Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Home builders now competing mostly against foreclosures

The Wall Street Journal is covering a story I've been discussing with clients and at conferences for about 18 months now (better late than never!), which is how difficult it is for home builders to compete with foreclosures that are sold at substantial discounts. From the story:

In many markets, "we are no longer competing with other builders. We are competing with foreclosures," said Steve Ruffner, president of the Southern California division of KB Home.

Sales of used homes are actually rising in some regions because of foreclosures, but new-home sales fell to a four-decade low in January, down 77% from their peak in summer 2005. Altogether, home builders sold houses at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 309,000 units in January, down from a peak of 1.4 million in July 2005.

Home builders are confronting the competition from foreclosures at a difficult time in their history. Small builders are dying by the dozens, while some large companies are staying afloat by cutting expenses and scrambling to restructure debt.

President Barack Obama's foreclosure-prevention plan is likely to help stem the supply of bank-owned houses somewhat, and the administration's proposed budget would extend builders a lifeline through a lucrative tax break. But the foreclosure problem won't disappear...

Home builders' responses to the foreclosure threat vary. Los Angeles-based KB Home is focusing on building smaller, lower-priced houses that can compete with foreclosures head on. The builder has shrunk its house size from an average of 3,200 square feet during the housing boom to an average of 1,600 square feet in many markets today...

Dallas-based Centex, on the other hand, says it's not trying to beat lenders on price. Instead, the nation's third largest builder by volume is trying to entice buyers with perks like mortgage interest rates as low as 4.25%, energy-efficient designs and warranties...

D.R. Horton also offers incentives, including covering the buyer's closing costs, and touts a $10,000 California tax credit for buying a new house. And it notes that buyers often need to spend money to fix up foreclosed properties before they can move in...

Another strategy: build in new neighborhoods that aren't filled with vacant, bank-owned houses. "In general, we try not to compete with foreclosures," said Centex Chief Executive Tim Eller. "It's not all about price, it's about value. Buyers determine value by the look and feel of the neighborhood."...

Analysts question how low builders can go before building a house costs more than they can charge for it. In some markets in California and Florida, builders have reached that point and have stopped building.

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