As homebuilders struggle for survival this spring, construction lenders are stepping out of their traditionally passive rules to become active partners in redoubled efforts to market new homes.
One plan in the works here is for a $300,000 media blitz, to use funds from local lenders and builders to produce ads featuring new buyers explaining how and why they bought houses, a spokeswoman for the Suburban Maryland Home Builders Association said.
Less dramatic but more direct are the increasing concessions, and in some cases demands, being made quietly by individual banks and savings and loans to help troubled builders rid themselves of unsold inventory--and to rid the financial institutions of uncollected debts.
Equitable Savings and Loan Association of Wheaton, for example, last fall provided 13 3/4 percent, fixed-rate mortgages to people buying newly constructed houses from builders with construction loans at the S&L. At the same time, Equitable made it clear that those kinds of loans would end with current inventory.
The lenders' active involvement in the housing market is likely to be a short-lived phenomenon, however, lasting only as long as it takes to get out from under existing commitments. New sources of home financing will have to be found in the future, builders say, as banks and S&Ls try to loosen the tie between their fate and that of the housing industry. Several institutions already have stopped making construction loans or mortgages.
But for now, lenders want to protect their large outstanding investments in real estate; they realize that foreclosures generally would be futile because they can not sell the homes any faster than the builders can.
Builder bankruptcies throughout the country have leaped, and the National Association of Home Builders says many more of their number have merely gone out of business without a formal bankruptcy proceeding. Several analysts expect the news to get worse this spring.
"The height of builders closing down is going to hit in the spring or the summer," said Joseph King, partner in charge of the Washington office of Kenneth Leventhal & Co., a national accounting firm with real estate expertise. "If builders have a lot of inventory hanging out there, they're going to have problems."
Robert Koury, president of the Northern Virginia Home Builders Association, said he knows of about a dozen builders in his area that have gone out of business in the last five to six months and "there are an awful lot just hanging in the wings."
But lenders have not been quick to take over homes of distressed builders.
"There are many, many fewer foreclosures than would be expected given the economy," Koury said. "This is because the banks realize it's not the builder's fault" that sales are poor.
"There are as many solutions as there are bankers and builders working on it," Koury said. The lenders "will do anything they can to keep from taking back the houses. They aren't in the property management business."
The assistance being offered by lenders include favorable mortgage terms on "end loans" for buyers, such as Equitable's program, renegotiating loan terms or deferring payments while the builder tries new ways of selling his homes.
Robert T. Foley, the developer of the luxury Foxhall Terrace homes at Foxhall and Reservoir roads NW, said his lenders tried to help him by providing end loans for the houses, priced between $589,000 and $695,000, when he had difficulty finding buyers. The boost wasn't enough, however, and after consulting with the lenders Foley decided to sell the homes at an auction, scheduled for today at noon.
Robert E. Pickeral, senior vice president for commercial real estate at Riggs National Bank, said that Riggs has experienced problems with one or two builders and has reduced or deferred interest rate payments in those instances.
Most bankers, including Pickeral, say that price reductions don't appear to be the answer to selling homes today, but at least in one dramatic case this has been successful.
Gerard La Vay, redeveloper of Rock Creek Gardens condominium complex in Silver Spring, was faced with bank loans he could not pay and was not getting concessions from his out-of-town construction lender, so he decided to slash prices from about $70,000 to $40,000. The 278 units quickly sold out last weekend, in a move that La Vay says saved him from bankruptcy. The lender was ready to foreclose, he said, because it could easily get the amount of the loan by selling the units itself at the lower prices.
Other builders in the area say they do not have the ability to make price reductions of this size on their homes because the profit margin is not so large and often already has gone to buying favorable financing terms for purchasers.
In another case, the lender foreclosed but was not able immediately to get its money back from an auction it held on the units, even with price cuts of about 25 percent. Dominion National Bank, in what it called a "friendly foreclosure," took over the newly built Old Town Station luxury town houses on Rte. 1 near the Beltway. At the auction, seven of the 19 units for sale were sold at prices starting at $92,500, down from a starting price of $126,000.
The bank had agreed last September to hold off on foreclosure while the developer tried to boost sales. The agreement included an option to require modest price cuts, but the sales goals were never met and the bank went to foreclosure.
Prices in the area generally have stayed flat, as more builders have concentrated on subsidizing financing terms rather than cutting prices. For those who have successfully sold their homes, however, many are scaling down size and price to suit the market and to maintain the confidence of their lenders.
William Ryan, a Maryland builder with J.C. Facchina Builders Inc., said his firm has had no change in its relationship with its lender, Maryland Federal Savings and Loan Association, largely because the firm has been able to sell its product.
"One of the reasons they are willing to lend us $1 million is that we have no unsold inventory," Ryan said, adding that they intend to keep things that way by building smaller, cheaper houses. Last year the firm's homes were selling in the $100,000 to $115,000 range but its latest project, the Snyder subdivision near College Park, will start at $61,000, he said.
Others predict vast changes in the near future in the way the home-building industry is financed because of changes in the financial institutions themselves.
"The S&Ls who were our basic construction and permanent loan sources for lo these many years. Their function now is basically holding on by their fingernails," said Robert Mitchell of C-I/Mitchell & Best Co. and president of the Suburban Maryland Home Builders Association.
"They're not going to create mortgage money any more, they will merely act as service agents for other sources" such as pension funds, he said.
Mitchell reports that sales have improved at his firm since last year, but that his relationships with his main lenders have deteriorated. One has been so involved with expansion that it no longer concentrates on his firm's needs, while others have indicated that they will make no more construction loans after their current obligations are fulfilled.
Mitchell said his company now is working more with mortgage brokers who get their money from insurance companies, pension funds and banks in other areas where the economy is dormant. Very possibly builders will start establishing their relationships with these financial sources, much as they did with S&Ls in the past, Mitchell predicted.