The category covers general contractors primarily engaged in construction activities (including new work, additions, alterations, remodeling, and repair) of single-family houses.
233210 (Single-Family Housing Construction)
Traditionally quite fragmented, in 2000 the single-family housing construction industry consisted of 151,296 establishments that employed 713,300 workers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Statistical Abstract of the United States. The top 400 housing construction contractors accounted for less than 33 percent of the national market. In 2000 there were 1.2 million new housing starts. A boom in the housing industry pushed new housing starts up in 2003 to an estimated 1.6 million.
The single-family home construction industry comprises general contractors who are primarily engaged in building, remodeling, and repairing houses. Included in this industry classification are prefabricated housing assembled on-site and town-house construction. The single-family home construction industry is vital to the U.S. economy; it supplies jobs, tax revenue, and housing for Americans. During the early 2000s, the U.S. economy slumped into recession. However, low interest rates and the value of real estate as a relatively safe investment spurred housing construction. Although all other construction was sluggish at best, housing construction remained robust.
The rate of home ownership reached a record 67 percent of U.S. households in 1999, a figure that was expected to reach 70 percent by 2010. However, declining numbers of people will be entering the prime home-buying ages of 25 to 45 following the aging of the baby boomers during that period. Moreover, a decreasing proportion of this age bracket was purchasing homes; despite rising income levels among those 25 to 45, more people than ever opted to live in apartments. This shift was attributed mostly to lifestyle changes among younger people entering the housing market, who tended to prefer living in proximity to entertainment venues and shopping.
Furthermore, the rising costs of land, labor, and materials were among the primary challenges to single-family homebuilders at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Drywall and lumber prices, which tend to be somewhat unstable, were particularly inflated, while increases in land costs have been less pronounced, though some strong markets, especially in southern cities, have experienced significant escalation. Meanwhile, the shortage of skilled labor was viewed by some analysts as the most pressing concern facing the industry as it entered the twenty-first century.
The single-family housing construction industry is unique for an industry of its size because it is highly fragmented and dispersed. The typical home is built by a contractor who produces fewer than 25 houses each year, while about half of all industry employees work at firms with less than 20 workers. While some larger contractors maintain building operations in a number of sectors, about 75 percent of establishments engage only in single-family housing construction. These firms also account for 55 percent of industry employees.
Nonetheless, in alignment with most industries in the 1990s, single-family construction was rapidly consolidating. The top construction firms on Builder magazine's "Builder 100" list have continued to expand their market share throughout the decade, particularly toward the late 1990s. The top five single-family contractors have accelerated their market share the fastest, achieving 30 percent of the top 100's share in 1997, compared with 21 percent two years earlier. Altogether, the five largest contractors generated revenues of $14.9 billion in 1998, up from $11.3 billion in 1997.
The relative, though diminishing, lack of concentration in the industry reflects the labor intensity and logistical complexity characteristic of on-site homebuilding. Regional and state building codes, trade unions, demo-graphics, and environmental regulations combine to make the competitive structure of each local market unique. Many workers from various trades must be coordinated to complete a home. Moreover, many construction materials are less expensive when purchased regionally. Finally, the localized nature of housing markets prohibits many national economies of scale.
Since the 1980s, the South and West have proved the most fertile ground for new housing construction. The leading states for single-family construction in 1997 were California, with 13,000 establishments generating sales of $18.1 billion; and Florida, with 6,740 establishments engaging in work valued at $12.1 billion. Other leading states included Michigan, New York, and Texas.
Large contracting companies that do compete nationally are often relatively decentralized—consisting of generally autonomous regional operating companies. The various units of the corporation benefit from financial strength, as well as geographic and market diversification. The few contractors that compete overseas usually do so through foreign-owned subsidiaries. Although U.S. manufacturers sell and ship significant amounts of manufactured housing to countries such as Mexico, the homes themselves are usually assembled and finished by foreign contractors.
General contractors in the industry operate in a variety of ways. Some contractors actually purchase property and perform all construction work themselves. In other cases, a general contractor may be hired by a developer or landowner to provide construction services. General contractors commonly subcontract some or a majority of building activities to other firms. In any case, the general contractor is ultimately responsible for the finished product.
Products and Services. Two broad categories of homes are constructed or assembled on-site by the industry—attached and detached. Attached homes, commonly called town houses, can be owned by their occupants rather than rented. They are similar in construction to some apartment rental complexes, but town houses are separated from adjoining units by a ground-to-roof wall. In contrast to rental facilities, attached homes also have completely separate utilities and do not share infrastructure.
Detached homes are usually built on a lot that is owned by the same party that possesses the house. They typically have front, back, and side yards and are more expensive than attached homes. In 1998, 1.03 million detached homes were constructed, accounting for more than 90 percent of the single-family market. Approximately 8 percent of these homes were manufactured houses, which means that they were almost completely manufactured off-site, shipped to a lot, and assembled by a general contractor. Only the on-site assemblage of the home is classified as a single-family home construction activity.
Manufactured homes are typically smaller and less expensive than site-built homes. Because of federal manufacturing regulations, however, these units must conform to building codes that are stricter than those imposed by many local governments for site-built housing in a similar price range. Furthermore, quality control is often higher for manufactured homes, because they are built in a controlled, factory environment. Though they were conceived by the mobile home industry, manufactured homes in the 1990s bear little resemblance to earlier mobile homes—which were often temporary-sited and cheaply constructed.
Many builders of both detached and attached homes employ a systems approach to building, which represents a hybrid of site-built and manufactured housing. This type of housing is also referred to as component or prefabricated housing, because large components of the home are built in a factory and designed for quick and easy assembly on-site. The four types of systems-built housing include pre-cut homes, for which all lumber and materials are shipped to the site already cut; panelized homes, for which the main wall panels are shipped to the site—often with plumbing and wiring already installed; sectional homes, which are more than 90 percent complete when they leave the factory, and have cabinets and flooring already installed; and log homes, which are essentially factory-made kit homes. Furthermore, half of the new, larger manufactured homes currently built are placed on privately owned, scattered building sites, and into housing subdivisions.
In addition to new home construction, single-family home contractors also are engaged in maintenance-and repair and home improvement work. Maintenance and repair included painting, mudjacking, replacement of appliances, and similar work. Improvements consisted of additions and alterations to existing structures involving major interior and exterior changes. Replacement of major items, such as furnaces and water heaters, is also considered home improvement. Americans spent a record $121 billion on home improvements in 1998. As baby boomers reach middle age, Americans are staying in their homes longer than they did previously. The median number of years Americans remain in one home in 2003 is 13 versus 10 a decade ago. Nearly two-thirds of the dollars Americans spend on home improvements is targeted for optional upgrades, such as kitchens, bathrooms, and family rooms, rather than for repair work. In 1989 the split was approximately 50-50.
Financial Market Influence. The single-family home construction industry is extremely susceptible to changes in economic factors and financial markets. There is a significant and direct negative correlation, for example, between federally controlled interest rates and the volume of new homes under construction. When the interest rate attainable on mortgage loans is low, housing starts are relatively high because of increased affordability. For example, a $100,000, 15-year home loan requires a buyer to make monthly payments of $899 per month, when the interest rate is fixed at 7 percent. When the interest rate rises to 12 percent, however, that monthly payment jumps to $1,200. In such an environment, builders will have to offer incentives to increase sales. As a result, the housing industry, like mortgage rates, is highly cyclical.
In addition to interest rates, contractors are also affected by consumers' access to capital. For this reason, several government sponsored enterprises, as well as private companies, make up the secondary mortgage market. This market consists of investors who buy mortgages from primary lenders, such as banks and thrifts, so that the lenders can use that money to make new loans. By backing mortgage loans, as well as mortgage securities created from pools of loans, the government helps to insure a steady supply of capital to build, maintain, and improve housing.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when a large majority of Americans lived in rural areas, people who could afford to build a home often acted as the general contractors in the construction of their own home. They hired local builders and tradesmen with money that they had saved or borrowed from family members. Few regulations existed to insure structural soundness or safety of new homes, and little long-term financing existed for prospective homeowners. Indeed, by the time the Great Depression hit, less than half of all U.S. families owned a home.
In an effort to increase home ownership, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created in 1934. By insuring home mortgages, the FHA made it possible for banks to make relatively low interest loans to home buyers. By the early 1940s, Americans were building about 100,000 new homes each year. Outdated and often lacking basics, such as indoor plumbing and electricity, however, nearly half of the homes in the nation were considered substandard. Furthermore, most families still could not afford to buy a home, choosing instead to rent housing or live with family members. In 1942 the United States home ownership rate stood at approximately 46 percent.
The housing environment began a radical transformation in the mid-1940s for several reasons. Most important, much of the demand that had existed for new housing during World War II had gone unmet, as the country poured its resources into fighting a war. When soldiers returned home and started families, housing demand ballooned even further. The number of U.S. births leapt from less than 3 million in 1945 to about 3.75 million in 1947.
Coinciding with the jump in demand was the development of the Veterans Administration Home Loan Guaranty Program in 1944. Using a Veterans Administration (VA) loan, war veterans were able to obtain mortgage loans with little or no down payment. Besides insuring VA and FHA loans, the federal government also set a maximum interest rate that lenders could charge. Credit and tax policies, such as tax-deductible mortgage interest payments, were also used by the government to spur home ownership. Furthermore, the National Housing Act of 1949 set a national goal of providing "a decent home and suitable living environment for every U.S. family." As a result of government incentives and strong demand, both single and multi-family housing starts boomed—skyrocketing from 139,000 in 1944 to 1.9 million by 1950.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as the postwar economy flourished, families flocked to the housing market in a buying frenzy. Thousands of tract subdivisions were built on the perimeter of urban America—typically offering quality detached homes for less than $10,000 in the 1950s, with mortgage payments of less than $100 per month. Indeed, during the 1950s and 1960s an entire suburban culture emerged. Enormous street grids with identical homes in the early 1950s soon gave way to more elaborate and attractive neighborhood layouts that offered a variety of Cape Cod and ranch style home designs. Split-level homes and garages also became dominant features in many communities.
In addition to the rise in the number of U.S. homes in the 1950s and 1960s, housing quality improved. Besides new federal and state regulations that mandated structural integrity and uniform infrastructure, new construction techniques increased home quality and affordability. Component construction, for instance, let builders efficiently erect large numbers of units. Plywood replaced expensive boards, and drywall was introduced as an improvement to lath and plaster construction. Portable generators, power trowels, backhoes, and other heavy equipment allowed contractors to realize massive productivity gains. Although less than 2 percent of homes in 1960 had air-conditioning, almost all new homes sported indoor plumbing, central heat, electricity, and gas. Furthermore, most newer homes in the 1960s had more than one bathroom.
Despite cyclical downturns caused by interest rates and energy prices, the housing industry remained healthy throughout the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, although single-family housing starts dropped by 50 percent in 1966 to about 800,000, they peaked in 1972 at about 1.3 million. After falling to approximately 850,000 in 1975, housing starts rose to more than 1.4 million in 1977. Despite increasing land and construction costs, housing starts in general surged in the 1970s, as baby boomers matured and began buying homes. In the 1970s housing prices outran inflation by an average of 3 percent per year. By 1980 the U.S. home ownership rate had risen to more than 65 percent.
While the number of Americans owning their own home had steadily risen during the 1970s, housing quality and construction productivity also advanced. Fiberglass and plastic products—used for everything from bathroom fixtures and plumbing to siding—helped to allay the impact of rising material and energy costs. Furthermore, by 1979 the share of new homes that offered central air-conditioning had risen to more than 60 percent. Most important, rising energy costs had caused builders to increase the efficiency of their products with better windows and doors, insulation, and heating and cooling equipment.
The 1980s and 1990s. Although contractors began construction on nearly 1.2 million new homes in 1979, the industry was devastated in the early 1980s by soaring interest rates. As mortgage rates skyrocketed past 16 percent, housing starts collapsed to 705,000 in 1981 and then to only 663,000 during 1982. Many builders filed for bankruptcy in the severely depressed market. Contractors who survived the shakeout, however, were greeted by falling interest rates in 1983 that continued through 1987. Single-family housing starts lurched 62 percent in 1983, to about 1.1 million. Throughout the mid-1980s, in fact, new home construction inched upward to nearly 1.2 million starts by 1986.
Despite apparently healthy construction activity in the 1980s, single-family home contractors were failing to achieve growth rates attained in the three previous decades. Several factors indicated that the industry was declining. Of immense importance, the affordability of housing for younger buyers began slipping—after peaking in 1980. Although the total home ownership rate only declined from 65.6 percent in 1980 to 63.9 percent in 1990, the rate for the population in the 30 to 34 age bracket plummeted from 61.1 percent to 51.8 percent. Furthermore, the ownership rate for 35-to 39-year-olds fell from 70.9 percent to 69.8 percent during the 1980s. The ownership rate for the 25-to 29-year-old age bracket recessed even more.
To make matters worse, housing starts began slowly declining in 1987, as interest rates edged upward, and the U.S. economy began to fall into a recession. Despite the government's lowering of mortgage rates in 1990, housing starts quickly plummeted to 895,000 in 1990 and to only 840,000 in 1991. In addition, contractors were also battling rising expenses associated with burdensome regulations and material costs. Although the generally distressed industry forced many builders across the nation into bankruptcy, contractors in some regions of the country fared much worse than others.
After a five-year decline in housing starts—one of the longest in U.S. history—the single-family home construction industry experienced a relatively weak recovery in 1992. The early 1990s housing slump differed from past slowdowns, since the recession in the early 1990s hit upper-and middle-income white-collar wage earners—the bulk of the housing market—the hardest. Earlier recessions had a greater impact on blue-collar workers (who are more likely to rent). In addition to job losses, construction loans for builders remained suppressed throughout the early 1990s. Total construction lending by commercial banks, for instance, declined more than 40 percent between 1989 and 1992. Small construction companies that supply the large majority of U.S. homes were especially crunched by tight credit.
Contractors were especially disappointed by weak growth in 1991 and 1992 in the area of remodeling and repair expenditures, which are traditionally relatively impervious to cyclical downturns. Although new home construction generally drives the industry, remodeling and repair contracts had grown during the 1980s to account for more than 45 percent of the value of all single-family home construction.
One impetus for the rapid consolidation of the single-family home-contracting industry was the parallel consolidation that has characterized lumber and building material (LBM) dealers. Builders recognized that by pooling resources they were more easily able to demand better pricing deals, thus maintaining leverage over suppliers. LBM dealers followed suit using the same logic, thus producing a self-replicating trend. While small, localized contractors tend to enjoy relative stability in their immediate markets, mid-sized contractors found it increasingly difficult to establish economies of scale. Thus the mid-and late 1990s witnessed these firms' increasing absorption into their larger competitors, who were more capable of hedging against increases in material and labor costs, the prime factors holding the single-family home construction market in check in the late 1990s. Analysts agree that the wave of consolidation is not likely to break in the near future. Smaller and niche custom builders can remain healthy, however, only when the economy continues to grow.
The industry's previous stabs at consolidation were less than spectacular, with firms quickly realizing diminishing returns after 10,000 homes built. Leading firms in the late 1990s combated this tendency by decentralizing managerial structures to allow for greater autonomy at the local levels within the organization.
The market for professional remodeling continued its strong showing for the 1990s, worth $40 billion in 1998 and expected to reach $45 billion by 2003. A good portion of this success was owed to demographic trends. Whereas the home building market of the early 1990s was driven by the tendency for consumers to "downsize" to smaller homes, particularly as baby boomers' "empty nests" led them to abandon their larger homes, the strong economy of the late 1990s produced many more customers for building additions and remodeling.
Factory-built homes also registered strong growth. These buildings, alternately called systems-built or modular homes, incorporate building methods that are virtually identical to those of standard detached homes, but that occur in a factory, thus avoiding weather-related delays. Modular homes are shipped to the site in fewer than 10 pieces before construction is finished on-site. Modular homes often weigh as much as 30 percent more than conventional homes. Most modular homes can be completed in 30 to 60 days; however, they are still a small market sector, totaling only 8 percent of all homes built in 1997.
In 1998 the average interest rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages fell to 6.94 percent, down from 8.36 percent in 1994 to reach the lowest level since the early 1960s. Mortgage originations reached a record $1.5 trillion. As a result, more households could claim the income necessary to purchase their own home. The housing market has thus responded in kind. Meanwhile, houses themselves continued to grow. The average new home in 1999 covered 2,190 square feet, compared to 1,645 square feet in 1975 and 2,095 in 1995. An estimated 31 million homes exceeded 2,400 square feet or larger by 1998. The average size of a single-family home lot was 13,795 square feet. The median home price in 2000 was $135,000.
Finally, the growing numbers of new homes also included a greater range of features. In 1997 about 82 percent of new homes had central air-conditioning, and 78 percent had at least a two-car garage; 50 percent of the homes had at least 2.5 bathrooms, and about 69 percent had fewer than four bedrooms; about 80 percent of all new homes were built in metropolitan areas. Thirteen percent lacked garages or car ports, but 61 percent were equipped with a fireplace, 37 percent with a basement, and half had two or more floors. Nearly two-thirds were fueled by gas, 32.2 percent by electricity, and only 2.7 percent by oil.
Regional Differences. Despite strong overall business in the single-family housing industry, some regions experienced stronger growth rates in housing starts in the late 1990s. In 1999 sales increased in all regions except the Northeast. Midwest housing sales increased by 5 percent, while those in the South and West experienced a 2 percent growth. Total housing starts in 1997 were broken down by region as follows: the South started 630,000 new home projects, the West 335,000, the Midwest 292,000, and the Northeast 127,000. The generally more built northeastern market faced higher taxes relating to land development and building. Seventy-five percent of households in the rural United States are homeowners.
Rising Costs. Escalating construction costs, attributable to a variety of factors, were a primary cause of declining home ownership among younger Americans in the midand late 1990s. One reason that costs were rising was a jump in the price of land, materials, and labor necessary to build homes. The cost of materials for single-family home contractors totaled $42 billion in 1997. In addition, more restrictive land regulations increased land costs, largely a result of emerging antigrowth initiatives to combat urban sprawl and environmental degradation that have reached U.S. legislatures. In general, land prices have increased less dramatically than those for building materials, though stronger markets have achieved double-digit growth. Meanwhile, indeed, costs associated with new impact fees, building codes, environmental rules, safety laws, and other regulations were increasingly squeezing contractors, especially mid-sized firms.
Builders also suffered from bloated costs associated with the tight labor market and the scramble to find a shrinking number of skilled laborers, including managerial workers. In addition to wages, the cost of complying with federal worker safety regulations in the late 1990s often exceeded $1,000 for a 2,200-square-foot home.
After the deregulation of the thrifts, the traditional source of financing for home builders, culminated in the Savings & Loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, home builders were forced to seek alternative financial sources. In recent years, they have tended to settle on the stock and bond mortgages, where the lucrative business in the 1990s is expected to cool but remain stable in the early 2000s. This development has been particularly beneficial to large firms with greater capital pools and the geographic reach to concentrate business in regions with strong local economies.
While an aging population was expected to prove a boon to housing construction well into the 2000s, fewer younger people were entering the single-family housing market. Moreover, younger professionals were increasingly opting to live in apartment complexes. The home-ownership rate among those aged 25 to 34 was expected to remain fixed at about 45.6 percent until 2010. For those between the ages of 35 to 44, the rate was likely to increase only marginally, from 66.1 percent in 2000 to 67.9 percent in 2010. The expected rate improves among older demographics. Meanwhile, minority groups watched their homeownership rate increase; about 45 percent of all African-American households were homeowners in 1998, up from 43 percent in 1994, while Hispanics' homeownership rate increased from 42 percent to 45 percent in that period.
With fewer households forming, it would seem likely that housing starts would, in turn, be affected negatively. While the new household projections from the Census Bureau seem to justify a lower level of housing starts, the housing market is more complicated than a simple one-to-one relationship with household formations. For example, regional shifts in the population require that homes be constructed where the population is moving. In the 1990s there was a dramatic population shift toward the South and West, a trend expected to accelerate well into the 2000s. This movement will justify a larger number of starts in these areas than the national household statistics might suggest.
New housing construction remained a bright spot in the economy during the early 2000s. While industrial and commercial activity declined, housing construction continued to grow. Extremely low mortgage rates, combined with the safety of real estate investments, provided fertile ground for the industry during a period of time marked by economic recession and instability caused by political volatility in the Middle East.
Housing starts increased from 1.2 million in 2000 to an estimated 1.6 million in 2003. Growth in the industry is expected to level off after 2003. Even under improving economic conditions, a modest reduction can be expected because demand has been eased by the high number of new starts, and mortgage rates are expected to inch back up. Nonetheless, forgoing any unforeseen economic events, such as a large increase in interest rates or a sudden jump in unemployment, housing construction should remain a healthy industry in the near future.
A very fragmented industry, the single-family housing construction industry is showing signs of consolidation, as large building contractors target smaller operations. Although Professional Builder rejected as outlandish Andersen Corporate Finance analyst Paul F. DeCain's prediction that by 2011 the top 20 builders would control 75 percent of the housing market, the publication did predict that the industry would continue growing through acquisitions and mergers, noting: "For most of the past decade, the public Masters of the Universe—especially the big five at the top, all with more than 25,000 completions a year—have grown by acquiring smaller local or regional production builders that offered strong share positions in new markets, often hot markets with impressive annual housing starts."
Despite continuing consolidation, the contracting market continues to remain highly diversified. Most residential building companies are considered small by Wall Street standards. Of the top 20 companies, 17 are publicly traded. Centex, Pulte, and Lennar, each of which generate more than $7 billion in revenues and 30,000 closings annually stand above the crowd at the top three positions in market share.
The largest builder of single-family detached homes in the United States in 2002 was Centex Corporation, which reported revenues of $9.1 billion in 2002, though not all of this derived from the single-family homebuilding sector. Established in 1950, Centex employs 16,200 workers and also engages in financial services related to construction.
The second largest homebuilder was Pulte Homes, headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. Although the company also builds duplexes, townhouses, and condominiums, single-family homes account for 85 percent of revenues. In 2002 Pulte reported revenues of $7.5 billion and employed 9,200 employees.
Lennar Corporation, with $7.3 billion in sales and 9,400 workers, ranks just behind Pulte Homes. Other leading single-family home contractors in 2002 included D. R. Horton, with revenues of $6.7 billion; KB Home (formerly Kaufman & Broad Home Corporation), with revenues of $4.9 billion; and Ryland Group, with sales of $2.9 billion.
About 768,000 workers were involved in general contracting for single-family construction in 2001, including 246,800 carpenters, who earned an average of $16.75 an hour. Construction laborers totaled over 84,000 and earned a mean hourly wage of $12.50. General operations managers, numbering 21,750, earned a mean annual salary of $74,160.
Housing contractors have been quick to incorporate the latest technology into their operations. In the late 1990s, the use of computer-aided design (CAD) and "virtual models" to optimize design and construction greatly streamlined the building process.
Steel producers were aggressively positioning themselves to establish inroads in the construction market. While only 50,000 steel-framed homes were built in 1997, the steel industry is aiming for a 25 percent market share by 2003. Steel costs are generally higher than those for wood (about $3,000 more for a 2,000 square-foot home). However, while wood prices were rising quickly in the late 1990s and generally tend to fluctuate, steel prices remain fairly stable.
Industry advances in productivity and technology since World War II created vast improvements in the quality, integrity, and comfort of housing. The percentage of new homes with more than 2,400 square feet, for example, increased from 11 percent in 1977 to 31 percent by 1997. During the same period, the percentage of new houses with a garage for two or more cars jumped from 60 percent to 78 percent. Likewise, 50 percent of all new homes had two-and-a-half or more bathrooms in 1995, compared to 23 percent in 1977, while central airconditioning was featured in 82 percent of new homes, up from 54 percent in 1977.
Builders have also been able to improve housing through the use of cheaper and stronger materials, such as plastics and alloys. Bathtubs and sinks made of cultured marble generated huge savings for buyers. Integrated energy and communications systems have allowed significant gains in energy efficiency. Between 1980 and 1987, new systems and insulation helped to decrease average household energy consumption from about 140 million BTUs to less than 120. Other amenities, such as electric garage openers and security systems, have added to home quality as well.
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