Like April's cherry blossoms hit by an untimely frost, builders' fragile hopes for a spring rejuvenation of their businesses have been nipped by a continuation of winter's high interest rates.
Most local builders have deferred major construction plans and reduced their number of workers, and a few are cutting prices.
Several developers take heart in a recent increase in visitors to their projects, however, and say that even a modest break in rates would help unleash potential buyers who have delayed purchasing until shackling rates come down. In the meantime, many builders are just trying to stay afloat financially until that day comes.
Projects that are selling still tend to be the cheaper, smaller homes, and developers are turning more to designs like "mingles" condominiums--apartments with two master suites suited to a pair of single income-earners who want to split a mortgage.
The continued high interest rates have affected other plans of builders, homeowners, lenders and potential buyers.
Builders are offering an increasing variety of creative financing programs, though the most common still appears to be the costly "buy down" of conventional interest rates to below-market levels.
Homeowners also are selling at discount. Assumptions of older, low-interest mortgages--often coupled with owners holding a second mortgage for the buyer at below-market rates--have kept the comatose resale market alive. Assumptions are under attack in the Supreme Court, however, as lenders are pressing to force an escalation to current market rates on existing mortgages whenever homes are resold.
Meanwhile, lenders are adopting and developing new forms of creative financing, many of these methods counting on people being able to make higher payments in later years. These new plans are designed to keep lenders in the home-loan business but also to protect them from the massive losses they now are suffering because of old low-interest loans and rising borrowing costs.
Potential buyers still are holding off, however. While creating a housing slump, this also has meant a decrease in the mobility that Americans deeply cherish. The involuntary stability may lead to a frustrated and politically restless population as well as to more community involvement by those staying longer in one place, according to social researchers.
Economists, meanwhile, predict that conventional mortgage interest rates will stay high throughout this year, with few expecting to see a rate below 15 percent. The National Association of Home Builders predicts housing starts will be approximately 1.1 million in 1982, about the same as in 1981 and half what the group says is needed to satisfy potential demand.
"There's too much risk, too much hard work and too much aggravation. It was a lot of fun all those years. Now it's no fun."
--Ralph Ochsman, former builder
Many local builders would seem to agree with Ralph Ochsman's assessment that the fun has gone out of the housing industry this year.
Take the unusual problem faced recently by Aaron Stoner, partner in Gruver and Cooley, which builds luxury single-family homes and town houses.
A couple that at one time would have been dream buyers walked into one of the firm's sales offices. With $100,000 cash in hand for a down payment, they were interested in a $240,000 home. But Stoner got an anxious call from a sales agent that day. The problem? Interest rates made monthly payments so high, it was uncertain whether the couple could qualify for the $140,000 loan they would need to buy the house.
"We've slowed down a lot because so many of our people were . . . having trouble getting equity out of their houses to put into ours. We're at the end of that circle," Stoner said.
For the first time in the company's history, it is doing contract work for another builder on a townhouse project by Chain Bridge, just to keep the employes working, he added.
Robert T. Foley, builder of the Foxhall Terrace luxury homes in a prime location off Reservoir Road NW, may have set a local record for price cuts on new homes--$145,000 to his current discount price of $525,000. Earlier this year he had tried to sell these homes at a public auction but did not get an adequate bid.
He also now is offering 12 1/2 percent mortgages with nothing down to anyone who can qualify for the $60,000-a-year payments on such a loan.
Some who can't sell have turned to trying to rent, and Foley is doing that, too. In what appears to be another precedent for his class of new luxury homes, Foley is offering to rent the Foxhall Terrace homes for $3,500 to $3,700 a month. At that price, any taker would probably be "an embassy sort," he said.
"We are innovators, but it doesn't seem to be getting us much motion," Foley said about the variety of methods he has tried at his project. "Any port in a storm."
Some people still are buying, however, which means that some builders and real estate brokers are doing well despite the overall depression in the market.
Michael Seay, vice president for sales at the W.C. and A.N. Miller Development Co., said 1982 will be one of the best years Miller has ever had. It just sold out at its Spring Valley town house project on Massachusetts Avenue NW, where houses start at $250,000, and has about 25 more homes sold and under construction.
The greatest change Seay finds is in buyer acceptance of adjustable-rate mortgages. Of his last 10 sales, seven used ARMs, he said.
Environmental Concepts Inc., on the other hand, found ARMs to be unsuccessful, said President Charles A. Veatch. His firm, building at Oakborough Square in Oakton and Audubon Terrace in Reston, has had "terrible" sales this year but hopes to turn that around with a new financing package of 12 3/4 percent fixed-rate 30-year mortgages, Veatch said.
The nation's largest homebuilder, U.S. Homes Corp., had a severely depressed 1981 throughout the country, but an official in the company's local division said activity has picked up in this area this year. By mid-April sales were up 35 percent over last year, and the company now has 53 homes under construction in this area, said the official, who asked not to be quoted by name. Based on current sales, at least another 100 will be started by the end of the summer, he added.
Most of the company's business this year has been in developments in Annapolis, Burke, Laurel and Greenbelt, the local official said.
Anthony J. Castro, a partner in Castro-Holdsworth Associates in Reston, reports that the firms lower-priced products--those under $100,000--have shown some improvement lately.
Castro-Holdsworth is the developer on the Taft Towers condominium conversion in Arlington, three town-house projects in Reston and Manor Estates single-family homes in Potomac. Sales of high-priced homes are "real slow," but less expensive ones are selling "reasonably well, considering the economy," Castro said.
Robert C. Koury Jr., partner in Koury/Tipton Homes Inc. in Fairfax City, said his firm is doing a little better this year, also. Koury said it is time for builders to stop waiting for the market to change and instead should change their own approach and product to survive within the limits of a market that may not get much better any time soon:
"Builders who are waiting for the supposed 'turnaround' are making a mistake."