While some of the builders' ideas could be only an inventor away from reality, others came straight out of Fantasyland. Still, wouldn't it be nice if ...
David Capretto, president of Forbes-Capretto Homes in Getzville, N.Y., hopes someone will invent a big press to squash liability insurance costs. "One thing that has a tremendous impact on us is liability insurance," he says. "On the hundred units we closed in 2003, the insurance was almost $400,000. Then when you look at the cost of every one of our subcontractors' insurance, there must be close to $9,000 in insurance cost on our average house. It's insane!
"We used to build houses in the $150,000 range, but we can't do it anymore," Capretto adds. "Our houses start at $170,000 now. Between the extra carrying costs you get on your land projects, the extra engineering and the extra time the towns are putting you through now, and then you take all this crazy insurance stuff and put that on top of it, it hurts."
Where's Walt Disney when you need him?
Steve Wall of Choice Homes cites the need for an invention that would address a social issue affecting the industry. "For every builder, it's become very difficult to provide that affordable entry-level home," he says. "There are a lot of different aspects to that. Costs have gone up, the price of land has gone up, and you've got municipalities driving up development costs. The small house on the small lot has become a real negative with most cities, and it's become very difficult to provide that affordable home."
Maybe that situation would improve if Roland Gammon, president of White Oak Properties in Raleigh, N.C., could patent his dream invention, an energy booster for fighting municipalities. "I've been doing this for about 25 years," Gammon says, "and I think we're all born with only so much of the energy it takes to fight these mobs at public hearings. Sometimes they become so irrational for no real reason other than the sheer political blood sport of it."
Gammon, whose company builds about 100 high-end row houses and condominiums annually, also is waiting for someone to invent a device that would change multifamily housing's image in his region.
"There's this great divide among people who come and speak at zoning hearings and that sort of thing," he says. "They go to Boston one weekend and have a great time, then come home and appear and speak vocally and loudly against any kind of urbanization process. Density is an actual dirty word."
Roland Gammon isn't alone in wishing for an invention to combat government interference. David Capretto wants to invent "some magical thing to cut through the BS on the approval process on our subdivisions."
A building code decoder would help, Capretto says. "The permit process, with the new codes that came into play, is outrageous. We had numerous starts that we couldn't get into the ground last year because the towns didn't know how to interpret the codes properly. They didn't know what they were looking for."
He tells of a municipality that told Forbes-Capretto Homes it had to build "story-and-a-half homes" in one subdivision after the builder already had invested in the street, water, sewer and other infrastructure. When asked to define a story-and-a-half home, the town didn't know how, so the two parties ended up in court. Capretto says such problems probably blocked construction of 20 homes by his company last year, although it still had a stellar year and expects another one in 2004. As this year began, Forbes-Capretto had 80% as many units on the production schedule as it closed all of last year.
Steve Wall says Choice Homes could use an invention to speed land development. "If there were some magical answer to shortening the development process, where you could wave a wand over a piece of dirt and turn that into delivered lots, that would probably be the best invention we could have for this company," he says.
One of Wall's ideas is "some sort of calendar where you could push a button on the date and that's when the lot would be available." He goes on to describe refinements the inventor might add: "You'd want to be able to dial in the correct number of lots. Weather controls would help, too."
Wall says his magic land wand could be especially important during the months ahead.
"The biggest obstacle we'll face going forward is competition for land positions," he says. "There are more players in the business. That part of it has become very competitive, and the large builders have a greater effect on that than anyone."
The attitude limiting affordable housing carries over into the entitlement process, Roland Gammon says. "Municipalities are expanding their planning process. They're adding planners. They do more long-range planning and that sort of thing. That being said, I've lost more zoning cases than I've won when I've asked for a rezoning that conformed to the long-range plans." He thinks the planning process needs a rationality serum that would inoculate it against politics. "When the political rubber meets the road, planning sort of goes out the window and politics takes over. I would like a little more rationality. Predictability and rationality."