Real Estate News

With portfolio of modern homes, couple emerging as urban infill heroes

Erica and Nathan Cunningham, owners of Indie Capital, stand outside a home they built near 20th and Broadway on Monday in Sacramento. Their focus has been on infill projects and, over the years, they have quietly had an impact on improving neighborhoods by building appealing modern houses on vacant lots in challenging areas.
Erica and Nathan Cunningham, owners of Indie Capital, stand outside a home they built near 20th and Broadway on Monday in Sacramento. Their focus has been on infill projects and, over the years, they have quietly had an impact on improving neighborhoods by building appealing modern houses on vacant lots in challenging areas. rpench@sacbee.com

To describe what Erica and Nathan Cunningham do is easy. They buy vacant lots no one else wants and build houses no one else thinks are possible.

Lot by lot and little by little over the past decade or so, the owners of Indie Capital have made believers out of doubters and fans out of many critics. Along the way, their visionary efforts have brought attention to modern design, activated struggling or stagnant neighborhoods, increased property values for surrounding homeowners and, their supporters argue, helped make Sacramento a better, more interesting city.

Since they launched their tiny business venture 15 years ago, their impact has been profound – 46 completed projects with prices ranging from $329,000 to more than $1.3 million. By the time they complete three major infill projects currently under construction, along with two homes in the pipeline, they will have 67 projects to their credit.

When they told me their plans, I said, ‘Good luck to you. The idea of building a new modern house right next to the railroad tracks and near a park that was inhabited by transients, I didn’t think it made sense.

Bruce Booher, a longtime real estate investor

Indie Capital recently broke ground on Broadway Redux, which will feature nine single-family homes from 1,326-1,822 square feet, starting at $449,000. The project near 10th Street is a short walk to the soon-to-open Selland’s Market-Cafe and Bike Dog Brewing’s second location, as well as the large Sunday farmers market and Target. Its Oak Park Creatives project features six single family homes from 1,491-1,543 square feet. The company also is nearing completion of Mansion Flats Modern – eight single-family homes at 15th and D streets, starting at $589,000.

With these larger-scale projects, the Cunninghams’ concept for modern single-family homes tucked into the city’s historic housing stock is taking on a much more elevated profile.

“They have a forward-thinking design and a product with really high craftsmanship,” said John Mudgett, senior director at Turton Commercial Real Estate. “I think they are filling a niche in the Sacramento marketplace that is not being met.”

The Cunninghams are far from flashy self-promoters. Their work does it for them.

“I really like how they work. They never come across as sales-y,” said Conor Duquette-Ferguson, who bought an Indie Capital house with his husband in 2015. “We just felt lucky, especially moving from out of town, that we struck upon Nate and Erica. My father owns a construction company, so when we saw the attention to detail inside, we knew they had spent a lot of time refining it instead of just throwing up another house and moving on to something else. They have been constantly in contact with us. Nate is always asking us how are things with the house. They’re not going to leave you high and dry.”

Over time, the Indie Capital houses have developed a reputation for quality building materials and construction techniques.

We were just ripped to shreds for proposing this modern design. We were called every single name you could imagine.

Erica Cunningham, on initial reaction to the couple’s 2010 project on the edge of Midtown

“We have this real problem with not being able to compromise,” said Nathan, 36. “We have tried so many times to compromise on some of the really expensive building materials that we use. We’ll go in to place this order for a vinyl window and door package and it feels crushing. We just cannot do it even though it saves $15,000 on a house. That’s what everyone does. It’s status quo. But the overall result has to be positive, especially long-term.”

Curtis Popp, an award-winning interior architect, had misgivings about some of Indie Capitals early projects but says he has witnessed the company’s refinement with its latest ventures. The firm’s early houses were built using stock architectural drawings, but its current projects use respected architecture firms that design for the specific demands of each site.

“Even though some of the projects I might not have liked aesthetically, I really do like what they’re doing. What they’re doing is needed. I appreciate that because you don’t want to see vacant lots. Their evolution is showing they are becoming more design savvy,” said Popp of Popp Littrell Architecure + Interiors.

The couple divide their duties so they rarely find themselves butting heads. Erica Cunninham, 35, scours the urban landscape in search of appealing properties, makes the deals, oversees the design work and sells the houses once they’re built. Nathan Cunningham is the builder. Oh, and they’re parents of two school-age girls.

When it’s suggested that they could have their own reality show, Erica scoffs and says, “Our TV show would be me texting Nate, ‘What’s that window size?’ 

“And I’d reply, ‘Do you have the kids?’ ” Nate said with a laugh.

The couple’s foray into the real estate game did not begin with any kind of long-term focus. Erica Cunningham was working as a manager at Fresh Choice, the former buffet-style restaurant chain, and was eagerly saving money. For some reason, she got it in her head she needed to be a homeowner at an age when most of her peers were either going off to college or looking for the next teenage adventure.

It felt pretty ... good. We took that money and said, ‘Let’s do it again.’

Erica Cunningham, on selling the couple’s first home for a $12,000 profit

“I had been renting since I was 17. By the time I was 19, I thought it was about time to buy a house,” she said with a shrug. “I went to a real estate office and the cheapest house on the list was in Oak Park (on Fourth Avenue near Broadway). It was horrible. There were drug deals on the corner. The first night I moved in, there were people camped out on my porch.”

At about the same time, she met Nate Cunningham, a business student at Sacramento State University who worked part-time at a Placerville bike shop. Together, they spruced up the house, fixed a few things and sold it within a year for a $12,000 profit.

“It felt pretty ... good,” Erica said. “We took that money and said, ‘Let’s do it again.’ 

They bought a house off Howe Avenue and made another profit. They were off and running. Soon, they had the idea to start building homes. In 2008, they built two homes in East Sacramento. By 2010, they made the news, but few were calling them heroes then. One of their early projects was on the edge of midtown on what most considered a dismal lot for a home. Longtime real estate investor Bruce Booher owned the property.

“When they told me their plans, I said, ‘Good luck to you,’ ” said Booher, who is now a fan of the couple’s work. “The idea of building a new modern house right next to the railroad tracks and near a park that was inhabited by transients, I didn’t think it made sense.”

It turns out, scores of neighbors didn’t see the vision either, though for different reason. The Cunninghams proposed to build a 2,200-square-foot, three-story modern home in the middle of a neighborhood filled with 1,000-square-foot Craftsman-style homes, most with two or three bedrooms, small kitchens and no garages.

The opposition soon grew into outrage. Indie Capital and the Cunninghams were going to destroy the neighborhood.

“We were the bad guys. We were just ripped to shreds for proposing this modern design,” Erica said. “We were called every single name you could imagine.”

“Literally,” Nathan added. “That’s no joke.”

While uproar was intense, largely because residents thought the structure would tower over the other residences, three-story houses are now commonplace for urban projects, largely because they help meet demands for increased population density. Back then, the Cunninghams were unable to prevail, but they didn’t back down entirely.

Says Erica, “We were given a choice. They told us we could build a three-story traditional house or a two-story modern. We said we have to do the two-story modern just to set some kind of precedent so people could see that it won’t be so scary and it could help us continue on and do more.”

The house got built, the couple’s push for modern design persisted and Indie Capital kept going, battling all the way through the Great Recession. Sometimes, the margins were so slim on brand new homes that they barely made a profit.

“We were lucky if we got 15 or 20 grand out of a new house that we spent six or eight months on,” Erica said. “We were just happy to be able to pay our guys, maintain the relationships and keep them busy.”

The growth and the plethora of projects does not translate to a lavish lifestyle for the couple. They live simply and, as they’ve done since the beginning, pour their profits into the next properties. Since they started, Erica, Nathan and their two girls, ages 7 and 8, often live in the one of the houses their company has built before selling it and moving to the next one. Through the years, the family has moved 10 to 12 times, all within a radius of a few miles.

“We’re like super minimalist. We never have any cash. It’s always out in a project or a property,” Nathan said.

Adds Erica, “The kids used to get a little upset about moving, but now they’re like, ‘Where’s the next house, mom and dad?’ 

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

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