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Homebuilders Hoping Size Doesn't Matter


Firms look to smaller, cheaper homes to stay afloat.

After nearly 3 years of bleeding cash, US homebuilders are on shaky ground.

The market for new homes is being decimated by rampant overbuilding during the boom, and by the flood of bank-owned properties now being sold on the cheap. Prices remain in free fall. Even as labor expenses and materials costs hover around recent lows, the business of building new homes is still broken.

But after 2 "positive" datapoints last week, and KB Home's (KBH) narrower-than-expected loss, many are wondering if the worst is now behind the beleaguered industry. Government-backed efforts to keep mortgage rates low and encourage home buying could save the builders. Maybe.

New home construction, for all its complications and intricacies, is a rather simple business: Sell homes for more than it costs to build them.

New homes have traditionally carried a premium to "used" ones; the median sale price of a new home is currently about 20% higher than that of one that's been previously owned. Builders relied on this premium to cover their construction and financing costs, not to mention to generate a healthy profit. But now that buyers can buy barely used houses at fire-sale prices, the allure of the brand-new is on the wane.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, banks are said to literally be giving land away for free: Builders will have nothing to do with it. The costs associated with owning improved lots (in other words, lots ready for the construction of a house) are too high for - even if they're offered for free. Building just isn't an economically viable option - and it won't be until housing prices rebound.

And that could take years.

Meanwhile, homebuilders like KB Home and rivals Centex (CTX), Lennar (LEN) and DR Horton (DHI) are struggling to rid themselves of unsold homes. Builders large and small are slashing prices, trimming staff, hawking vacant land for pennies on the dollar, and doing anything else they can think of to stay alive.

Many face an additional headwind this year: Tax rebates from previous operating losses will be drying up. Debt remains high, and cash is barely trickling in.

Ultimately, some big builders won't make it. The market, both for equities and default protection in the form of credit default swaps, is betting on Hovnanian (HOV), Beazer Home (BZH) and Standard Pacific (SPF) to be the first of the big dogs to fail.

Those hoping to survive are rapidly adjusting their strategies to adapt to the changing demands of the American homebuyer. As Minyanville's Terry Woo noted on Friday, KB Home's better-than-expected earings were partly a reflection of a switch to smaller, cheaper homes.

This is a positive trend: it's yet another indicator that Americans have a newfound love affair with thrift. And while we may lose a few builders along the way, I doubt we'll miss all those identical, pre-fabricated houses that had come to litter our landscape.

In memory of our fallen friend and trusted colleague, Bennet Sedacca, 100% of the donations made to the RP Foundation through April will be channeled to philanthropic endeavors consistent with the RP mission, working closely with the Sedacca clan in the distribution of those funds. We thank you kindly for your support as we strive to effect positive change in the lives of children.
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