Thursday, November 01, 2007

Worst Quarter Since 1994

This article was written by Chicago Crain's columnist Alby Gallun. The state of affairs in the residential real estate market has not seen such a significant slow down in this quarter since 1994.

By Alby Gallun
Oct. 29, 2007

Local homebuilders endured more pain and suffering in the third quarter as new-home sales continued a slide that began two years ago.

Residential developers in the Chicago area sold 3,796 homes in the quarter, down 34% from the year-earlier period, according to Schaumburg-based Tracy Cross & Associates Inc. On a seasonally adjusted, annualized basis, sales totaled 15,296 units, down 40% from last year and their lowest level since 1994.

"It's the same old story," says Tracy Cross, president of the real estate consulting firm. "I think we are at the bottom right now. How long it stays in this trough, I'm not so sure."

After a prolonged boom fueled by easy credit and speculative buying, the residential market faltered in 2005 as rising prices and mortgage rates curtailed demand for new homes. More recently, lenders have tightened their loan criteria amid the subprime lending crisis.

The downturn has rippled through the industry, forcing widespread layoffs at homebuilders and subcontractors.

"On our end, it's terrible. It's awful," says Jim Venhuizen, owner and president of Cimarron Construction Inc., a New Lenox-based carpentry contractor that serves the residential market.

Cimarron employs about 25 carpenters now, down from roughly 100 a couple of years ago. Though the firm is still profitable, its net profit margin has shrunk to the low single digits, well below the 10% that is the norm for the carpentry industry, he says. Work is scarce, and homebuilders that do have work for firms like Cimarron are demanding price cuts.

"Everybody's going to be working real cheap for the next year, for sure," Mr. Venhuizen says.

Another apparent victim of the downturn in the new-home market is Neumann Homes Inc., which last week said it plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection (, Oct. 22).

The Warrenville-based homebuilder, which had 15 subdivisions in the works in Illinois, has laid off most of its employees and closed all of its sales, production and customer service offices.

The new-home business is especially bad in the suburbs, where sales fell 42% in the quarter, to 2,502 units, according to Tracy Cross. Sales in the city fell 14%, to 1,294 units.

A growing number of people who signed contracts to buy new homes are canceling, either because they can no longer qualify for a mortgage or they simply don't want to buy anymore, Mr. Cross says. The average cancellation rate is about 30% now, up from the more typical 15% to 20%, he estimates.

"Some are walking away from earnest money," he says. "Others are coming up with creative ways to get out."

The average Chicago-area new home sold for $416,329 in the third quarter, up 16% from the second quarter. But that number reflects a shift in the sales mix toward expensive condominiums in the city rather than any broader pickup in the market.

Though the downturn is deeper and longer than most observers expected, sales are so low that they can't drop much further, Mr. Cross says. Only 77 of the 817 condo and townhouse developments the firm tracks had eight or more sales during the quarter, and 327 either logged no sales at all or suffered a net loss of sales as buyers canceled contracts.

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