Friday, April 24, 2009

Texas housing poised to rebound quickly, builders group leader says

The Texas housing market is likely to be one of the first to recover when the nationwide building slump is over, the head of the country's largest homebuilding association says.

Joe Robson, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders, was in the Dallas area Thursday talking with local builders and helping kick off a home tour to replace this year's Parade of Homes.

Robson, a builder from Tulsa, Okla., who heads the trade group based in Washington, D.C., said Dallas and Texas in general have held up very well during this recession. "All over Texas, they've done a pretty good job of keeping housing inventories in check."

The supply of unsold new homes in North Texas is less than half what it is in hard-hit markets in California and Florida. But that doesn't mean the housing industry here hasn't suffered.

Single-family home starts have fallen more than 60 percent since the peak in 2006. And several prominent homebuilding firms in the area have gone out of business.

Statewide, the Texas Association of Builders estimates that it's lost a couple of hundred company members.

"We've seen some fallout and are likely to see some more," said Texas builders president Ron Connally of Amarillo. "There are a lot of good builders out there who haven't done anything wrong who have been caught."

The National Association of Home Builders has seen its membership decline by almost 50,000.

"Our biggest obstacle is getting the financing," Connally said. "We very well could wake up and see shortages in the market by the time this thing sorts out."

The shortage of financing is also the reason the Home Builders Association of Greater Dallas isn't putting on its Parade of Homes this year. Instead, the builders group is holding an open house of completed homes and building sites scattered throughout the Dallas area starting this weekend.

The association usually builds model custom homes to show consumers the latest trends in building.

"There just wasn't the kind of funding available that builders need to do this," Dallas builders executive vice president Bob Morris said. "Home parades across the country are stalled."

The association also set up a special Big Home Tour Internet site, www.thebighometour.com, where consumers can look at the latest innovations and plan new homes with builders.

"In the past, we've always had a tremendous inventory of homes for people to look at," said Garland builder Jerry Carter, who organized the Internet marketing effort. "In this market, believe it or not, the inventory of homes is shrinking daily.

"Our solution was to use the digital world where builders can show homes or concepts," he said.

The builders also said that the recently enacted $8,000 federal tax credit for first-time homebuyers has caused a spike in their business.

"In the first two months it's been in existence, about 600,000 homebuilders across the country have taken advantage of it," Robson said. "Certainly it's working in Tulsa, where I'm from, and in Texas.

"How much is it working in California, Florida and some of the places really underwater that are priced higher?"

Robson said he's optimistic that the U.S. housing downturn will bottom out this year, in part because of low mortgage rates and incentive programs aimed at luring consumers back to the market.

"The affordability factor is higher than it's been since statistics have been held," he said. "We are at historic lows on mortgage rates."

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By STEVE BROWN / The Dallas Morning News