A show of hands consensus among leaders of our sample-base of about 45 of the top 200 home building organizations in the United States--45 firms that delivered fully half of the 261,000 Builder 100/Next 100 closings in 2015, with revenues last year in excess of $52.5 billion--is that housing's cycle of recovery is passing through its half-way mark. Our sample, of course, is our guest list for the 30th annual Housing Leadership Summit, which got underway here in Southern California yesterday.
Known challenges are access to and cost of critical resources--people, real estate assets, financing, and a differentiated, distinctive program of value to end-user customers. Geography, local economies, local climates, and local capacity to manage work-flows create a quilt-work of expectations that net out to between 10% and 20% growth in volume for a majority of the companies we're hosting here at HLS.
Known challenges, of course, come down to one measure that is the gut-check for every company, large and small, East Coast, Heart-Land, or West Coast--pace. Sales--and well-executed completions--per month per community--are the mirror of reality for builders' pricing, product, land position, building programs, market knowledge, and, ultimately, their business performance for the months and years ahead.
In typical housing cycles, a half-way point might have signaled an immediate shift into a defensive mode for home builders, a quick turn from sowing growth to harvesting cash. The molasses-like trajectory of recovery thus far presents more nuanced challenges and opportunities for builders now.
It has to do with smaller stores.
More and smaller tracts of land that don't allow for big, scalable, four-plus year community development programs, are going to be where and how and why home builders are going make or break their next couple of years, which is probably the time it will take for the late-to-the-dance Millennial cohort to begin to fully activate in the new-home buying market. Here's a couple of slides from Ivy Zelman's presentation yesterday, "The Most Frequently Asked Questions Related to the Housing Recovery" that suggests that the young adult formation of households, families, and home-buying patterns is a matter of when (the next few years) rather than if. Pent-up demand is not, Ivy asserts, a theory. It's a fact.
Meanwhile, supple, precise, committed land acquisitions of parcels whose sell-through programs range from 18 to 36 months are the coveted assets of the moment--and only a combination of great data and terrific local relationships will allow these land buys to pencil profitably.
We hear in our conversations intelligent approaches to scale for those kinds of tracts, assuming they can be had. It's to bring them online in geographical nodes, a cluster, so-to-speak, so that the trade base, the supply chain, the management oversight and the marketing push can align in such a way as to emulate a single large community.
That's a strategy the burgeoning Southeastern regional powerhouse Smith Douglas Homes ceo Charles Schetter notes as a way to consolidate process, discipline, trade base, and market impact effectively, as an alternative to the four- to six-year multi-neighborhood large land parcel.
Two questions underlie the plans, the attitudes, and the expectations of our HLS population, one of which is in the "things we control" bucket and one that is not.
The matter that builders have in their control--and yet has been mercurial for all but a few of them--is a business model that is set up to thrive, no matter what the business or economic cycle. Home building businesses and their leadership teams have learned so much from both the bad old days and the recent 50% recovery from the bottom. What they still want and need is a strategic--rather than intuitive, speculative, and fuzzy--game plan that allows them to capture resources--people, lots, process, time, finance, and buyer-customers--in a way that works through the ups and downs of broader economic environments.
That's the grail our folks are looking for, and it's why many of them come to HLS.
The other big question is this. We look at regulatory burden--local impact fees, restrictions, time-loss, cost run-ups--as a suppressor of growth and that is certainly a factor affecting affordability and attainability of housing in many communities. But a deeper, more alarming issue here is not so much red-tape agency bureaucrats. It's taxpayers. It's voters. It's people living where they live who don't want "other people" to live near them. Even when those "other people" are their sons and daughters and employee associates, or support systems, or first-responders, or teachers, or other young, vital, replacement stock for communities.
This is the "public relations" problem housing has in the United States. Taxpayers, as in you and me as voters, support policy and policy decision-makers that make it cost too much for our children to enter the housing continuum. Which is why it's the case that one in four 18 to 34 year-olds still live in our basements.