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Wednesday, 05 January 2011 20:24

Situation still bleak for builders in the region

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By Colby Dunn and Quintin Ellison • Staff Writers

Although retail businesses might have found some relief toward the latter part of the year, homebuilders and real estate agents found fewer reasons for joy in 2010.

For homebuilders, the outlook was pretty bleak, according to Dawson Spano, president of the Haywood Home Builders’ Association. The bleeding in the industry, he said, has slowed but hasn’t altogether stopped, and many contractors around the region are still calling it quits — or at least still feeling the heat of the recession.

“Builders are getting out of the business, but not at the fast rate that it was last year,” Spano said.

The best way to characterize the situation, he said, is that things aren’t yet getting better, but at least they’re not getting worse.

The business they’re seeing now is different than what has long characterized the home building industry in Western North Carolina, with large developments of second and luxury homes on the decline or stopped altogether. And Spano said he’s not certain that kind of construction and housing market will ever return to the area.

“We’re going back to the way it used to be, where you have builders building one, two houses a year,” Spano said. “I think the big developments are dead for a long time. The Balsam Mountain Preserves, the Sanctuaries, those big places — I don’t see people dropping 300 to 400 thousand for a piece of property.”

Homebuilders, though, are seeing a trend towards remodeling, and Spano thinks this may be where the market is going when the country finally drags itself out of the economic slump. Wherever it’s headed, he has no doubt that it will be scaled back.

Phyllis Osborn, executive officer for Haywood’s Home Builder’s Association, said that the numbers bear this out. What they’re hearing from contractors around the region is that work is there, but it’s smaller in scope and opportunities are still sparse, as evidenced by the drop in contractors still in the game.

“We are 136 in our membership and at the end of last year it was 148, so we’re continually dropping,” said Osborn. “And I know in years prior it’s been up almost to 200.”

Spano’s predictions that small building will lead the way out of the recession and beyond are echoed by the National Association of Home Builders, who released a study at the end of December proving that very trend. The NAHB found that 65 percent of builders that are still in business pull in less than $1 million annually.

“We are seeing market conditions returning to normal in many parts of the country after a long, hard downturn, and these companies have the agility to move quickly and start leading the economy forward,” said NAHB Chairman Bob Jones in a December statement.

In the real estate market, the general sentiment seems to be much the same – that things are still languishing, but the sales dips are not quite as deep as they were last year.

Bob Holt, who teaches about real estate for Southwestern Community College, said there are fewer agents than during the pre-recession boom years. The ones that have stuck with it, however, are staying relatively busy, he said.

“It is still slow, but things are turning around,” said Holt, a Franklin resident. “The prices are low, the interest rates are low — it is a good time to buy stuff.”

Holt said the situation would not improve significantly for another year or so, “until we clear out all the foreclosures” and the job situation improves.

In Haywood County, the Board of Realtors is looking to a merger with Asheville as a possible force to help mitigate the loss if the economic hits keep coming. For homebuilders, 2007 was the banner year, and for Western North Carolina’s real estate world, the benchmark for booming business was 2005. But as one real estate agent put it at a recent board meeting, 2005 probably isn’t coming back, so the future may be found in a new business model, not a return to pre-recession growth.

“If the real-estate market doesn’t improve, then neither will my membership,” said Lisa Brown, association executive for the Haywood Board of Realtors. The math is simple, and after taking a hit of more than 25 percent last year, the area’s agents are looking for a better 2011.

But John Keith, a Waynesville real estate agent in his second year in the county, remains optimistic. People are still buying, even if the pace is much slower. People still want to move here, even if they can’t make it happen until their current house sells.

“The market is still depressed, but I’m optimistic,” said Keith. “We still know that this is one of the best retirement relocation areas in the country, and there’s still a lot of people that are trying to get here.”

For his part, Spano takes a more poetic view of what’s coming in 2011.

“We’re in the valley of the shadow of death,” Spano said. “We’re there, except now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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