The numbers don’t lie, they say. But seasonally weighted, climatically generous numbers—the ones we hear are coming in from sales offices and model homes and neighborhood grand-opening celebrations and the Wall Street equity analyst channel surveys through the first few months of 2012—can lead us seriously astray. We know that from the beginnings of the past two years, and the eerie quiet that set in around midyear of both 2010 and 2011.

What truth do these first-quarter 2012 numbers that speak of “signs of life” tell?

That we’re back? That a rising tide once again will begin to lift all boats? That “Spring Selling Season” has been reborn for a new normal?

You know better than that. You’re the one who goes to bed and wakes up with the same two phrases etched into your brains, like a mantra, or a prayer, or a chain gang refrain: “How can I sell a house?” and “How can I save money?” You’re the one whose knuckles have gone white from worry about what the banks you may owe money to may do or say next, as home prices keep sliding, and the land you bought for a dollar yesterday is worth 60 cents or so today, and by the way, a construction loan is just not in the cards.

Or are these encouraging traffic, orders, closings, and backlog numbers just so much more tantalization in a series of secular false starts? A blip?

You’re the one who may feel uncomfortably busy right now, for the work may be picking up, and the obligations may be mounting up to deliver on time. At the same time, the notion of hiring someone new, adding to that fragile payroll, making sure it’s somebody who knows what he or she is doing and can do the job of three just like everybody else who’s clung to a livelihood over the past four years, agonizes. After layoff upon layoff upon layoff, actually hiring people when there’s still so much uncertainty in the offing is almost physically painful.

We’ve heard the moment characterized like this: “We’re trying to stay cautiously optimistic.” Emphasis is on the word cautious. Another business chief we know says, “We’re busier than we’ve been in six years, and we’re going to add shifts and workers. But I wish people would just be quiet about it. I’d rather it be a secret.” After all, everybody knows that numbers can turn tide again.

What’s different is you. You are different. For years, we’ve been listening to home builders as they rolled over, lamenting that it was the market, or the banks, or Wall Street, or the government that had done them in. We’ve heard home builders call this one incompetent on Capitol Hill, that one unresponsive in some special servicing department of a lender, another unfair, and another overly demanding as a potential buyer. In other words, victims.

What we’re hearing and seeing now is men and women in home building who aren’t ready to blame externalities, adverse circumstances, a hostile economy, or misguided policy for what’s not right about the world of home building right now. It’s simply, “How can I sell a house?” and “How can I save money?”

Working smarter is hard. Doing more with less is a cliché, but it’s also the way things have to happen if they’re ever going to get better. Squirrelling away pennies is the way to save dollars. Changing your process so that you’re not feeding a machine—which is not running anyway—but programming personalized, service-filled, multigenerational living solutions for people who need them means tough choices.

Yes, our recovery may be two steps forward, one step back. It may be a work in progress. But, hey, it’s work.

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