Right after Roman Barsky finished high school his family emigrated from Russia. His father, a factory manager, wanted more opportunity for his children, says Barsky, a residential builder well known for his upscale single-family homes, which often rise on lots recently occupied by 50 or 60-year-old houses that affluent Princeton house hunters now consider seriously under-sized.
Shored up today by 20 years as a successful builder, Barsky, 48, was completely at sea soon after he arrived in Newark as an 18 year old. He had left a happy life in Odessa. “I enjoyed playing sports,” he recalls. “I loved my school.” His family was prosperous. His mother stayed at home to tend to him and to his younger brother, Igor, who now works for him.
Soon after the family landed in the free country that was to give them an even better life, Barsky’s father, Leon, died suddenly. No one in the family could speak any English at all. What had his father’s plan been? Had he been counting on finding a good job here, perhaps in factory management?
“I don’t know,” says Barsky. “I just can’t imagine. Sometimes I wonder. What chutzpah he had! It’s hard enough just to move to a new town. I just know that he wanted us to work and live in a free country. He had heard a lot about the United States, and it was possible to leave Russia then, 30 years ago, so he left.”
Just recently a carefree schoolboy, he was to find out — and fast — how hard can it can be to resettle in a new country. His brother was still in high school. His mother, Rosa, an octogenarian who now lives in New York City, went to work in a restaurant, and he became a laborer on a construction site.
“It was something I could get without speaking English,” he says of a job choice that wasn’t really much of a choice, but that turned into a lucrative career.
In a short time, Barsky moved into a construction specialty, insulation. By age 24 he had his own insulation company. “I was doing 3,000 units a year,” he says. In the course of doing work on new homes, condos, and apartments, he met hundreds of people who made a living in the construction industry.
“I was always talking to builders,” he says, “I learned.” What he wasn’t taught, he figured out himself. In 1987 he branched out from insulation and built his first spec house, a 2,200-square-foot home in Plainfield.
He quickly became hooked on home construction. He shrugs off the difficulties of building — the fickle weather, the occasionally unreliable subcontractors, the exquisite coordination required to have just the right workmen on site at each stage, the materials that arrive damaged, or the wrong size, the myriad inspections that must be passed. “It’s the only thing I know how to do,” he says. “It’s a million little puzzles. It’s easy for me.”
Barsky kept moving lower down in the state as he sought new projects. “I built houses in South Brunswick, East Brunswick, Point Pleasant, and Toms River,” he says. But he had made his home in Princeton, well, actually in West Windsor, near the Princeton line. He came to consider himself part of the town. “I have this accent,” he says, “but I’m a Princetonian. Both of my children were born in Princeton Hospital.” His son Daniel, 20, is a junior at Bryant College in Rhode Island, and his daughter, Simone, who is almost 17, and about to get her driver’s license, is a senior at Princeton High School.
He began building in Princeton in 1995, and was truly at home. He finds opportunity almost unlimited — although not without its price, and doesn’t want to build anywhere else.
“I know all the streets, how much everything is worth; I know everybody here,” he says. “Why build anywhere else?” As for value, in his opinion it lies downtown, or close to downtown. He has built far out in the township, and will continue to do so, but he is convinced that a shift in lifestyle, and in priorities, will just keep on increasing property values downtown.
‘People want to live in Princeton,” he says. “They want to be near the stores and restaurants. That’s the beauty of our town. The husband and the wife are both working. They don’t want a big yard to take care of.”
That is certainly the case with Barsky and his own wife, Emma Barsky, an analytical chemist and the co-owner of The Practical Solutions Group (www.practicalsolutionsnj.com), a company that consults to the pharmaceutical industry. Her offices are at 152 Witherspoon Street, in a mixed use building her husband built in 2004, which is also his headquarters. Taking a quick break in front of the building on a warm early-autumn day, Emma says that this is a rarity, that she and her husband almost never see one another during the day — but meet every night to go out for dinner. Yes, every night, the tall, attractive brunette says with a smile.
They like Camillo’s in the Princeton Shopping Center, and also the Witherspoon Grill, and the A & B. “The kids are off with their friends,” says Barsky. “They’re not home for dinner, and this is the time that my wife and I can really talk.”
Barsky met his wife, who emigrated from Russia when she was 14, on a blind date when she was 18, “no, 19,” says her husband, and he was 22, or maybe a little older. Their recollections differ a bit there, too. But both agree that strong mutual attraction soon delivered them to the altar. And while Barsky’s mother was forced to go to work, there is no way that he could keep his wife at home. “She has always worked. Always,” he says of Emma, who earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Rutgers after they were married. “She would die if she couldn’t work.”
The two spend the better part of their weeks working, as do most of the couples who buy their houses. With little inclination to spend free time mowing and mulching, Princeton home buyers care little about a big yard, but want lots and lots of room inside, Barsky finds. Making a business of catering to this preference has sometimes made him unpopular with families living near the houses he is constructing, he freely admits.
There was an especially long and contentious battle over the five houses that comprise Barsky Court, a mini-development on Nassau Street just behind the landmark “Captain’s house,” a large, three-story New Orleans-style house with wrought iron trim. Barsky wanted to build behind that house, and adjacent to Queenston Place, the street on which former mayor Barbara Boggs Sigmund once lived. There was an outcry from residents, and it lasted for four years. Barsky is used to zoning variances. He doesn’t enjoy the process, of course, and it costs him money. “You have to do it with almost every project in Princeton,” he says. But this one was particularly arduous.
Residents complained that the proposed houses — taking up about half of their approximately 10,000-square-foot lots — were too large, too boxy, and out of character with the neighborhood.
In the end, Barsky prevailed, and built his houses, all but one of which has been sold. He and his family will move into a Barsky Court home within the month. He isn’t worried about receiving a chilly reception from his new neighbors, so recently his adversaries. “I’m friendly with everybody. I have no enemies.”
He finds the outcry over this project silly. He finds the outcry over many of his other projects silly, too. While he didn’t tear down any houses to create Barsky Court, “just two old barns,” his projects most often involve do involve tearing down an existing house and replacing it with a much larger house. If the increasingly urgent desire of financially successful people to move into Princeton is to be met, it must be so, he says, pointing out that there are virtually no vacant lots left.
Many home buyers in a certain income bracket, the one that makes a $1.5 million to $2.5 million house an affordable option, want to live in a town, a real town, a beautiful town. If they live in central New Jersey, that often means Princeton. And how big a house do they want in the idyllic old town? “The bigger the better,” says Barsky. “Nobody complains about a bigger house, a bigger garage. People want bigger homes, bigger rooms, bigger bathrooms. They want each child to have his own bathroom.”
Even those who complain about his projects want bigger houses themselves. “The people on Queenston have put on additions that are bigger than my houses,” he contends. “People may say ‘I grew up with five brothers and sisters and we had only one bathroom,’ but their children are buying 12,000-square-foot homes.”
These protests may be silly, but they do slow Barsky down. “Some years I find six, eight, ten projects,” he says, “but I only end up building four houses because of approvals.”
The projects that he takes on often come to him. He is always looking for undersized houses on desirable streets to buy, tear down, and replace with a larger, up-to-date house, which he almost always builds on spec. But he doesn’t have to look hard.
Barsky says that many sellers — or their children — call him. The situation often involves a 50, 60, or 70-year-old house that has not been updated in many, many decades. It is not in great shape, and is often in need of $100,000 in renovations just to make it saleable. Its sellers may be headed to an assisted living facility, or a 55 and over community. They want out, but don’t want the hassle and expense of renovating. He says that the going price for these tear downs is often about $500,000. In order to make a profit, he needs to be able to sell the house that will take its place for about $1.5 million. He looks for houses on desirable streets, and tries to choose only those that he hopes will involve minimal zoning battles.
In the case of the Barsky Court houses, the four-year zoning approval process meant that he missed the height of the real estate frenzy, and received less for each house than he probably would have had they been ready to sell a year or two earlier.
The inevitable fluctuations in residential real estate prices is one of the reasons that Barsky is branching out into commercial real estate. He likes the thought of collecting steady rental income from commercial tenants, and is eager to start on more office building projects.
Real estate is Barsky’s business, but there are other claims on his time. He takes just one call on a busy afternoon. It’s from his daughter, Simone. “I have to go home,” he says. “She’s ready for a driving lesson. Her test is in just one week.”
Soon Simone, the daughter of an immigrant who was left in a strange country to provide for his family when he was just about her age, will be driving up to her front door on a street in the heart of Princeton that bears her family’s name. Leon Barsky didn’t live to see his dream of a better life for his family in a free country come true, but it appears that it has.
Roman Barsky hopes for even more. Asked whether either of his children is likely to join him in his business, he is genuinely surprised. “Oh no!” he says, sitting in the conference room of his handsome office. “I want them to do better. Isn’t that what every parent wants?”
— Kathleen McGinn Spring
Barsky Homes, 152 Witherspoon Street, Princeton 08540; 609-924-7111; fax, 609-924-7199.