With Housing Starts Down, Builders Hope for Active Summer

By Beacon Staff

With first quarter housing starts down nearly 50 percent statewide, industry professionals at the Flathead Building Association’s 20th annual Building Showcase appeared eager for the onset of construction season, which for all practical purposes begins now.

In years past, the Building Showcase has signaled the start of Northwest Montana’s building season and contractors are hoping for that trend to continue this year as well. The showcase, a large home and garden trade show, was held at the Flathead County Fairgrounds on April 17-19, drawing an expected total of 3,000 people.

Industry professionals – from general contractors to window specialists to mortgage bankers – set up booths at the show and were on hand to answer questions and explain their services and products.

Though each of the three days drew steady streams of people to the fairgrounds, vendors said numbers were down from past years. They offered multiple possible explanations: there was another similar show held by LHC only weeks earlier at the same location; potential customers are wary of starting building projects now because of the sluggish economy; and, well, it was the first nice spring weekend in the Flathead and people wanted to be outside.

Several days prior to the showcase, the Montana Building Industry Association released figures showing that first-quarter housing starts were down 48 percent statewide from last year. It was the seventh straight quarter that numbers had declined. In Flathead County, starts diminished by 50 percent, a substantial figure but a far cry from Silver Bow County’s 66.7 percent drop.

But Lee Selders, the owner of Lee Selders Construction, believes if you look hard enough you can find enough building jobs to stay busy. He said he has two new houses lined up, as well as a number of remodel projects. He’ll be as busy as he was last year.

“I’m looking at a good summer,” Selders said.

While not all contractors are getting new residential jobs like Selders, many are hoping to stay active with either commercial building or remodel projects. Builders say people might use these uncertain economic times to work on smaller touchup projects – re-doing the master bathroom, giving their home an addition and other jobs of that nature. It’s an opportunity to increase the value of their houses.

William Henson, of IMS Construction, hopes more projects start sprouting up close to home. To stay busy, he said his company has been accepting jobs across the state as far away as Sidney.

“You still have to compete – you do what you’ve got to do,” Henson said. “You travel if you have to. It’s better than going hungry.”

The statistics about first quarter housing starts didn’t come as a surprise to building professionals. In a press release, the MBIA said the “national economy continues to suffer and consumer confidence hovers near a record low.” But Dustin Stewart, the MBIA’s executive director, points to the Welcome Home Program as a sign of optimism.

Through the Welcome Home Program, part of the state Legislature’s stimulus bill, the Montana Board of Housing has authority to partner with private lending institutions to offer short-term bridge loans of $5,000 to qualified first-time homebuyers. The loans are repaid when the homebuyer receives their $8,000 federal tax credit.

“If a buyer can manage it, now is a great time to buy,” said Shelby Nash-Hunter, the FBA’s president. “Land prices are down, material costs are down and labor is available.”

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