During the height of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home order, new home construction like most industries took a hit, but area home-building company leaders are saying that the market is getting back on track.
David Belman, president of Belman Homes, Inc., said in the past month the market “has really heated up” after following a period of uncertainty with the pandemic and the stock market taking a downturn. Now that buyers are feeling more confident again, Belman Homes has reopened its models, as well as continuing to offer virtual tours.
“During the safer-at-home, there was definitely a drop in inquiries and it was a lot more challenging to do business,” Belman said. “As soon as that has lifted, it’s been like night and day. People are serious; people who are coming through are sale-qualified leads.'
Scott Thistle, president of Harbor Homes, which is based in Waukesha County, but has building projects in Waukesha, as well as Washington County, said both sales numbers and traffic have been good for his company, in fact, “surprisingly good.”
“April was very slow. We made a pretty quick comeback,” Thistle said.
Harbor Homes is starting construction on a new home about every two-and-a-half days. He thinks what has helped the home building industry is that people who had homes on the market took them off during the safe-athome order, which caused people to look for new construction.
Belman said home construction was deemed an essential service so home building never stopped, but he thinks there could be a lag in late summer and early fall as 2019 projects are wrapped up and new orders start.
Kathy Raab, executive director of the Metropolitan Builders Association, said sales are “off the charts.”
“People are anxious to buy, anxious to remodel,” she said. “We just finished up our spring tour and the attendance was good. People are booking appointments as fast as they can.”
So this year, Raab said, building permits are on par with last year. Mortgage rates remain low, helping people to make that home purchase. Even though the pandemic caused concerns among Americans, Raab said she thinks people are starting to feel more secure in the economy once again.
Some of the main obstacles to new home building pre-pandemic remain, such as finding affordable lots for development, as well as hiring skilled labor.
Raab said it remains hard to find new home construction for around $250,000, partly because of lot prices which remain higher because many communities require less density in new developments. Also, building products are more expensive.
Belman agrees that affordability is the number one challenge for the industry.
He said during the COVID-19 emergency, lumber yards reduced production, which brought up costs, and there are some supply chain issues. That in turn also creates time delays.
Belman Homes, which has developments in the Waukesha area, has about a dozen homes fully under construction, with about 20 being the normal amount.
Pebble Brook Hollow in the Village of Waukesha off Oakdale Drive is a Belman Homes project under construction. He said people are seeing earth movers on the land, which is generating a lot of interest.
Harbor Homes has home sites in Germantown, Grafton and Sussex.
“The market is in pretty good shape. The inventory is still at an all-time low,” Thistle said.
When COVID-19 struck southeastern Wisconsin, credit tightened, Thistle said, which is also causing would-be buyers to be more price conscious.
To help buyers find the right home for them, Harbor Homes has focused on improving its online platform and creating more video content and doing virtual tours. They also rolled out a website virtualizer, which can change colors like those of counter tops.
“We have been focused since the end of Match on the technology side so we can continue to have customers interact with our business and our products so that’s not diminished in any way,” Thistle said.
Belman said they have also taken steps to offer services as people want them during the pandemic.
He said Belman Homes limits the number of people in a model home at one time, asks that people don’t come if they have symptoms and have hand sanitizer for use. They also offer virtual tours of their homes.
“For home building and the market, we are going to see a surge in the next couple of months,” Belman said.
By the numbers
■ 1,345 building permits for residential units in Wisconsin in April 2020
■ 31.6% decline in building permits from April 2020 to April 2019
■ 170 lots in Washington County in 2019, compared to 451 in 2000
■ 379 lots in Waukesha County in 2019, compared to 1,372 in 2000
Source: David Belman, president of Belman Homes, and New Residential Construction Report