DALLAS — Diane Cheatham still remembers the first time she walked onto a home-building project.
“The first job I walked on in 1980, the contractor looked at me and said it was bad luck to have a woman on a job site,” said Cheatham, who has run Urban Edge Developers, a custom building company, since 1991. “Things have changed greatly since then.”
Cheatham, who builds town-house projects and has her own subdivision in North Dallas, is one of a growing number of women in what has traditionally been a boys club of a business.
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About 10 percent of the industry’s 175,000-member trade group — the National Association of Home Builders — are women.
“Once this market picks up, we think there is going to be an even larger percentage of women in building,” said Carmel Nayman, who heads the builders association’s Professional Women in Building.
Count among that number Dallas custom builder Liz Newman, who’s only the second woman to head the 66-year-old Home Builders Association of Greater Dallas.
“I absolutely do believe that women have become an integral part of the building industry,” Newman said.
“More women have begun taking leadership roles in the construction trade over the years in so many avenues.
“I know firsthand how this business gets into your blood, and luckily for me there was no ceiling for women in construction during the timeline of my career,” said Newman, who began building homes in the early 1990s.
Like many female builders, Carolyn Isler has home construction in her genes.
“My father was a developer and residential contractor, as was my grandfather,” Isler said. “I was around it, but swore I would never do it.”
“I worked for IBM for eight years,” she said. “But when I started my family, I quickly realized that was not going to work out because of the travel requirements.”
Isler went back to school to learn about design and construction.
She built her first home in 2004 and has done about eight houses and many remodeling jobs since then.
“In this market, when it’s soft, people will spend money on improvements, where before they may have sold their home and moved to a new one,” Isler said.
She’s past the point of worrying about how she’ll be received in the industry.
“I gave a talk at a Girl Scout career day and was asked since most of the people who work for me are men, do they mind taking instructions from a woman?” Isler said. “I said, ‘If they don’t, they won’t be working for me long.’ “
Cheatham agrees that some of her macho construction workers might prefer to be supervised by one of their own.
“But they cheer up when they see my autograph on their paychecks,” she said.
Many female builders are more detail-oriented than their male counterparts, who tend to focus on the biggest problems, Cheatham said.
“When a woman goes out on the job, the first thing she tackles is all the little things,” she said.
Customers are usually more concerned with the quality of construction and builder response than whether a man or woman is running the show.
“Once I got to know her, it really didn’t make any difference,” said David Dempsey, who bought one of Cheatham’s houses in her Urban Edge subdivision in northeast Dallas.
“Diane has been very good to work with, and she’s a tough businessperson.”
Since female builders many times have shorter tenures in the housing business, they have been harder hit by the industry downturn, said Nayman of Professional Women in Building.
“In the last 18 months, I’ve had an awful lot of members have to go out of the business,” she said.
Shelley Reynolds, in Frisco, Texas, has two custom homes under construction and two more in the planning stages.
“And I just sold a spec house, so things are looking good,” said Reynolds, who followed her dad into the business.
Since 1999, her Reynolds Signature Homes has built more than two dozen high-end houses.
“There still aren’t a lot of women in this business,” Reynolds said. “But I’ve been around it all my life.”