In 1950, Shannon bought a huge lot in a fine neighborhood in Downey, California. I designed the home and we built it during summer vacation from USC. This was such a neat experience, and being worn out from going to school, I decided not to re-enroll in the fall, but start designing and building homes. We built one, sold it immediately, then built two at a time, then three. By 1954 we were building 6 at a time. Then, I designed what we magically called "The Cinderella Home" in Downey, and it was a knock-out! The talk of the town! Over 35,000 people came through that home with only word-of-mouth advertising - from as far away as Oceanside. It was our success formula.
One day Shannon said, "Jean, instead of building custom homes, we really should be building tract homes. Individual building sites are becoming terribly hard to obtain, and the "boxes" that are presently being sold as tract homes are a disgrace to the profession." I heartily agreed, and we started plans for mass development of "Cinderella Homes." We planned to have 4 floor plans and 20 elevations. They would be ranch style, wide and low, with clipped ceilings, long roof overhangs, rounded rafter-tails, shake-shingle roofs, lots of brick wainscoting and brick planters, brick fireplaces 8' wide and floor to ceiling, big wide windows with custom shutters and garage doors that tied in with the rest of the architecture. They would be excellent open-space plans, where the wife was still in constant touch with her husband and children - instead of being isolated - when she was working in the kitchen. Every home that I ever designed has incorporated this concept, because I have always believed that "communication" is one of the primary keys to a successful marriage and a happy family.
Shannon was able to tie up about 40 acres of land in the west side of Anaheim, California, and went out to try to obtain a construction loan for 168 homes. Most everyone thought we were crazy dreamers. One lending institution after another said, "If you were going to build 10, 20, even 50 homes, we might go along with you, but 168? No way! But the Lord intervened, and he found an old gentleman who ran Hollywood First Federal S&L. He said, "I like your designs, I like your perfect credit record, I like your past performance, and I'm going to go along with you." We closed the deal on the final day of our being able to retain the land. Why does God sometimes test us right up to the last minute?
As we were under construction, we had hundreds of people stopping by to ask when the homes would be for sale. These houses were revolutionary. No one had ever seen anything like these, except in custom homes well above $20,000. These were going to be available for $14,000, with 4% VA loans. When the houses went on the market, they were sold out in three days, and in a short time we had over 1,000 people on a waiting list who wanted a Cinderella home. The impact of these homes caused several local builders to go into bankruptcy, and others had to stop, in the middle of development, to redesign their homes. At this time, we had what the advertising agency said was the world's largest sign. It was 200' long and 40' high, beside the Santa Ana Freeway - impossible to drive the freeway without seeing it!
After we started the second development, containing 701 homes, we didn't have enough to meet the desires of over 1,000 people, so we decided to separate out those who really wanted a Cinderella Home from those who weren't quite so motivated. We notified the people that there would be a 4:00 am grand opening. When the sun came up, we had sold over 200 homes. This was an $11 million development. It would be a $200 million operation today. At the peak of construction, at the very end, we were producing 16 homes per day; a huge operation. Normally, this would have been an impossibility in one single locality, but housing starts were in a deep slump, and there was an abundance of tradesmen and material available. We had the largest building operation in Orange County in 1956.
During construction of those homes, the lending market had changed radically. Money became extremely tight, and we were unable to procure permanent loans (VA & FHA) for our buyers. Many builder-developers went into bankruptcy. This continued for months, and when we did find a permanent lender, we had to pay 9 points (9%) to obtain the loans. We had about 10% profit figured in, so this ate up virtually all of our profit. We barely skinned through in the black, and Shannon said he would never build again.
There were many builders who wanted to use our plans, especially in the San Fernando Valley, so we started a franchise program, licensing other builders to use our copyrighted plans, specifications, lumber lists, hardware lists, color schemes, advertising formats, contract forms, and the name, "Cinderella Homes." This operation lasted about six years before the appeal dwindled away. Altogether, there were over 6,000 Cinderella Homes built from those plans as far away as Houston, Texas and Wichita, Kansas.