109: How to have fun while creating a spectacular home

Marnie Oursler
Marnie Ourlser of Marnie Customer Homes


Marnie Oursler used to sell houses. Now she designs and builds stunning homes that delight her clients. And in doing so, Marnie has learnt how to run a successful business.

Marnie knows how to have fun while creating a spectacular home.  It starts with an attitude of believing in what she’s doing, having a passion for it, and thinking up creative ways to add something a bit different to each house.

If you’ve ever wanted a secret passageway or a door hidden in a bookshelf, listen in to hear how Marnie sometimes makes this sort of magic happen!

How to have fun while creating a spectacular home

The thing that attracted me to Marnie Ousler was the fact that she was the person behind the first LEED certified home in Delaware. I thought it’d be a great opportunity to continue our journey around the States of America to find the best and most successful designers and builders in the country who are in the green space. Beyond that, I learned a whole bunch about Marnie’s success as a builder and as a business person.

This is something I am passionate about. I believe quite strongly that our ability as building professionals to run a good business will impact our ability to help people create better houses and better places to live. Marnie is a perfect example to that. She took up entrepreneurship in Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, Cross Continent MBA. She’s a National Spokesperson for 84 Lumber’s “We Build American” Campaign. She’s been in Professional Builders Magazine’s “40 under 40” and a list of accolades continues. See the bottom of this post for Marnie’s bio.

How did you get in this business?

I grew up in the business of home building.  My father is a builder, my grandfather was a builder, and so was my great grandfather. I’m a 5th generation builder.  A family of builders on different sides maternal/paternal.  I developed a true passion for the industry – home building and design. I grew up in the field, working for my dad as a laborer. I worked with my little brother. My father was a developer. He developed communities. I grew up seeing all aspects of the field work in construction.

After college, I moved to the beach and started working in real estate and became fascinated with the real estate market. I became fascinated with the beach and ended up buying a small house. I saved a lot of money, ate peanut butter sandwiches for 2 years straight. I saved up and bought a house. I studied the real estate trends and figured out what I should buy and capitalize on that investment. I bought a house, used all of my money improve it and sold it. It turned out really neat. I made a good profit on that and brought a lot and built a house. I still study on the market trends. That’s how I got started.

When people saw my house and they saw that it’s different from what people are doing. They asked me to build them a house. It sounded so easy, but I said no. I had a job.

A couple of years later, the market turned, and that couple never built a house. So I called them and asked if they would consider me building their house. They said they had just found a builder. I said, how about give me a shot to bid on it.  I showed them the new house that I built and I ended up working with them on the prices and I got the job. So I started a company, building custom homes. I ended up putting my house on the market, so people would see my designs and some things I was doing. It picked up the business.

[Tweet “After asking to bid on a house build, Marnie got the job. So she started a company.”, @marnieoursler]

I met a couple who wanted to build a “green home”. It was 2008 and that was before the energy code was mandated. I didn’t know what it was then! So we built a LEED certified home and it came to be the first in the state of Delaware.

You had great success in real estate. Why did you not stay on that path?

I think I didn’t love being in sales or selling real estate, but I love the market. I love studying the trends. I would download the data, and do spreadsheet and correlation, regression analysis, and figure out why people are buying and how much value does a bedroom bring to a house. I was just enamored by it. I could track it. I could see all these different correlation. I was attracted to the analysis part of the industry and then combining it with the creative part of building. It was so valuable to me because I can offer advice to people who are interested in building a home. I think that really sets me apart from a traditional builder because I understand the buyer.

The Lookout

There is a trend for smaller homes, do you think that size has peaked?

It’s interesting. I’ve been asked that question lately. The beach market, resort market, they are different. We’re building these homes with more bedrooms. More bedrooms sells. I think it sells more because they can invite extended families. We did two master suites, where the in-laws can come with a little private area for themselves. We do rooms for grandchildren, built-in bunk beds, and secret passage doors. The houses here are smaller. But we’re also coming into a demographic, a group of people, are coming into a lot of wealth as they age. They do want their families enjoy time together. Building a beach house allows them to do that. Build a nice home that they can live in but also in company with their children for holidays.

It’s an investment property. So you would want do the most you could to get back in an investment in this market. You’re building a house, one day you may sell it.

I think to my original houses were different. I was building in a market that was very strong. I came in at the tail of that market. I started my company in 2007. I didn’t have the detail. I didn’t think of how people truly live, they were built more for profitability. “Let’s just build this, we can sell it and turn a profit”.

I build high quality. We bring in manufactures to come and make sure we their products are installed properly.

The designs also have a lot of detail. I like details. So I embrace that.

And it’s so fun! It’s like movie when we do that for the client. “Hey let’s make this room really cool for your grandchildren.” or “Let’s make your bathroom amazing because you really like to spend time there, why not put a TV set in the bathroom.”

Think outside the box a little bit. Think about a bath while watching a movie. And why not build out your kitchen with the hot tub and a pool?. Things are just a little outside the box. Creative and functional.

Too many companies have shifted from when I first started. I would simply get the blue print, take a look at them and did it. Since then I developed a great client base, a lot of business came with me and I work with a lot of people in the industry. I can certainly make sure the design is going to flow, and eliminate the changes in the field.

I work with a lot of architecst. I’m involved with designs and I either draw out the plans or the floor plans and some elevations depending on my schedule how much time I have.

I take clients to the several homes that I’ve built. And they like choosing what room they like. Pick a pantry of out one house and a great room of another, a master bed room of another. And I can really see what they like and how we can create this room for them the way they live. I can bring all of that to nurture the effect. We make sure they’re getting the house they want.

Barefoot Elegance

What objective is most important?

When you’re building a beach house, most people want to go the beach, so that’s a big part of how we plan the house.

How do you get from the ocean to the house without tracking in the sand? It’s about learning how their family lives.

And why do you want a media room or why do you want this?

Adding quality and good design, sounds great. But they also sound expensive. How do you keep on the budget?

That’s a good question. I have a treasurer with a finance background. We set the budget. I work very well with the client. In conjunction with the client, we make sure we know the final number. It’s a puzzle every day. I mean, how can we allocate the different allowances to where they are most valued to the client. That’s a different thing to everybody. Knowing the client and setting the correct expectation of the client and value engineering, to reach your number, this is what we have to do. When we set allowances transparent, we don’t have issues. The client is always aware if we are over budget, or on budget.

Deja View

Do they always tell you the budget accurately at the start?

I don’t think so. As long as we know what our goal is. A lot of times we go over budget, and that’s fine but if they’re not fine with it, we have a problem. Everybody has their number, in their mind, whether or not they tell me, it doesn’t affect us. I know what the truth is for us and we have a goal to keep it in this number. If they’re okay if we exceed it, then it’s okay or if we stay under it then that’s okay.

If someone’s about to start a project, what would you would recommend to them?

The biggest thing is to enjoy the process. It’s a privilege to be involved in building a home. For us at Marnie Custom Homes, it’s truly our privilege. It’s a very intimate relationship between a builder and a client. It can be a lot of fun. Our whole goal is always make sure the budget and quality are always controlled. Everything else can be fun, creative and relaxed.

How do you avoid stress in the project?

We have some measures to make sure that it’s a fun process, and not stressful. One of those is our budget and communication is transparent and online. They can always access that. They can see where the money is going and the schedule online.  It also includes materials and services. They can also see the selection schedule and all the recommended suppliers. It’s like a marriage. We need to be honest with each other and they need to trust us. We’re all in this together. I also do weekly conference calls with my clients. On that call we also have a selection schedule.

If we have that constant communication all the time, it’s a successful process. The changes are controlled as well as selection and the client is aware and knows what to expect when they come to visit the house.

Is it normal to have a weekly call with the client?

I don’t know if it is, but it’s the way I found to be most successful.

Where should people invest the most, when they are creating their home?

It definitely depends on the individual. I recommend that people invest where they find value. We build to the highest energy standard and quality that we possibly can. I really encourage them to sit down and decide what is most important to you that is unique to you and your family and how to be creative with the spaces that we’re going to put into the home.

Do you question people’s values sometime?

Typically I get to know the client pretty well. If it sounds like it’s not sort of the path that we’re on, I certainly speak up.

Tell us about those years in 2008, was that hard?

It was very hard. At the same time, I knew that I wasn’t alone. I only built one house in 2008. Prior to that, I built 3. So I knew, going from 3 to 1 wasn’t a good sign but I knew a lot more people were not building, and had much more trouble then. I was very fortunate to not have any overhead, and had income coming and was in the industry that I wanted to pursue. I just continued to work, and the following year, I think I built 4, and since then I’ve continued on. A lot of it was hard work and perseverance.

What lessons have you brought from being a real estate agent, to running your own business?

Just knowing the market and the clientele was very helpful. I went back to school in 2012, at Duke University for my MBA. That really helped with my business. Having the fundamental knowledge of the market, clientele (where they are coming from, how I deal with them, etc.) and putting a value to my services, put me apart from my competition.

How did you get the time to get and MBA while having a growing business?

It was very difficult. I had a lot of work and less sleep. It was something I wanted to do. I put dedication to it and had a lot of support from my family, and friends. Even my clients were happy for me, and that really pushed me through.

It sounds like your clients are more like your friends?

I don’t know them at first. Meeting them, and them seeing me how much I care, we care as company about their house and making them happy. Once people see that genuine sincerity, of what we do, then we develop that friendship.

Marketing skills, social media, good clean website. Did you also learn that during your MBA?

I think I was a natural marketer. My dad is naturally good at marketing. When I built my business I wanted it to be strategic from the beginning – the clients that I want to attract, the homes that I wanted to build. Duke University really helps tremendously in strategy – doing market analysis. Market strategy was one of my favorite classes.

For marketing, I worked with a marketing firm where my clients are mostly based. So staying on top of it is very important to me. People know that I do focus on marketing just as much as I focus on the budget, and the house’s quality.

What is the future for Marnie Custom homes?

We’re growing. We’re moving to a new office space next month. We have an intern coming in summer.  We’re starting an apprenticeship program with the local community college, work with the Habitat for Humanity, the Wounded Warriors. There’s going to be a lot of social entrepreneurship for us. You never know.

Marnie Oursler’s Book Recommendation

House, Home, Heart: Artistry and Craftsmanship in the Architecture of Shope Reno Wharton

Also, check out Not So Big House by Sarah Suzzanca.


Marnie Oursler

Marnie Custom Homes

Marnie Oursler, Founder and owner of Marnie Custom Homes
Marnie Oursler, Founder and owner of Marnie Custom Homes

Introduction:  At the age of 28, Marnie blazed a trail through the traditionally male dominated construction industry and built a multi-million dollar company during what was one of the toughest economic times for builders across the nation.  She distinguished herself by designing and constructing one-of-a-kind homes with economically and environmentally affable products.  Marnie’s exceptional design sense, her sound business practices and social responsibility have shaped her company into one the most successful custom home building businesses on the East Coast.

Biography:  Marnie A. Oursler is the president of Marnie Custom Homes, a high-end design and custom home building company located in Bethany Beach, Delaware.  Marnie established her business in 2007 and works directly with clients and architects through all aspects of initial design, modifications, and construction to ensure homes are built to customer satisfaction.  As president, she is also responsible for managing vendor relationships, hiring talented staff, and identifying new market opportunities.  Marnie’s staff use mainly American-made and sustainable products that support the local economy while remaining high-quality and financially viable.

In addition to the daily operations of her business, Marnie is currently collaborating with Delaware Technical and Community College to help students gain field experience to launch their careers in the building industry.  Marnie has received a number of prestigious accolades including the Professional Builder Magazine’s 40 Under 40 Award, the Strong, Smart & Bold Award from Girls Inc, and the Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 Stevie® Award for Women in Business.  She was also Rookie of the Year in Delaware for selling seventy-four homes in one year.  Marnie attributes her success to ambition, hard work, and strong commitment to client satisfaction.

Marnie has always had a relentless work ethic.  She grew up working for her family’s business and spent time as a laborer, assisting superintendents and learning the various aspects of the homebuilding process.  A firm believer in the importance of education, Marnie completed the Cross Continent MBA program at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.  She is a proud member of the National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of Custom Home Builders.  Marnie complements this impressive profile with an equally commendable array of philanthropic undertakings and through support of the Carl M. Freeman Foundation, Little Pink House of Hope, and Habitat for Humanity.   In her spare time, Marnie enjoys the beach, exercising, travel, reading and being with her family and friends.