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Betting the house on demographics

BY Brae Canlen

A chorus of voices is giving hope to the housing industry, which is starting to show signs of recovery. Demand for housing, as measured by pending home sales, was at a two-year peak in October, according to the National Association of Realtors. Builders broke ground on 894,000 housing units that same month, their fastest pace in four years, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), which surveys its members every month, declared that its Builder Confidence Index hit its highest level in November since May 2006.

Add one more voice to this growing belief: housing analyst Ivy Zelman, a former Cassandra who predicted, early on, that the housing downturn would be long and deep. Using a satellite hook-up at the ProDealer Industry Summit (PDIS), Zelman shared her latest perspective on the state of the housing market. She told a large audience of LBM executives, assembled in late October, that the acceleration of household formation, combined with a dwindling number of available rental units, has created a housing shortage that needs to be addressed — immediately.

“We, as a country right now, do not have very many opportunities for shelter,” Zelman said. Household formation is rising through legal immigration (nearly 482,000 people in 2011) and pent-up demand from adult children leaving their parents’ homes in search of their own apartments and condos. “It’s tough to date when you’re in your 30s and living in your mom and dad’s house,” Zelman observed. And, unlike young adults in some European countries, “people are still falling in love and getting married and having babies,” she added.

Those searching for new dwellings will find a tight rental market, with current occupancy rates for apartments at 94.5%. Renters who can’t find apartments are turning, instead, to renting single-family homes. Occupancy rates for those are also high, at 94.6%. Monthly leases average $1,036 for apartments and $1,150 for single-family houses.

Given these circumstances, now might be a good time to buy a house. But the nation’s housing stock is at an all-time low. Houses being used for rentals are off the market, and production builders cut back on inventory a long time ago. Some home builders have started break ground again, and Zelman predicted 770,000 housing starts in 2012. Zelman & Associates’ official forecast for 2013 is 980,000 housing starts. The 1 million mark will be breached in 2014, when Zelman & Associates has forecasted 1.225 million housing starts.

Of course, many other factors will influence the recovery. More than 2 million foreclosed houses are still listed for sale. Banks will have to start lending to home builders and their suppliers again. On the latter issue, there has been a slight increase in Acquisition, Development and Construction (AD&C) loans, according to the FDIC, and this trend will continue to improve, Zelman said. “Banks are always slow getting back into the housing market,” she noted. The biggest impediment to foreclosures are the states where the process runs through the judicial system; the four states with the highest foreclosure inventories — Florida, New Jersey, New York and Illinois — must use the judicial system to clear foreclosures, according to CoreLogic, an Irvine, Calif.-based information and analytics provider.

Zelman viewed the sustained rise in existing-home prices, which she calculates at 8.8% through July 2012, as another signal that a supply-demand shift is coming. “We believe we are in the beginning of a pretty strong long-term pricing cycle,” she said. States where housing went bust after the building boom — i.e. Arizona, Nevada, California and Florida — are showing six-month price increases that range between 7.5% and 13.1%. These four states, along with Washington, D.C., Texas, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Illinois, account for an estimated 66% of public home builders’ active projects as of the third quarter of 2012, according to Zelman’s research.

Many home builders paint a less rosy picture of their current business conditions, given the shortage of labor and the inflation in building material costs. These problems are being passed on to lumberyard owners, who asked for Zelman’s perspective when she presented at the PDIS event.

Much of Zelman & Associates’ research is based on studying the financial reports of public and private home builders and a monthly poll of home-building executives from around the nation. All else being equal, home builders need a 0.5% home price increase to cover a 1.0% increase in labor and materials, according to the firm’s most recent analysis. In short, builders can cover price increases with minimal price appreciation on the homes they sell, Zelman said. “If they’re pushing back on you [on prices], I think you should have that discussion again,” she said, adding: “Builders are going to have to pay up [if] they want to make Wall Street happy.”

But builders are still gun shy, and no one knows for sure if the federal government won’t wipe out the mortgage interest deduction, or if the FHA’s future is secure. Nevertheless, Zelman foresees a “waterfall of new residential strength” in the next three years. Included in this cascade is spending on home improvement projects, which Zelman and Associates estimates will rise in the “mid-single digits” over the next several years. While many of these purchases will involve houses that were bought and sold, others will go into households that never changed owners.

“The home improvement industry is more dependent on the people who don’t move,” Zelman started. “The power of the female buyer will reignite spending on our homes.”

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Home Depot’s product parade

BY Ken Ryan

From innovations that use advanced lithium-ion technology to old standby push mowers, some of Home Depot’s top-selling products in the third and fourth quarters span the gamut of home improvement categories.

During Home Depot’s third-quarter conference call in November, executive VP merchandising Craig Menear identified several products that are selling briskly or are expected to perform well during the fourth quarter.

Ryobi 18V Lithium Battery

Innovation remains a major component of Home Depot’s leadership strategy, Menear said, and Ryobi’s 18-volt lithium battery underscores that effort. “We’re excited about our second-generation Ryobi lithium batteries with fade-free power,” Menear said. “Lithium-plus batteries offer better performance for existing tools, fuel gauges and extreme weather performance.”

The new lineup of Ryobi  features 18V lithium-ion batteries, drills and combo kits. The advanced Li-on delivers up to 20% more runtime, weighs 45% less and holds a charge four times longer than a nickel cadmium.

Marazzi Tile

Porcelain tile, which is a durable, abrasion- and liquid-resistant surface, is often only available in stone or ceramic looks. But this fourth quarter, Home Depot will be selling an oak porcelain floor and wall tile from Marazzi. Called the Riflessi di Legno (left), this 23-7/16-in. x 3-13/16-in. tile can be installed on floors, walls and countertops. Menear said the product “will give customers the ease, maintenance and durability of a porcelain tile with a wood finish they desire.” It retails for $4.89/square foot; $45.57/case (covers 9.32 sq. ft.).

Moen Haysfield Motion-Sensing Faucet

You’ve seen them in airports and some upscale hotels. Now motion-sensing faucets are being offered through Home Depot for the home. MotionSense from Moen uses advanced sensors to detect movement in two sensing zones, setting water flow in motion. “MotionSense was created to respond directly to consumers’ behaviors and preferences in the kitchen,” said Jack Suvak, Moen senior director of research and insights. “With the wave of a hand or by placing a cup beneath the spout, you experience a faucet that intuitively understands exactly what you are trying to do, and responds immediately to your needs.”

The Haysfield pulldown kitchen faucet is the first faucet at Home Depot to offer MotionSense technology. It retails for $398.

Kidde Worry-Free Smoke Alarm

Those annoying low-battery chirps that seem to occur in the middle of the night could be a thing of the past, now that Kidde has introduced its Worry-Free line of smoke alarms (below) with lithium technology. Available at Home Depot, Kidde’s sealed, long-life lithium battery smoke alarm has a 10-year life expectancy.

The smoke detectors are location-based, meaning there are specific alarms for the hallway, bedroom, kitchen and living room. Menear estimates that customers will save on average $40 in battery replacement during the 10 years of battery life.

The retail price ranges from $25 to $50.

Walk-Behind Mowers

Through what it called “supply chain transformation,” Home Depot’s merchandise and execution team was able to extend its fall cleanup-selling season this year. That meant more sales of walk-behind mowers. Three models excelled. Honda’s 404997 (right) was Home Depot’s best selling mower, buoyed by a Consumer Reports “Best Buy” rating. The mower speed adjusts to how fast the user is walking, which is a benefit on hilly surfaces. The Honda mower retails for $399.

Other models are the Toro Personal Pace Recycler 944486 and the Toro High Wheel FWD 731533 (below). “The Recycler deck makes the grass clippings contact the blade several times before going to the ground for mulch or into the bag. That means this mower gets 16.8 lbs. of grass clippings in the same size bag that a John Deere mower only gets 7.7 lbs. into,” according to a Home Depot spokesman. “It may not sound like a lot, but it means you get to mow twice as long before you have to empty the bag. And if you are mulching, the smaller clippings fall easier to the dirt to decompose where several other mowers leave clumps of clippings on top of your grass.”

The Toro High Wheel FWD is a workhorse that runs quietly and is fuel-efficient.

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Kuiken Bros. throws a Garden State party

BY Ken Clark

New Jersey was lumbering with the effects of Hurricane Sandy, from destruction down the shore to power outages all over. But the show must go on — especially if it coincides with the host’s 100th anniversary.

Kuiken Bros. semi-annual Product Expo packed the Mahwah, N.J., Sheraton parking lot with contractor pickup trucks last month, as more than 1,000 builders, architects and designers braved the elements and long gas lines to attend the show.  

New Jersey and New York building communities have a tough challenge ahead of them with the recent destruction,” said Douglas Kuiken, president. The expo, he said, gave builders “an outlet” to network and swap stories.

 

The rebuilding isn’t going to happen overnight, he added. But Kuiken Bros., a fourth-generation pro dealer, intends to be there for its customers when it does.

 

We’re continuing to talk to our vendors and our customers to make sure we have the products they need,” said VP Nick Kuiken.

 

Some 50 vendors were set up in the hotel conference room, with a steady flow of traffic. Some of the highlights are shown below. 

Products keep changing, and you can’t fight against technology,” said Douglas Kuiken. “We embrace it — we keep looking for new products all the time.” 

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