000, but was stunned to hear this:
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The waiting list was two years long. Even though the houses take only five weeks to build.
Hertzler’s family business is believed to be the region’s only Amish modular-home outfit — and it has been booming. With no advertising, not even a listing in the phone book, Hertzler Modular Homes has cultivated a following among people looking for a customized and less-expensive alternative to the cookie-cutter models that dominate residential developments.
Hertzler can build only one house at a time in his warehouse, and he has been producing at maximum capacity, about 10 to 12 a year. Asked why his houses are so popular, Hertzler was modest, as is expected by the Amish community. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m sure it probably is word of mouth.”
Hertzler’s business is an example of a recent shift in America’s Amish. As farming becomes more expensive, Amish families are turning to making things and selling them to the general public.
“In the last 15 years, there’s been quite a rapid development of small businesses, micro-enterprises in the Amish community, owned and operated by Amish people,” said Donald Kraybill, a leading scholar of the Amish and a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, who wrote the 2004 book “Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits.”
About 2,000 Amish and Mennonite people live in southern Maryland, where their ancestors migrated from Pennsylvania in the 1940s. Several of the families make furniture, sew quilts and build barns and sheds for sale.
Hertzler’s business is tucked away among the farms of Mechanicsville, the heart of the region’s Amish population, where horses draw buggies slowly along country roads.
Down a dirt and gravel driveway off a two-lane highway sits Hertzler’s warehouse, where he and a half-dozen other bearded Amish workmen labor in suspenders and straw hats.
They measure and saw, hammer and trim. Since the Amish do not believe in using electricity or many other modern conveniences, they power tools using what Kraybill calls “Amish electricity.” A diesel engine pumps compressed air through hoses to power the tools. The Amish hire electricians to wire the homes.
A typical 1,500-square-foot home is constructed in two long units, which are less than 14 feet wide so they can be transported on roads. Insulation, doors, carpets and cabinets are all added in the warehouse.
A separate contractor lays a foundation on the home site, and Hertzler hires a crew to truck the home to the property. In one day, Hertzler and his workers put the house together and build the roof.
“As far as I know, they have held up well,” Hertzler said.
After about a year of checking in with Hertzler, Greenfield made it to the top of the waiting list in late November.
One recent afternoon, Hertzler gave a visitor a tour of Greenfield’s nearly finished home. Planks, scraps of carpet, and sheets of linoleum were scattered across the warehouse floor.
Hertzler buys many of his products and appliances from such mainstream vendors as Lowe’s. Because Hertzler doesn’t have a telephone, two Lowe’s saleswomen drove to his warehouse that afternoon to discuss a pending order.
Hertzler’s home-building operation is so low-profile that Lowe’s saleswoman Penny Fleming said she “didn’t really know that they were even really here” before she started taking Hertzler’s orders.
In 2001, Hertzler took over the company from his father, John Sr., who started it about a quarter-century ago. The elder Hertzler, 67, still lives next door in a block farmhouse he built years ago. He and his wife raised their six children there.
The elder Hertzler sold his first modular home for $20,000, or about $17 a square foot. “Young couples coming in with a baby in their arms,” John Sr. said. “Those were my favorite customers.”
Since then, John Sr. estimates, the company has built 330 homes. Today, they sell for about $50 per square foot.
Greenfield said commercial modular-home vendors offer similarly sized homes for two or three times the price.
The Amish can afford to sell at lower prices for several reasons, Kraybill said: They are exempt from paying Social Security taxes because they have waived the right to receive benefits; many family members work for the business and have a strong work ethic; and the way they operate helps keep costs low.
“They don’t have bells and whistles in the shops,” Kraybill said. “They don’t have air-conditioning, they don’t have computers, they don’t have red carpets. It’s just bare-bones.”
Once Greenfield made it to the top of the waiting list, she met with Hertzler to design the house. She ordered the largest he would build, 1,680 square feet, with cream vinyl siding and burgundy shutters.
To seal the deal, they shook hands. Greenfield said she was not asked to sign a contract or to put any money down. Hertzler wrote her name and contact information on an unpainted door frame.
Greenfield said she drove to Hertzler’s warehouse to check in once a week until construction was finished. By mid-January, Hertzler delivered her home. A yellow crane lowered the two units like coffins into the foundation. Hertzler and his crew assembled a high-pitched roof.
Transaction on trust
And Greenfield still hadn’t paid a dime, although she intended to pay in full once the construction was finished. “I guess they do it in good faith,” she reasoned.
Benjamin Beale, a University of Maryland extension agent who works with the Amish in St. Mary’s, said transactions based on trust are common.
“There certainly is a sense of doing business the old-fashioned way, on a handshake and a trust in the agreement,” Beale said. “But certainly in the general public that’s unheard of, isn’t it? You go to buy a house nowadays and you go into settlement to sign 60 papers.”