Ask a real estate agent to describe the Oaks on the Bluff subdivision near Prairieville and you’ll probably hear about features like 12-foot ceilings, brick fireplaces and heart-of-pine floors. But if you ask the subdivision’s developer to name its biggest asset, he’ll likely mention trees.

“It has a gorgeous entry with these giant old oak trees,” Richard Carmouche says.

The Ascension Parish subdivision reflects its developer’s philosophy that good living demands not only quality housing but also a sense of place and attention to ambience that goes beyond walls and roofs.

“Real estate development is a creative pursuit," Carmouche says. “You take a raw piece of ground, and you can make it anything you want.”

Before starting work at Oaks on the Bluff, he hired an expert to examine the site’s sprawling oaks. When the arborist pegged the age of some of the trees at more than 300 years, Carmouche made them a key feature of the project. “We didn’t have to take any of them down,” he says.

A love of natural elements and a respect for the past are defining characteristics in many Carmouche projects, from the homes he built during the 1970s and ’80s to the complex mixed-use developments he’s known for today.

Carmouche is behind one of Baton Rouge’s most high-profile and unusual projects: Willow Grove is the city’s first traditional neighborhood development, and despite a bumpy real estate market, lots are selling quickly.

Carmouche, 58, has come a long way since stepping into the real estate business more than 30 years ago. But in a sense he has not gone far at all.

The youngest of six siblings, he grew up in a home on Glasgow Avenue, rode his bike to St. Aloysius Catholic School and played baseball with kids in the Southdowns neighborhood. Through the various stages of his real estate career, his work has remained focused largely on his old south Baton Rouge stomping grounds.

Carmouche says that while he was drawn toward business at an early age, it took him a while to warm up to real estate. He got his first taste as he was wrapping up his business degree at LSU and found a part-time job selling Mississippi vacation property. “It was cold calling,” he remembers with a shudder. “People got a hibachi if they’d let me come and talk to them.”

Still, the experience intrigued him. After graduating in 1975, he searched for a place to learn real estate skills and found it with builder-developer Walter Bankston.

Under Bankston’s tutelage, Carmouche spent many hours doing what all residential agents do—driving people around and sitting at open houses hoping prospective buyers would show up. It was routine stuff, but he says Bankston’s influence left an imprint.

Carmouche built “a pretty successful sales business” while working with Bankston, but he had begun to realize that he really wanted to become a developer. In search of avenues that would get him out of sales, he tried property management, and then veered into renovations.

He enjoyed browsing older homes and envisioning how he could make them more interesting. He spotted a two-bedroom raised cottage in Southdowns and bought it for $22,000. After doing some upgrades, he sold it a few years later for $60,000.

Impressed with the income potential, Carmouche kept at the renovation business while continuing to sell houses. He bought several more fixer-uppers in Southdowns and Old Goodwood. He established relationships with subcontractors who could do quality improvements, then he flipped the houses for nice profits.

Occasionally Carmouche would come across a home on an extra-large lot. It occurred to him that he could buy the house, move it a short distance and make room for a second home on the same site. He bought several such properties, laid new foundations and shifted the existing houses slightly, leaving him with space for new houses.

He had found a low-cost way to create building opportunities, and Carmouche seized the moment to launch his construction career. The first home he built was important in more ways than one.

While working for Bankston, Carmouche had met—and fallen for—real estate agent Cathy Selleck. In 1981, knowing his interest in construction, Selleck asked him to build a house for her. She became Carmouche’s first construction client, and a few years later she became his wife.

During the next decade Carmouche gained a reputation as a quality builder not only among home buyers but also within the ranks of designers. Architect Tommie Cockfield worked regularly with Carmouche and hired him to build his own home.

“He has a very good eye for how things look and how they work,” Cockfield says. “He always had an innate ability to understand and envision what it took to create a nice ambience.”

That knack contributed to Carmouche’s financial success, Cockfield says. “His houses had a lot of curb appeal, and they sold well.”

Talent aside, Carmouche felt he needed to sharpen some of his skills. He headed back to LSU for some night classes in order to master the art of estimating.

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