The model home did the trick for his sales, he said, confirming his view that, as a solo act, "at every decision point, I have to ask, 'Is this investment going to help me or not?' "
Haber still works out of the trailer as subcontractors and suppliers scurry around the first phase of the project, in which he expects to have 18 houses, ranging in price from $200,000 to $245,000, completed by Dec. 31.
Already, increasing materials costs have forced him to raise prices.
"I've had 15 hard sales, and six people are living here already," said Haber, who broke ground in June 2012. "Ten houses are under construction. I start one on the third of the month and another on the 15th to create an even flow, so that the subcontractors know they have to be here at least two weeks a month."
How Haber began building in Egg Harbor City, a place he recalls passing on his way to the Shore for many years, is a story based in the efforts of another older community to reinvent itself - as spelled out in its "livable community plan."
The city acquired the property through tax foreclosure over six years, Haber said, with its sights on managed growth.
In effect, "because the municipality wanted to do something with the land, it took the approval risk out of the picture," making the idea attractive to developers, he said.
Egg Harbor began looking for ideas and developers in 2004, and in 2009, the city selected Haber from a list of finalists, he said, "even though I was from Camden and not Atlantic County."
Haber said he found Egg Harbor City - which was founded by German immigrants in the mid-19th century (hence street names such as Hamburg and Bremen Avenues) and thrived as a stop on the railroad from Philadelphia to Atlantic City - to be "a charming place, safe and quiet."
The school was built in the center of the 500 acres; the surrounding land was zoned residential, with the city running utilities and streets in, saving the builder infrastructure costs.
"The city did all the heavy lifting," including Pinelands growth-area approvals and creation of a five-year tax-abatement program, Haber said. "I wasn't going to rush them. I wanted them to take as long as they needed until I was sure the market was going in the right direction."
With $6 million in financing from a private family trust that took 11 months to secure, Haber began building what he calls "traditional" homes, with front porches and five different models - two ranch-style, one Cape Cod, and two two-story designs.
"I've been clearing lots selectively to preserve natural areas," Haber said. The lots are 75 by 150 feet, but the houses are only 30 to 42 feet wide, "so they don't look as if they are crammed together."
Garages are accessible from alleys - "they call them terraces here" - rather than from the front of the houses.
His target buyer is local, with cable and other ads now focused on Gloucester and Cumberland Counties, "since there isn't much competition there." But he does get the occasional agent bringing a buyer down from Marlton.
Oh, and that chance to follow the advice he received 3 1/2 decades ago?
Back then, Haber said, "The veterans told me to build around a high school."