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These Markets Are Millennial Meccas

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

By Brian Croce, Builder

As the housing industry found its footing coming out of the recession, a lot was made of Millennials’ home buying habits – or lack thereof. Housing experts pointed to massive student loan debt, a preference to get married and start a family later than previous generations, and the desire to live in urban cores with the flexibility to move often as reasons why the nation’s largest demographic group wasn’t buying homes en masse.

While those reasons still ring true – for example, national student loan debt eclipsed $1.5 trillion in the first quarter of 2018 – as Millennials have solidified their place in the workforce, they have been buying homes as well.

In fact, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), Americans 36 and younger represented the largest share of homebuyers (34%) in 2016. It was the fourth straight year in which Millennials paced the homebuying landscape.

The 2017 NAR data, regarding 2016 numbers, also showed an increased share of buyers 36 and younger who purchased in suburban locations and who purchased detached, single-family homes. In addition, 49% of those buyers have children under the age of 18, 66% are married, and 13% are unmarried couples (the largest share of all generations).

Moreover, 66% were first-time buyers. Certain markets are prohibitively expensive for first-time buyers, so where are these young Americans buying homes? Using Metro-study data, Builder identified the nation’s top markets with the largest share of the coveted Millennial buyer. For data purposes, we looked at 18- to 34-year-old buyers, even though it stretches beyond the official Millennial generation; the Pew Research Center identifies anyone born from 1981 to 1996 (ages 22 to 37 in 2018) a Millennial.

Out of the country’s largest 50 new-home housing markets, the top areas for this age group are dominated by Texas markets, but the top two markets for Millennials are in Utah: Provo-Orem (57.3%) and Salt Lake City (50%). Five of the next six markets are found in Texas.

What makes these markets attractive to Millennial buyers? It starts, as with most things in life, with money. In addition to growing job pools, the markets where Millennials are buying the greatest share of homes offer reasonably-priced starter homes that they can afford.

Starter Prices

Utah-based Edge Homes, the biggest builder in both Provo-Orem (489 closings; 12.3% market share) and Salt Lake City (591 closings; 15.5% market share) sells homes from just over $200,000 to north of $600,000. Drew Detrick, vice president of Sales, estimates that 30% to 35% of its buyers last year were Millennials.

He was not surprised to hear that both Provo and Salt Lake topped the Millennial home-buying list because of certain market fundamentals that have become apparent in recent years.

“These individuals are being forced out of their rentals due to skyrocketing rental rates and demand, and owning a home continues to be a comparable and viable option,” Detrick says. “We also have tremendous job growth in our market, so Millennials are finding great jobs quickly and are in a position to purchase a home while still in their 20s.”

In Nashville – the No. 12 top market for Millennials with 37.8% of 18- to 34-year-old homebuyers – Ole South Properties (the market’s top builder with 811 closings; 9.2% market share) strives to build homes that young adults can afford. Roughly 40% of its business comes from Millennials, 60% of which are first-time buyers, says Trey Lewis, Ole South’s vice president of Sales.

Nashville has experienced year-over-year population growth north of 2% since 2011, says Michael Leidel, associate director of Metrostudy’s Middle Tennessee division, which has led to a surge in housing demand in a market “that has one of the lowest levels of developed lot supply in the country.

“This demand is pushing home prices, as well as rents, higher and higher,” Leidel adds. “To combat the rising home prices, builders are focusing attention on more high--density projects, especially in the downtown core.”

Ole South builds a townhome product that starts in the $170s. As land costs and home prices have increased, Lewis says, townhomes have become more popular in Nashville. And although the housing crash didn’t hit Nashville as hard as some other markets, Lewis adds, there were still builders who were left holding the bag during the depths of the recession, which allowed Ole South to acquire some prime locations.

“We were able to take advantage of some other builder’s mistakes and buy some banked-owned properties, and that put us in the position to offer more workforce housing in the area,” he says.

But now it’s much harder to find choice land and still deliver an affordable product.

“It is increasingly challenging to offer homes within the financial grasp of the first-time buyer,” Lewis says. “But we have to figure out a way to do that because, if the first-time buyer gets left behind, then we will have another housing issue.”

Fee Issues

Higher-density projects, such as Ole South’s townhome series, are more of what the market needs, according to Lewis. “Higher densities are a very valid part of the equation municipalities are going to have to address if we’re going to house our nation’s workforce,” he adds, citing high permitting and zoning fees that are passed on to buyers in many jurisdictions.

Pat Woods, senior vice president of View Homes, which operates Desert View Homes in El Paso, Texas, wishes it were easier to build more high-density projects because that is what buyers, especially Millennials, want.

In 2015, Desert View opened a 60-home community from its Courtyard Series in El Paso, the third-ranked Local Leaders market for 18- to 34-year-old buyers (48.3%). The community, called The Boulders, features seven homes per acre and shared courtyards for homeowners. Home prices ranged from $160,000 to $190,000 and quickly sold out, Woods says, mostly to young professionals who wanted to own but didn’t want to maintain a large home and property in a more rural area.

Desert View hasn’t built a similar project in El Paso since The Boulders, although it would like to. “Finding land is difficult to begin with, and when you do find land it’s so expensive that you need cities to let you use existing parks without parks fees to help offset the cost of land, and allow you to use existing drainage facilities so you don’t have to use up any of your acreage,” Woods says. “But that doesn’t come easy. In the right location we would build a couple more projects like that in a heartbeat.”

The ‘New Affordable’

In the major Texas markets, such as Dallas-Fort Worth (the eighth-ranked Local Leaders market for 18- to 34-year-old buyers with 39.7%), builders are finding lots on which to build, but with rising costs many have amended their strategies. After the downturn, Paige Shipp, Metrostudy’s regional director based in Plano, Texas, says that builders in the area primarily focused on higher-end products in communities, but after a few years prices rose due to undersupply and strong demand, as well as increases in land, materials, and tight labor. Then, she says, affordability became a concern.

According to Shipp, Dallas-Fort Worth is now seeing an influx in lots and homes priced $200,000 to $300,000, which she calls the market’s “new affordable” offerings. In 2006, she adds, 65% of new homes in the area were priced below $200,000. Today it’s 5%.

“To achieve lower prices, builders are looking at unconventional submarkets that are outside of where homebuilding has been concentrated,” Shipp explains. “These areas are geographically closer to jobs and services, but the schools may not be ‘A+.’” Areas in Texas such as Royce City, Kaufman County, Midlothian, and Waxahachie fit this description.

Public builders, which dominate the Local Leaders lists in the nation’s top new-home markets, are keen on what young adults want – and can afford – in a new home. The top U.S. builder by closings, D.R. Horton, has had success with its Express line, which is targeted toward first-time buyers. In an interview with Builder last year, Horton executives said with an average selling price of $215,000, its Express line is available in 53 of its 78 operating markets. The line accounted for 28% of unit sales and 20% of home sales revenue in 2016.

“To the extent that we have and can continue to improve on our operational excellence, it’s to that degree that we can increase the value to our customer, including that entry-level buyer’s first homeownership experience,” said Bill Wheat, Horton’s CFO.

At Scottsdale, Arizona-based Meritage Homes, vice president of Investor Relations Brent Anderson says location and price are two huge factors to Millennial buyers.

“Price is a major concern, so that they don’t stretch themselves too far or pay too much, since many of them saw their parents or others lose significant value, or even lose their homes, during the Great Recession,” he says.

As the nation’s eighth-biggest builder, Meritage also knows how much Millennials appreciate features such as open floor plans, chef’s kitchens, 9-ft. ceilings, pantries, and smart home technology.

The research arm of Meritage’s marketing and operations division last year conducted a nationwide survey to better understand the entry-level buyer, of which a large portion are Millennials. In the survey, 90% of Millennial respondents stated that energy efficiency is very or somewhat important in their decision to purchase a new home. Meritage has made energy-efficient homebuilding a focal point by offering standards such as spray-foam insulation, sealed ducts, high efficiency HVAC, programmable thermostats, and Energy Star appliances.

Automated Offerings

Meritage also delivers high-tech features through its M.Connect Home Automation Suite, which offers Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats, garage door openers, lights, door locks, video doorbells, and weather sensing irrigation. Anderson says Millennial buyers are more interested in automation and conveniences than just square footage in their homes.

With that sentiment in mind, Desert View Homes in El Paso is about to roll out a new automation system in its model homes because of “what we’re hearing from Millennials,” Woods says. The system will include features such as Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats, garage openers, and video doorbells.

In Utah, Edge Homes has taken a different approach when it comes to automation because of how well-educated and opinionated Millennials are about the options on the market.

“Add to that being savvy enough to install these options themselves, rebates offered to consumers on these items, and companies providing these products for free with a monthly service contract, and we’ve found that allowing our buyers to make a decision from an unlimited product array in the market has been a better option than attempting to place them in the box of one or two products we can offer,” says Detrick.

Whether a homebuilder decides to go the automated route may vary from market to market, but like most things in business, it’s best to be on top of the trends.

“The (builders) who are experiencing the most success are those who are open-minded to new ideas and brave enough to make a change,” Leidel says.

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