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Originally published June 22, 2013 at 7:19 PM | Page modified June 22, 2013 at 10:51 PM

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Builder David McGrath, who specialized in starter homes, dies at 76

David McGrath, builder of affordable homes and once the Seattle area’s leading homebuilder, has died. He was 76.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Despite some expensive personal tastes, David McGrath made sure price wasn’t a barrier for thousands of first-time homebuyers in the Seattle area.

As the region’s top homebuilder for years, Mr. McGrath and his brothers were known for building low-priced homes.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, McGrath Homes and its affiliated companies built more than 8,000 homes in subdivisions with such British-inspired names as Ardmore, Donegal, Yorkshire and Kingsgate.

He was a past president of the Bellevue Downtown Association and chairman of the Medina Planning Commission.

James David Abram McGrath, born in Lurgan, Ireland, was 76 when he died June 18 after a long illness.

Mr. McGrath, who never completely lost his Irish brogue, was known for his sense of style. He wore tailored suits from London’s Savile Row and bought a succession of high-performance cars.

He even acquired the custom-made replica of a 1904 Winton Flyer that Steve McQueen drove in the 1969 film “The Reivers,” and sold the car back to McQueen, said Mr. McGrath’s son Patrick McGrath, of Bellevue.

Patrick recalled coming home from school one day and meeting McQueen, as the actor talked to his father about buying the Winton Flyer.

Mr. McGrath was 15 when the family moved from Ireland to Vancouver, B.C. After he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1960 and married Betty, with whom he would live for 53 years, he joined the family home-building business, which moved that year to the Seattle area.

The business partners did things their own way.

When they sold homes for $13,500, Mr. McGrath’s brother Tom McGrath, of La Jolla, Calif., recalled, “The builders all waited for us to go broke because they didn’t think you could build a home at that price. They waited and they waited — and we didn’t.”

The brothers bought out a third brother, Maurice McGrath, and he formed his own home-building business.

The McGraths found themselves at odds with other homebuilders during a 1968 lockout of carpenters during a labor dispute. The brothers didn’t want to jeopardize their plans to take the company public, so they signed a separate deal with the carpenters.

“You can’t live in Rome and fight with the pope,” Tom said of that decision.

The Seattle Master Builders Association kicked the McGraths out of the group, but invited them back later, Tom said.

Mr. McGrath once told a Seattle Times reporter they chose the names of subdivisions by picking names from British travel books and seeing which ones their employees found most catchy.

“My sense of humor would be delighted if we’d name a development Asthma Flats. But I don’t think we have the courage,” Mr. McGrath quipped.

Bellevue developer Bob Wallace remembered Mr. McGrath as having “a delightful accent and a delightful sense of humor and a twinkle in his eyes.”

The family business went into bankruptcy when 197 home sales fell through after massive Boeing layoffs in the early 1970s.

Mr. McGrath took his family to Brussels, where he worked for a year and a half for a homebuilder, but returned to Medina and with Tom McGrath built single-family homes, multifamily homes and offices until the late 1980s.

As president of the Bellevue Downtown Association, Mr. McGrath pushed for higher-density development and creation of Bellevue Downtown Park.

But he couldn’t convince the city to build a parking garage beneath the park. “Everybody said, ‘Well, it will take forever to pay for it.’ He said, ‘We have forever,’ ” Patrick said.

Besides his wife, Betty, son Patrick and brother Tom, Mr. McGrath is survived by daughters Megan Glouner, of Seattle, and D’Arcy McGrath, of Medina; six grandchildren; sisters Linda Nobbs, of Dorset, England, and Barbara Atkinson, of Vancouver, B.C.

A memorial service will be held 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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