The mark of a true contender is how he or she performs under duress. Genial sparring with your competition during boom times is one thing. But are you prepared, in the immortal words of Muhammad Ali, to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” when the stakes become higher and the quickness of your footwork is tantamount to survival?

If the latest indicators about the housing industry hold true, the fight for market share is about to get tougher. In May, the NAHB index for sales of new single-family homes fell to its lowest point in 11 years, and the U.S. Department of Commerce reported a continued decline in housing starts for the third month in a row.

What's a builder to do in the clinch? Take stock of your opponent—be it an existing neighborhood on the resale market, a big builder, or a fellow small builder—and find your opening. Stamina is a necessity, of course, but you'll also need to play to your strengths and perfect those killer jabs. That is, anticipate unmet needs in the housing landscape and be the first to meet them.

BUILDER talked to a handful of local market innovators who are doing just that. In the following pages you'll find an inside look at some of their best trade secrets. Just watch out for that right hook.