December 21, 2007

Other News: Blog article about Inspiration, Bayport

The excerpted article below was reprinted from the Housing Bubble Blog:

This Collapse Was Based On Psychology DECEMBER 2, 2007

... The Pioneer Press from Minnesota. “Homer Tompkins’ development company, Contractor Property Developers Co., has entered into a voluntary mortgage foreclosure agreement with MI Bank in Minneapolis related to 50 developed single-family lots and 129 undeveloped lots at a high-end development called Inspiration, Tompkins said.”

“The company owes the bank more than $9 million on the original loan of $14.65 million, according to documents filed this month with the Washington County recorder’s office. The lots are headed for a sheriff’s foreclosure auction in Stillwater next month, Tompkins said.”

“City officials say 28 custom homes, 15 of which are occupied, have been built at the upscale 242-acre project that opened just as the housing market began its downward slide. Home prices ranged from the upper $300,000s to $800,000.”

“Tompkins blamed the slow sales on bad timing. ‘We’re in the greatest housing slump since the Great Depression,’ he said. ‘Consumers don’t have confidence in buying houses in today’s market. There are hundreds of these (voluntary foreclosure) agreements in process. I’m just one of them.’”

“Every time Mark Gergen heard it, he wanted to scream. This time, it came from a couple who looked like perfect customers, ready to buy a new $725,000 home. They had the money. They loved the house. It was all so simple, but then…’Is it the right time? We are just now, nervously, getting off the fence,’ the woman said. ‘It’s the news. It’s all so unstable.’”

“They left. Gergen sighed. He felt powerless against the onslaught of headlines and bad news that frightened customers away. ‘It’s that consumer confidence thing,’ he said, standing in an empty kitchen.”

“As a hotshot real estate salesman, he was called in to help revive a planned $1.2 billion development, the Spirit of Brandtjen Farms in Lakeville.”

“The 15-year project, which broke ground in 2004, was supposed to build 2,100 homes. But developers watched in horror last year as the entire operation ground to a halt, with only a handful of homes purchased.”

“In 2004, no one worried about consumer confidence. The market was booming, and home sellers laughed in disbelief as buyers rushed to bid against each other, pushing prices ever higher.”

“Then the market collapsed. It had nothing to do with the usual villains - high interest rates, lost jobs or falling wages. This collapse was based on psychology.”

“Tradition called on Gergen to help sell homes. When he saw the Spirit site, the project’s biggest flaw jumped out at him. It was the homes themselves. In the go-go years, three high-end custom builders had erected model homes as a gateway to the project. They were unique farm-inspired mansions. They cost up to $925,000.”

“They were impressive. But for homebuyers, there might as well have been a flashing sign reading ‘for millionaires only.’”

“It almost was impossible to show buyers a $900,000 home, then sell them a $500,000 home they could afford, said project manager Rob Wachholz. ‘There is a limited opportunity to sell $450,000-to-$500,000 homes. And when you get to $800,000 to $900,000, you are in some pretty rarified air,’ Wachholz said.”

“Gergen toured the models with potential customers. Afterward, he asked which one they’d choose, if money were no object. The favorite - none of the above. Instead, they picked a town house.”

“‘I said: ‘You’re kidding. You just went through 10 houses for $700,000 to $950,000, and you picked this? Why?’ said Gergen. The answers: Higher ceilings and more ‘wow’ appeal. ‘That told me a lot,’ Gergen said.”

“Once Tradition realized its mistake, the backpedaling was furious. The entire company refocused on one goal: Building less expensive houses that would still fit the luxury theme of the project. It wouldn’t be easy. The lots alone cost $139,000 to $257,000.”

“‘Who wants to buy a $400,000 small house?’ asked Don Nelson, of American Classic Homes, one of the Spirit homebuilders.”

“‘I just can’t build a $500,000 home,’ sighed Cudd saleswoman Kim Holmberg at another meeting. ‘Now, $2 million homes’ - she looked dreamily into the distance - ‘I can build those all-l-l-l-l day.’”

“The houses tweaked, the prices reduced, Tradition turned to the sales force itself. After sitting alone in model homes for months, who could blame them for being depressed? Yet the veterans knew no one would buy a house from a sulking salesperson.”

“At one meeting at Spirit’s clubhouse-barn, Charles Cudd salesman Tom Griffith addressed the group: ‘We have to be incredibly positive, regardless of how negative things are.’ In case anyone missed his point, he added: ‘Positive, positive, positive!’”

“As the Parade of Homes continued, Gergen and Gergen associate Julie VanDerostyne proved adept at getting names and phone numbers from potential customers. VanDerostyne asked one woman for her e-mail address. ‘Um, I dunno,’ said the woman.”

“‘We have social events,’ VanDerostyne said. ‘Um, I dunno.’”

“‘With free wine.’ Pause. ‘OK,’ the woman said.”