This September, the Home Builders Association (HBA) of St. Louis and Eastern Missouri will conduct its first-ever parade of homes, to which the chapter has committed $150,000. The Greater Atlanta HBA has formed a committee that is charged with sustaining consumer interest generated by a $1 million multimedia marketing campaign, called "Get Home Atlanta!" that the HBA ran in the fall of 2007.
In their attempts to counteract negative national press about the housing industry, home builder groups around the country are stepping up their efforts to accentuate the positives about their markets' economies, home prices, and housing values. The latest version of this can be found in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where the HBA of Metro Dallas is participating in an advertising and educational program called "DFW Buy Now," which was launched last month.
The effectiveness of these efforts may be hard to quantify, with market conditions being so volatile. (For example, the Atlanta HBA deems its promotion a success, even though fourth-quarter sales in North Atlanta's 12 counties fell 49.4 percent, and the supply of unsold inventory rose to 11.3 months; and quarterly sales in South Atlanta's 11 counties, where unsold inventory stood at 9.7 months, dropped 65.8 percent, according to Metrostudy estimates). Statistical validation, though, is almost beside the point, as builders are trying to prod hesitant home buyers with a simple, if cautionary, message: Don't be influenced by press reports about dismal housing markets in California, Arizona, and Florida, because that coverage doesn't reflect what's going on locally, where home values aren't eroding as badly. Consumers, these campaigns insist, need to get off the fence and buy now before the combination of low interest rates, lowering prices, and excess inventory disappears.
The Atlanta HBA's campaign, for which it raised $500,000, encompassed TV, radio, billboard, bus wraps, and newspaper ads that drove consumers to the group's Web site. "It created a buzz that the industry here could rally around," says David Ellis, the HBA's executive director. The goal, he adds, was to attempt to "reverse the thinking [among buyers] that there will be a better deal out there in the future." Ellis says that local builders in recent weeks are seeing more customer traffic coming through their communities.
DFW Buy Now, which launched officially on Feb. 26, started coming together last fall, when local builders began looking for ways to neutralize the impact of negative news reports about their housing market. Several key players spearheaded this launch: Jimmy Brownlee, Hovnanian Enterprises' regional president in Dallas-Fort Worth, the campaign's leader who was instrumental in getting other local builders on board; Residential Strategies, the Dallas-based market research firm, which provided market data and analysis; Cindy Pierce, a local builder consultant hired as a fundraiser; and the advertising firm Anderson, Hanson & Blanton.
Ted Wilson, a principal with Residential Strategies, tells BUILDER that about 90 percent of DFW's 50 or so production builders have contributed to this effort, with other donations coming from developers, lenders, and suppliers. (He wouldn't disclose how much money was raised, but he said it was "comparable" to what was spent on the "Get Home Atlanta!" program.) This multimedia promotion includes 25 billboards that are seen by 89 percent of the market's commuters. The campaign's radio ads reach 80 percent of the market.
The promotion, which is scheduled to run through May, hauled out some big guns by featuring quotes on its Web site-www.dfwhousingfacts.org-from Ross Perot Jr., the founder of Hillwood Development; former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros; Fort Worth's Mayor Mike Moncrief; and Ebby Halliday, who owns the metro's largest Realtor. Wilson contributed an extensive market analysis, in which he notes that despite its current inventory overhang (there are nearly 10,000 unsold new homes in the metro area), Dallas-Fort Worth's "under construction" pipeline is at its lowest level in 14 years. (The Dallas Morning News reports that builders in North Texas have pulled back their starts by almost 40 percent from a year ago.) Wilson infers from these data that "[t]he spring of 2008 market offers the last chance for the consumer to seize the opportunity presented by these completed homes."
The Web site and collateral materials also count down reasons why buyers should be jumping back into the market: because DFW remains one of the country's most affordable markets; existing homes are selling within an average of 80 days of being put on the market, the second-fastest time in the U.S.; homes in the market "are holding their value" and historically haven't been subject to wild price swings; and the area's economy continues to create jobs. "We don't necessarily expect to change what's going on in the market, but we can change buyers' attitudes about discounting and whether it's the right time to buy," says Wilson.
What HBAs are trying to figure out next is how to sustain their campaigns beyond their shelf lives. Money, of course, is the issue. Ana Blanton, a partner with Anderson, Hanson & Blanton, says funding is already in place to keep the Web site online and updated for a year. (Bob Morris, executive director of the HBA of Greater Dallas, wouldn't mind seeing that site become permanent, if financing can be raised.) Blanton says she's also looking at doing some cable TV spots, and expects residual public relations from the promotion to last at least through the summer. The St. Louis HBA found that the $120,000 it raised for its advertising-$40,000 each from its own coffers, from the NAHB, and from the local carpenters union-that ran for six weeks last April and May only went so far. However, it has been able to leverage that campaign into free media coverage in the market's suburban newspapers that continue to run the campaign's logo in their new-home sections, as well as a free quarter-page ad for the HBA and its Web site.
Patrick Sullivan, executive director of the St Louis HBA, tells BUILDER that while his group does not plan to run any more advertising this year, it's counting on market conditions to have bottomed out by the time it conducts its first "Ultimate Tour of New Homes!" on Sept. 1 through 14. The HBA is charging builders $980 per house to participate and conservatively projects between 50 and 70 homes will be entered, "although we anticipate that number will be higher."
The Atlanta HBA's Ellis says the awareness that "Get Homes Atlanta!" heightened among potential customers also raises questions about why it took so long for the housing industry, which typically does not spend a lot of money on advertising, to recognize the power of push marketing. "Shouldn't we always be saying it's a great time to buy a home?" he asks.