How competitive is the local homebuilding market? It's hard to imagine how it could get any tougher.

According to the Construction Monitor, a private, paid-subscription, quarterly review for residential developers that terms itself, "The Wasatch Front's most accurate and timely building permit information source," a total of 800 Wasatch Front builders applied for residential building permits in 1990.At the top of the list, with 241 permits totaling $13.45 million - nearly double the second-largest - was Salt Lake City-based Ivory Homes (formerly Ivory & Co.)

The average value of an Ivory permit in 1990 was $55,847, a figure that includes neither the building lot nor "soft costs" such as financing, marketing and, hopefully, some profit.

With those factored in, the average Ivory home sells for around $80,000.

In case you haven't been paying attention over the past couple of decades, that figure, which would have bought you some very upscale digs in the early 1970s, is now pretty much reserved for first-time buyers - "entry level" as they say.

It's a tough market niche, as Ellis R. Ivory, Ivory Homes' founder and chief executive officer, is the first to admit. It is also one that many builders abandoned in the early '80s when soaring interest rates forced most young couples out of their dream of homeownership and into rental apartments.

Ironically, that's about the time that Ellis Ivory first entered the niche in earnest. He was not an overnight sensation. Ivory closed 36 home sales in 1984; 84 sales in 1985; 115 in '86; 130 in '87 and 145 in '88.

In 1989, Ivory Homes finally started to take off as sales more than doubled that year to 326. Last year showed a healthy increase with 381 closings.

Now, as 1991 gets under way in earnest, Ivory is not looking back at the past two years with self-satisfaction, but rather ahead in the hope that the '90s won't be as bad for his industry as were the '80s.

In case you were wondering, being the largest-volume residential builder along the Wasatch Front isn't a license to print money. The market niche that Ivory Homes occupies is not full of high-rollers with large incomes, limitless credit and five-figure savings for down payments. It is filled with people short of cash but long on desire to own their own home. People who will clean, paint, lay sod, whatever it takes in "sweat equity" to get into a home.

Ivory said some 70 percent of his buyers get their home by offering their own work on the house as a down payment.

On the other hand, these people want as much quality and as many extras as their limited but hard-earned dollars will buy - and they know the difference, assures Ivory. That means there is no room for waste or inefficiency in construction of houses in this market, he said. The margins are just too thin.And staying on top in an ultra-competitive marketplace means offering a little bit more, he said. These include such items as front-yard landscaping, upgraded carpeting, bayed kitchen windows - some $3,000 altogether in extras that he believes give Ivory Homes an edge over competitors.

A large percentage of Ivory Homes buyers use the offices of the Utah Housing Finance Agency for financing. Ivory praised UHFA as "the best-run agency in the state" and one that has been "extremely helpful" in getting lower interest rates for Ivory Homes buyers.

A break of 1 percent in the interest rate can mean a $70 or $80 a month lower payment, said Ivory, and that often means the difference in qualifying for the loan or not qualifying. Even if buyers qualify, it can determine whether their home has a second bath, a family room or a two-car garage.

Ivory said his business basically has two parts. First a builder has to decide if he can sell the house. Second, if he can produce a quality product.

The easiest part for him is selling, said Ivory. That's where his expertise lies. But in both cases, he depends on his staff and particularly his four managers to help him make it happen. They are:

Kirt Harmon, construction manager, Northern Division, who has been with the company eight years and designed the first Ivory homes.

Alan Prince, division manager, Salt Lake Division, who has been with the company 21/2 years and whom Ivory credits for the "meteoric rise" in Salt Lake Division sales from 54 in 1988 to 160 in 1990.

Gary Wright, division manager, Northern Division, a 16-year veteran with the company who Ivory says helped bring the company into the homebuilding business and created the division's first home construction operation in 1983.

Dariush Zamani, construction manager, Salt Lake Division, with the company 21/2 years and, said Ivory, instrumental in implementing better cost control and on-time production schedules.

Ellis Ivory got his start in the real estate business in 1964 with his father. Ivory Real Estate Co. specialized in buying and selling undeveloped land and was instrumental in the initial development of Bloomington in St. George under the Terracor company, which he helped launch. He was also instrumental in the initial development of the Stansbury Park residential community in Tooele County.

In 1970, he left Terracor, started Ivory & Co. and began developing subdivisions as a land broker, selling lots for a variety of residential and commercial projects. In 1979, he went to England to serve a mission for the LDS Church.

In 1982 he returned to find the country in the grip of a severe recession. "The world had changed while I was gone," he recalls. Ivory sold off many of his assets and then moved from selling land into building homes.

Ivory Homes currently has 16 subdivisions around the Salt Lake Valley, from WestPointe on the north at 900 North Redwood Road to Lone Peak on the south at 11000 South 1000 East. In between are Buttercup Cove, Park, Huish Place, Huckleberry Place, Raspberry place, Blueberry Lane, Strawberry Place, Suncrest, Saddleback Village, Cimarron, MeadowCrest, Chaparral West, Creekwood Springs and Southbrook Village.