There was hope among the builders gathered at the circle of tables at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City Monday afternoon that The Great Housing Recession was over—and somewhat less hope that The Great Housing Recovery is in the offing.
It was Tim Eller, former CEO of Centex Homes and current principal of Cordalla Capital, who threw out the term “Great Recovery,” to the group gathered to kick off Builder magazine’s 2012 Housing Leadership Summit, only to add quickly, almost apologetically, “At least I am hoping we will” have one.
It is not fashionable among home builders to suggest, much less proclaim, that recovery is underway. Many have thought that before, only to be kicked in the teeth time after time by impediment after impediment.
Much more common among the group is statements like this one from Robert Schottenstein, CEO of M/I Homes: “In terms of the big picture, things are getting better,” he said. “I think we’ll know it when we see it, and I don’t think we are seeing it yet. We are clearly seeing a modest improvement in traffic to our models. We are cautious. … We still think there are a lot of land mines out there.”
Chief among them is lending, builders say, to home buyers, to builders to buy lots and build homes, and to developers to turn land into lots. A good sized contingent of builders at Monday’s round-table proclaimed sales and closings are going much better, up in double digits over last year—though no one has forgotten that 2011 was the worst year for home building since the Depression.
The builders were chided a bit for their beat-down cautiousness by Steve Friedman, a partner with Ernst & Young’s Home Building Services.
“This is the first time where I have seen builder pessimism outdo consumer confidence,” said Friedman. “This is the first year I have seen the whipped dog syndrome stick around. There is $25 billion ready to go into home building. … There is equity.” The question is more about whether private builders’ pro-forms are deemed worth enough for the investment, he said.
“I think there is a decent amount of capital for private builders who have survived and who are growing,” Michael Rehaut, executive director for J.P. Morgan, told the group.
R. Bird Anderson, executive vice president for Wells Fargo Bank, also said there is capital available for worthy builders to tap into. Anderson said Wells Fargo plans to restart its home building lending group.
“The capital will chase the recovery,” Anderson said.
And some builders at the round-table said they are recovering.
“I am not complaining,” said Gary Tesch, president of Texas-based McGuyer Homebuilders (MHI). He has found plenty of quality lots to build on, and he’s expanding. “I even bought a home builder last year,” he said.
Likewise, Steve Alloy—president of Stanley Martin, a builder in the go-go Washington, D.C., area—reports success. “We actually don’t’ have mortgage issues in Northern Virginia,” he said. “I think our market is a poster child for recovery.”
Not so much in far flung West Virginia, said Dan Ryan, president of Dan Ryan Builders.
“I am the guy in West Virginia with 5,000, $2,000 lots for sale,” he said.
A housing recovery would bring other challenges that the industry hasn’t faced in a while. Labor was listed as one. Another is likely to be the materials to build new homes.
Kent Guichard, CEO of American Woodmark Corp., warned that builders’ suppliers have been “capital starved” during the downturn and are not likely to be able to provide the materials a recovery will demand.
“I think we all need to be careful about what we ask for,” said Guichard. “There has been no reinvestment in the supply chain. … The supply base cannot support a 25% to 30% increase in demand. We are going to run out of stuff.”
Teresa Burney is a senior editor for Builder magazine.