The pace of home building continues to slide downhill in San Antonio, but at least it's not plunging off the cliff like much of the rest of the country.
Home builders started 36 percent fewer homes in the last 12 months in San Antonio, as local builders continue to pull back in response to the national economy and turmoil in the mortgage markets.
As of the end of March, builders started 11,445 homes, 6,500 fewer homes than at the end of March the previous year, according to the housing research firm Metrostudy.
The silver lining: San Antonio builders sold 14,527 homes in the last four quarters, chipping away at the inventory of new homes sitting and waiting for buyers.
For a year and a half now, builders have sold more homes than they've started. And in the last year, the inventory of new homes on the market has fallen by more than 3,000.
San Antonio has a lower inventory of new homes for sale — a 2.4-month supply — than any city in the 23 states Metrostudy surveys.
“I'm a believer that we're better off here,” said Jack Inselmann, vice president of the U.S. Central Division of Metrostudy. “We've got better job growth than anybody. We've got a better housing market than anybody.”
Much of the decline is in the market for new homes priced under $175,000.
That's the segment hit hardest by the mortgage crisis because it includes first-time buyers who may not have saved much of a down payment. Until recently they didn't need one. But now mortgage lenders generally require money down and healthy credit scores.
Fred Elsner, first vice president of the Greater San Antonio Builders Association and owner of Bridle Bit Custom Homes, said many builders have been relieved to see that the spring bounce, a usual part of the real estate calendar, is back.
“I know our company is doing a whole lot better,” Elsner said. “We've gotten rid of a whole lot of spec houses that were sitting for a while.”
Home builder David Anderson of David Anderson Homes, too, said that he had a lousy first quarter, but a great April as buyers started returning to the market in larger numbers.
“It was exactly what I needed,” he said.
Sonterra Mortgage broker Jack Shull said that some potential home buyers have stayed on the sidelines while they watch and see what happens with the national economy. Others have decided that Texas is weathering the economic storm better than just about any other state.
“I've seen a pick-up,” Shull said. “I'm getting more calls. My gut feeling is that we'll be fine by the summer of '09. I think California and Florida will take until 2012 or so.”
For now, San Antonio is one of the 10 most active real estate markets in the country, Inselmann said. So although times haven't been great for local builders, it could be much worse.
“We're thinking it's going to be a two-year correction, and we're 18 months into the correction,” Inselmann said.
By the end of the year, Inselmann thinks the San Antonio market will have hit its bottom — a housing-starts pace of between 10,000 and 11,000 homes a year. That's about half of the all-time building high that San Antonio builders hit in late 2006.
“There's a lot of good things about the progress we're making to get our industry healthy,” Inselmann said. “We think we're going to hit bottom this year. We've got to get to the end of the year.”
After that, he expects the market to start working its way to higher ground again.