In the Spring of last year, John Halbing was worried about the ripple effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
He was worried about a shortage of materials because of the manufacturing shutdowns and worried the job losses would be so great, that people wouldn’t be able to afford a home remodel project, let alone a new home.
But Halbing, who founded Summit Pointe Builders in Dallas 30 years ago, surprised even himself.
“If you would have told me in March of last year that if you put five spec houses in the ground and you’ll sell them during a global pandemic, I would have said you need to have your head examined,” he said. “But it’s the truth. And add a tumultuous election year on top of that.”
Halbing said it’s ‘crazy’ the amount of demand for not only new home construction, but remodel jobs, additions and just about anything else related to home improvement.
“In some cases, it’s way more than we have the capability to do,” he said. “The future looks great and the prognosis looks very good.”
The National Association of Home Builders found in their annual survey that home building was up 11 percent in 2020 from 2019, a sign that buyer demand still exists amidst the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, the NAHB expects single-family construction to be at more than 1 million starts – a number that the U.S. has not seen since the Great Recession. Low interest rates continue to be one of the biggest factors, according to the survey, as well as a low inventory of existing homes on the market.
“We are very, very busy,” said Halbing. “This will probably the best spring we’ve had in contracted housing starts in three to four years.”
Halbing said what he hopes is not the case, is that the housing economy is seeing three years’ worth of home construction in one year.
“People may feel anxious to do it now because of interest rates,” he said. “I’m nervous about the economy in general and I am worried about a bit of a bubble.”
He said most of the homes he is building are between 2,500 and 3,500 square feet.
“The problem is that because materials are more expensive, the cost of a home is increasing,” he said.
He said last year at this time he had about five houses under construction – this year it’s nine.
What also gave many builders anxiety last year, was an abrupt pause to construction and an unclear signal as to when it would be allowed to continue. Pennsylvania builders were ordered to stop working during the beginning of the pandemic. The Wolf Administration halted construction on March 19, 2020, and lifted those restrictions on May 1. Only companies building ‘life-saving’ operations could continue.
“It looks like it’s going to be a very busy year,” said Ken Powell, owner of Powell Developments in Archbald. “It seems like anything that goes on the market sells in almost no time at all. I have never seen as strong as it is now.”
Powell said he currently has about 20 houses under construction.
“But they are all sold,” he said. “Even all of my spec houses are sold. We usually have about seven to eight houses that are close to being finished, but everything is gone. I really have nothing available.”
He said anyone looking to build a new home must start from scratch – that means getting permits. It’s then a seven-month process once the weather breaks.
The cost of materials has also increased, he said, pushing the price of a home even higher.
“Pre-pandemic, our price to build a home was $110 to $115 per square foot,” he said. “Right now, we are at $150 per square foot for the exact same material. Lumber was the first to go up. Now it’s shingles, sheet rock and siding. I think it might even be because they are just taking advantage of a good thing.”
Powell said he can’t attribute the spike in business to any one thing. He said lower interest rates are likely one reason but added the pandemic has changed the way people are living and working.
“I think the pandemic made the housing market stronger. People are moving out of the cities. You can live where you want. You can work remotely. I think that’s a big part of it right now,” said Powell.
David Ferrey, owner of Dave Ferrey Custom Homes, Wilkes-Barre, said things are busy.
“Business is doing extremely well for me,” he said. “I do have 10 homes to start framing up this Spring so far. Although rising lumber and material costs are increasing home pricing compared to last year, prices are increasing almost weekly which makes it difficult when bidding jobs.”