The Comeback Chronicles

Nailing a comeback

Paul Sullivan Mar 21, 2012

Since 1985, Peter Schneider has been a custom builder and contractor in the town of Bethel, Conn., where he’s lived most of his life.

“It’s very nice to go down the road, and 9 times out of 10 we’re going by a project I worked on,” says Schneider.

Schneider benefitted hugely from the booming economy of the mid 2000s, but since the housing bubble burst in 2008, he’s been scraping by with remodels and piece work. With income way down from 2007, his best-ever year in the business, Schneider’s family has been forced to tighten the old belt and dismiss the idea of a vacation any time in the near future.

“We take our trash to the dump ourselves instead of having the guys pick it up, and I don’t fertilize my lawn like I used to,” Scheider laughs. “All those little things in life you used to take for granted, you take another look at them and you say, ‘OK, what’s the budget? How much you got left? Where’s your priorities? Where do you cut back?’ And you do what you gotta do.”

Schneider spent a recent winter day driving around Bethel with New York Times columnist Paul Sullivan to survey some of his work.

“He built modest homes for middle income people,” says Sullivan. “Over the years his business built very slowly but very gradually, and 2007 was his banner year. He did $2.5 million in sales. He really felt that he had accomplished something… And then, of course, the bottom fell out of the housing market, and in 2008, the next year, he did just $144,000 in sales. It was precipitous.”

While that might sound like great money, Sullivan says a contractor typically only makes about 10 percent of their sales once they’ve paid their expenses. Schneider, he says, hasn’t taken a paycheck for four years. His family has eliminated pizza night, his wife went to work part time, and the investment properties he’d hoped would put his kids through college debt-free are now instead keeping the family afloat.

“I’m a walkin’ miracle,” says Schneider. “When you look at the numbers of what my business has been like for four years, with kids in college, I don’t know how I’m still standing. The lord provides every day, that’s all I can tell you.”

Sullivan credits Schneider’s optimism in the face of such financial adversity with his survival in a nearly dead housing market. “The economy will come back,” says Schneider confidently, “and when the economy comes back, life as usual for guys like me will come back also.”

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