Coming home to St. James Plantation
By CHRISTINE HENNESSEY » Photos by Drechsel Photography
Nearly seven years ago, Rich and Kathy Fanney visited Wilmington with Rich’s cousin Lacy, who was thinking about buying a home in St. James Plantation. She wanted a second opinion, and the Fanneys were happy to help. As they toured the community, their cousin didn’t find anything she liked. Rich and Kathy, however, did.
“We kept looking at each other and saying, ‘I like this, I like that,’” Rich says. “We ended up buying a lot with the idea that we’d retire there one day.” The couple continued to visit Wilmington and the surrounding area, taking weekend trips from their home in Richmond, Virginia. As Rich neared retirement, they decided it was finally time to build.
Kathy is originally from New York, but left in her 30s to move to Boston and then DC before finally settling in Fort Lee, Virginia. “I’ve been around a bit,” she says, “But not as much as my husband.”
Rich was born in New Jersey. He served in the military for twenty-seven years and spent some time as a fighter pilot, which gave him the opportunity to live all over the country. Today, both the Fanneys are senior executives with the United States government, working within the Defense Contract Management Agency.
“I’ve had two great careers, and I’m done,” Rich says. Kathy, on the other hand, is not quite ready to rest on her laurels. “He’s had two careers, he already retired once, he’s ready,” she says. “I’m not. You know when you know, and I’m just not ready to go.”
She was, however, ready to build a house. But first they had to find the right builder.
Finding the Right Fit with Firetti
“About a year and a half ago, we came down during the Parade of Homes and decided it was a good opportunity to start looking for builders,” Rich says. “We saw some houses we liked, and picked four different builders to interview. Joe was the one who made us feel the most comfortable about building a custom home. We just clicked.”
“Plus he’s Italian, and so am I,” Kathy jokes. “That’s the real reason we went with him.”
Firetti Builders has been building homes since 1977, and working exclusively in North Carolina since 2001. Founded by Joe Firetti, Sr., the company is now run by Joe Firetti II, a third-generation homebuilder. A family affair, the company prides itself on quality, workmanship, and service, as well as providing an enjoyable and exciting experience for their customers. “We start with a leap of faith with creating a custom design that meets the clients’ criteria,” Joe says. “Ultimately that sketch is presented to them, and I put together a price point. I try to get as close to their vision as I can within that price point.”
This focus on design and vision was one of the many reasons the Fanneys chose Firetti Builders. The firm provided the opportunity to work with a design company to help create their dream home, and the Fanneys worked closely with Delina DeVoid of 3D Designs, which was integral in bringing their vision to life.
“We showed up with a design scribbled on the back of a napkin,” Rich says. “Joe and Delina looked at that scribble and said, ‘Absolutely, we can work with this.’”
Joe remembers that napkin well. “It all starts with the design and the designer,” he explains. “If you don’t start out right, you’re not going to end up right, so it’s important that the designer is an integral part of the process.” Once the Fanneys had their dream design locked down, Joe took a good, long look to decide if Firetti Builders was truly the right fit. “A lot of people come into our office and they’re not our clients,” he says. “Whether it’s price point, square footage, or something else. The Fanneys definitely were.”
From Blueprint to Breaking Ground
Working through the design process only cemented the fact that the Fanneys had chosen the right builder. “They took that scratch on a napkin and turned it into a house,” Rich laughs. “It was pretty amazing.”
While Joe was able to include most of what the Fanneys wanted, there were some changes and adjustments along the way. “It’s much better than anything we imagined,” Kathy says. “Delina in particular took that picture on the napkin and asked us to name the most important things we wanted. She really listened to us.”
Some of those “must haves” included a three car garage and the ability to seamlessly entertain in the backyard, porch, and patio. While they wanted an open layout in the house, they also needed areas that offered more privacy, especially when family members or guests were visiting. “We wanted it to be very light, very airy,” Kathy says. “We spend a lot of time outdoors, so that was also important to us.”
"A lot of what we build is coastal contemporary, coastal beachy,” Joe says. “The Fanneys kind of liked the coastal farmhouse to a degree. They wanted a spectacular backyard and something that would really reflect the vision and privacy of the lot: a gazebo, a hot tub, and an outdoor kitchen. They were really looking for classy coastal with a hint of contemporary.” Once the look, feel and layout of the house were settled, it was time to build.
As the project quickly progressed, the Fanneys found themselves occasionally overwhelmed. “Building a house is like steaming broccoli, and then throwing it in ice-water,” Kathy says. “I kept getting shocked at the pace we were moving!” The builders were still laying the foundation, but it was already time to choose the kitchen tile. Their interior designer, Tracy Barnard from McKenzie Baker Interiors, was asking them to select lighting fixtures, but they didn’t even have walls yet. It was hard for Kathy to picture the finished product, so they traveled to Wilmington once a month to pick things out in person. “This is where our interior designer and vendors really helped us and settled us down,” Kathy says. “They had a calming effect.”
“We built a house previously when we lived in Woodbridge, Virginia,” Rich says, “but it was one of those where you get to select maybe five things and it’s not really custom. This was a pure custom home from the ground up. That’s why Tracy was such a godsend.” Tracy’s style was a bit different from the Fanneys, and she made suggestions that might not have been the couple’s first choice. But they let her push their limits, with results that surprised and delighted them.
“She really opened our minds,” Kathy says.
In addition to Tracy’s help, the Fanneys also appreciated Joe’s time and attention. “Joe does an unbelievable job,” Rich says. “The entire time he and his foreman and the team walked us through the process and explained what was going on. It made the process go much better.”
Open communication is key, especially during a custom build. “The Fanneys knew what they wanted and were willing to wait for it,” Joe says. “Ultimately, it turned out very well, and we got it done in ten months.” This included the beautiful kitchen backsplash, which arrived just five days before the annual Parade of Homes. “We were tracking it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean,” Joe laughs.
A Place to Gather
Seven years after purchasing the lot and ten months after breaking ground, the Fanneys absolutely adore their new home.
“You walk down Las Vegas Boulevard and everything comes at you at once. It’s sensory overload,” Joe says. “This house has just as much going on, but it’s not overwhelming. Everything is tastefully done.”
While the house has all the usual amenities you’d expect from a luxury build, there are a few details that make it a truly custom home. One of these details is the lift in the garage, which the Fanneys chose in lieu of stairs. It’s a huge help, especially when unpacking their sixty-two boxes of Christmas decorations.
“We love the open design in the home,” Rich says. “But I really love the backyard, the hot tub, the landscaping. Plus the St. James community has so much going on. I’m looking forward to doing what I want, not what I’m told to do. I can’t wait to get in the outdoor kitchen and start cooking.”
“And then jump into the hot tub with your vodka tonic,” Kathy adds, laughing. She also loves the kitchen, the hot tub, the powder room—everything, she says, is a dream. But what she’s really looking forward to are the memories they’ll make in their new home.
“For the Parade of Homes we had to name our house, and we were going back and forth, trying to come up with something,” she says. “We finally chose The Gathering Place. That same day, our cousin Lacy went to Hobby Lobby and found a sign that said, ‘The Gathering Place: Where Family and Friends Come Together.’” That sign now hangs in their kitchen.
Now that the Fanneys’ home is complete, they have some advice to offer others who want to build their own dream. “When it comes to what you want, keep an open mind but don’t compromise,” Kathy says. “If you know you want something, stick to it. And remember that you have to pay for quality. We had many choices at all price points, but you just can’t compromise on quality.”
“Use Joe,” Rich adds. “His team is unbelievable. His subcontractors love him; they’re dedicated to their work and it shows. What really comes through is his workmanship and his willingness to work with everyone. Like Kathy and I said, we came in expecting one thing and that’s not what we ended up with. But we’re so happy about that it’s not even funny.”
If there’s one lesson to remember, Kathy says, it’s this: “Keep calm and build on.”