ST. LOUIS — Last summer, Marie Davis was living in an 800-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment and not liking it. A single woman of 27, she wanted bigger and better.
“I thought, ‘I'm handing money away in rent, and I'll never see a return on it,'” she said.
One day, Davis was passing by a new subdivision, Greystone Estates, in Shiloh, Ill.
“I saw the price range on the sign, and that caught my attention,” she said. So she stopped in.
The staff at Fulford Homes, which builds in the subdivision, realized something about Marie Davis: She is a rare find for builders. She has a good, steady job, and wasn't trapped in a home she can't sell. People like Davis are today's prime customers, and there aren't enough of them.
Two and a half years after the official end of the Great Recession, the nation's homebuilding industry is still stuck deep in its own depression.
Not only are builders selling fewer homes, but the homes they sell are smaller and lower priced. McMansions are passe. A new frugality is at work, driven largely by today's buyers. People like Davis benefit from that.
“I realized that what I was paying in rent is pretty close to what I'd be paying in a mortgage,” said Davis, who works in contracting at Scott Air Force Base. She figured she'd be getting a lot more for the money — a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch spanning 1,660 square feet with a two-car garage. The price was $179,000. She moved in last October; her monthly mortgage payment is about $100 more than her rent.
The housing depression harrowed the building business.
“The common theme is that they went long on land at the peak of the market,” said builder Ken Stricker of Consort Homes in Chesterfield, Mo. Builders borrowed to buy big tracts, and were stuck with them when buyers disappeared.
But Consort and others kept building through the downturn, though at a vastly reduced rate with narrowed profit margins.
Back in the good old days, around about 2006, Gene Stumpf would build 25 to 30 homes a year. They were four- and five-bedroom mansions, covering up to 4,000 square feet and selling for $500,000 or so. That market has virtually disappeared in Missouri, unfortunately, said Stumpf, who founded Stumpf Homes in 1985.
Unemployment is part of the reason, but that's less of an issue for affluent people who buy big houses. The real problem is the sick market for existing homes: In wide swathes of the country, people who might want a bigger house can't sell the one they now own for an acceptable price.
So builders find themselves building more for people who don't have homes to sell.
“The market that did best for us is the first-time homebuyer,” said Mark Fulford, of Fulford homes in O'Fallon, Ill.
The best sellers are ranch houses, with three bedrooms covering about 1,700 square feet and selling in the $180,000 to $190,000 range, he said.
In some ways, it's a throwback to the modest developments that sprang up in the St. Louis area in the 1960s and '70s. The newer models have extras — double vanities in the bathroom, walk-in closets, and full basements. Those amenities, plus the newness, is the edge luring buyers away from existing homes.
Changes in taste, family size and personal finance are driving the trend toward smaller homes.
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