- The Washington Times - Monday, November 3, 2008


Sitting in his shady veranda, tanned and trim, Lou DeSangro looks like a man who’s made it. From the backyard of the home he built himself, he admires his rock-grotto fountain, glittering pool and a custom outdoor kitchen.

However, the magazine-worthy setting stops abruptly in the middle distance. There, just behind the grotto, empty desert dirt fills out the yard.

This is where Mr. DeSangro’s dream has met an ugly reality.

As a builder in a busted boomtown, Mr. DeSangro has seen his livelihood pounded by the downturn in the construction industry and the credit freeze. His work force of nearly a dozen employees has been trimmed to just two - his 22-year-old son Louie and himself. His family is dipping into savings to live.

There’s no money for landscaping now - but that’s the easy sacrifice, his schoolteacher wife Teresa is quick to note.

Looking at the dust in the distance, the 54-year-old Mr. DeSangro worries about harder choices on the horizon. His beloved Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the garage would be first to go; next, a quirky collection of coins he saved for his unborn grandchildren. The worst-case scenario: His daughter would be forced to come home from college in Arizona.

Like many Americans, Mr. DeSangro is looking at an uncertain financial future. He was among many who rode the boom economy to its heights. He’s still waiting to see how far he must ride it down.

Earlier this month, Mr. DeSangro wrapped up the only job he had going. He had nothing lined up to take its place.

“I’ve never, ever had only one job and then run out of work. Ever,” he said, his voice betraying his Boston roots. “It’s really scary. I’ve got the one job, I’m owed $2,500 bucks on it, and then I don’t know what I’m doing for money.”

As a remodeling contractor, Mr. DeSangro builds spacious room additions, master suites and covers for pools and patios. For years, there was work aplenty in Las Vegas, a city fueled by growth and enthralled by the aesthetic of newer, bigger and better.

The median home value in southern Nevada doubled from 2000 to 2006. Homeowners found themselves with instant equity, which they freely tapped for the projects that paid Mr. DeSangro’s bills.

Just before the height of the market, Mr. DeSangro got a lead on some property just south of the Las Vegas suburbs. He leapt in, built a few town homes and watched the market go north.

“It was the heyday, it was a great run,” he said.

It could not last.

The median home price in Las Vegas has tumbled 25 percent since last year. Almost no neighborhoods are immune. Banks have frozen many home-equity lines of credit, making it all but impossible for most people to finance the remodeling projects that keep Mr. DeSangro afloat.

The effect was gradual at first. The once-steady pace of referrals slowed. Mr. DeSangro cut back his team of laborers. Then the phone just stopped ringing.

“It just seems to me that nobody is spending money; they just can’t get money. It’s a domino effect,” Mr. DeSangro said.

From his kitchen table, surrounded by three-ring binders and a phone book, Mr. DeSangro now spends his days cold-calling property managers and former customers. He’s looking for jobs large or small - repair work, stucco work, anything.

“My mind-set is, ‘Make a day’s pay, pay your bills and don’t lose your house. And keep going,’” he says. “There will be opportunity, and when there is, I’ll jump on it.”

He has benefited from well-timed opportunities before.

Adventurous and restless, Mr. DeSangro left Boston for Las Vegas in 1978 and went to work amid the glitz of the Las Vegas Strip. He was dealing craps when he met a pretty brunette cocktail waitress and fell in love.

The two married and went back east to Cape Cod, where Mr. DeSangro built his first house - his own - with the aid of a textbook and skills learned in shop class.

He sold the home for sizable profit. He’d found his gift.

Mr. DeSangro and his wife returned to Las Vegas, and the business, L.T.D. Builders Inc., grew with the city.

The children of working-class Italian families, the DeSangros never lost their heads. They built up six months worth of savings. They put away money for the children’s schooling. They helped Mr. DeSangro’s parents move out west.

Their splurges were mundane: a cleaning woman, pedicures and purses for her; the motorcycle for him. Together, they would join friends for dinner at neighborhood spots.

Most of that is trimmed back now. The cleaning woman was the first to go. Pizza or backyard cookouts have replaced more lavish dinners.

This is the easy stuff.

“Cutting corners on things, that doesn’t bother me. I just want peace of mind, knowing that I have work, jobs on the board,” he said.

The DeSangros are the first to note how many others are worse off. Teresa has seen students at the elementary school lose their homes. A parent sent a child with a note explaining there was no money for supplies.

Because they bought their parcel before the boom and built their home themselves, the DeSangros still have equity. By some estimates, as many as one-third of southern Nevadans owe more than their homes are worth.

Mr. DeSangro tells his daughter not to worry about her tuition, to focus on getting good grades. He’s asked his son to look for a restaurant job, promising it will be temporary.

“Just until we get busy,” he said.

He remains optimistic.

Still, Teresa sees her husband’s stress. “He gets quiet,” she said from the shade on the veranda, catching a lump in her throat.

Mr. DeSangro contemplates what will go next. It may be the motorcycle. Or it may be the jugs of loose change he’s collected over the years.

He’s always imagined his grandchildren would count the coins after he dies and “whack up the money.”

“My wife’s like, ‘You’re an idiot, you should be getting interest on that!’ But I say, ‘You know something, it’s like a cushion for me. I know once I cash it in, I’ll know things are really tough,’” he said.

“That’s probably going to get cashed in soon.”

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