M/I Homes optimistic about Chicago housing market

By Mary Ellen Podmolik
Posted Feb. 9 at 5:50 p.m.

As earnings reports from homebuilders have dribbled out over the past few weeks, only one company gave a very specific and very positive shout-out to the Chicago market.

That company was M/I Homes Inc., the Columbus, Ohio-based builder that broke ground on its first suburban Chicago home less than three years ago and just finalized the purchase of its seventh local project, one designed to bring 146 town homes to Naperville.

Nationally, the inventory of new homes for sale dropped to 191,000 in December, the lowest number since 1968, according to the National Association of Home Builders. It dropped locally too, but at year’s end, there remained more than a year of available new homes on the market.

No one is predicting a sudden burst of homebuilding activity this year. Nationally, the home builders trade group predicts housing starts will rise 21 percent this year, to 575,000 homes. One forecast for the Chicago market, from housing research organization Metrostudy, isn’t so optimistic, predicting that starts may only increase slightly from the 2,340 homes started in 2010.

“We can’t seem to get any traction,” said Chris Huecksteadt, director of Metrostudy’s Chicago region.

Last year, the top seven builders in the local market by sales, all publicly held, closed 1,414 homes sales in the Chicago area. M/I was No. 7 on that list, with less than 100 closings.

Nevertheless, Ron Martin, M/I’s area president, is voicing more than the traditional “cautious optimism” embraced by builders as they enter the spring sales season, one that traditionally starts soon after the Super Bowl. How optimistic is he?

Martin believes the company will build 40 town homes this year at Mayfair, a community that Kimball Hill Inc. had barely started before its bankruptcy and eventual liquidation. M/I also will start selling homes in Easton Park in Carol Stream and is planning to open two to three other communities later this year.

“Things are going very well here,” Martin said. “We’re extremely blessed. A year ago we weren’t really on the map.”

M/I’s modus operandi is one that’s been embraced by most of the large, publicly held builders as well as smaller, well-capitalized builders. It acquires other builders’ failed projects that were handed back or taken back by lenders, redesigns the product to make it more affordable, and nets an acceptable profit because it doesn’t have the higher land costs to recoup. In the past year, M/I has entered Winfield, Carol Stream, Hanover Park, Streamwood, Aurora and St. Charles.

Corporatewide, M/I’s sales pace began to decline in May and remained depressed for the rest of 2010, but “there was a very positive doubling of our sales in Chicago,” where gross margins were among the highest across the company, CEO Robert Schottenstein told analysts on a conference call last week.

“Ron (Martin) has found a niche that works in this market and that niche is well located, suburban infill next to train stations, good school districts and close to shopping,” said Lance Ramella, principal at RW Real Estate Advisors. “He’s not in the hinterlands. He’s where people want to live. He’s been very aggressive in pursuing those deals.”

It’s a shift in strategy for M/I, which initially entered the market talking about building 145 detached single-family homes at Meadows Edge at Highland Woods in Elgin. It built and closed 20 homes there. William Ryan Homes now is building there.

Martin said the company has no interest in outer-ring suburbs or, for the time being, in single-family detached homes. As part of its Whitmore Place acquisition in St. Charles, M/I took possession of 30 lots for single-family detached homes but Martin is aware of the competition that foreclosures pose.

How much longer will the local land grab continue? It’s uncertain. Many of the prime sites have been snapped up and builders would prefer letting the banks own the parcels until demand increases.

“We continue to look at new land deals, but at least for now, the distressed deals in better locations have gotten picked over,” Pulte CEO Richard Dugas said in an earnings conference call with analysts. “Relative to just a few quarters ago, we are seeing deals where the terms are tougher, the returns are thinner or the quality of the underlying assets may be challenged.”

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