Bill Slenker remembers the days when land developers were—almost literally—a dime a dozen. With no money up front, just about any respectable professional looking for a diversified investment could easily get in the game. Doctors- and lawyers-turned-land barons were almost commonplace back in those days, when an empty parcel across the road and a quick call to the local S&L was all that it took to launch, yet another, “developer.”
Then, forces collided. Lenders got tougher just as land opportunities were becoming more sparse in the late '80s and early '90s. And predictably, “there was a purging of the land development industry,” recalls Slenker, president of Slenker Land Corp., in Burke, Va.
But despite the shakeout, today's developers remain a vital artery supplying lifeblood to the home building industry. Perhaps their most critical advantage is still their ability to keep land from burdening the books of builders.
The Falcone Group may have sold Transeastern Properties to Technical Olympic USA in 2005, but the developer is still heavily involved in land banking for the big builder.
On many levels, the traditional symbiotic relationship between builders and developers continues. But in other ways, it's evolving. In fact, builders and developers are collaborating more than ever. “Our last two transactions in Las Vegas have been joint transactions,” notes John Ritter, CEO of Focus Property Group. He's referring to 2004's $557 million deal for Inspirada in Henderson, Nev., which joined Focus with seven builders, and 2005's Kyle Canyon project, a $510 million deal involving eight builders. The deals are getting bigger, so they need more players, sometimes more expertise. Another example from 2005: SunCal Cos. and Lennar Communities teaming up on Bickford Ranch, a 1,942-acre community in Placer County, Calif.
Meantime, builders, dire to meet Wall Street growth demands, started applying their local intel to the business of land development, and in some cases, have built entire organizations separate from their home building operations. Lennar Corp., for example, has grown to be one of the top three developers in the state of California, snatching up military bases and other attractive parcels with an aggression that would impress most any acquisition expert.
Still, some experienced developers contend that it's hard for a company to be an outstanding builder and developer at the same time, For example, with builders under constant pressure to meet closing dates and schedules, they might allow subcontractors onto a site early to get started on the first homes.
In these instances, most division presidents inevitably come from the builder side, so they identify more easily with a builder concerns as opposed to a development concern. Inevitably, pipes get destroyed and other mishaps occur, costing time and money. “That sort of stuff happens all the time,” observes one developer who works with some builder/developer companies. “To make 10 lots better, 50 lots could suffer,” he warns.
“We're really curious to see how builders and developers evolve,” says Kettler speaking to the blurring lines between traditional developer/builder relationships. But regardless of where the evolution takes them, these are some key developers who will undoubtedly remain in the game.