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Buyers, builders still can't get loans

Shandon Square was supposed to be a showpiece of new home construction in downtown Columbia. Its half-million-dollar homes featured wine cellars, media rooms and elaborate master baths.

But more than two years after construction started, the Woodrow Street neighborhood has been hit by a one-two punch. Neither buyers nor builders can get a loan.

"The banks are not lending money. I don't care if you're Donald Trump," said David Bryant, president of Metropolitan Development in Columbia, which developed Shandon Square.

An agonizing recession has crippled many Midlands builders.

Builders have trouble finding buyers for homes that sprouted up in the Midlands in recent years, including once-fast-growing Northeast Richland and Lexington counties. Even if builders sell the new homes they have built, banks won't lend them money to build new ones.

As a result, some home builders are looking for other work, and an annual Midlands tradition - the Parade of Homes, showcasing builders' work - has been canceled.

The event, usually held for several weeks in October, typically features an enclave of lavish homes in an upscale neighborhood. But builders couldn't get financing to construct homes that didn't already have a buyer in place, and buyers have been especially tough to land in the hard-hit market for high-end homes.

Instead, the group is offering a coupon and discount program for new home buyers, targeting homes that builders have not been able to sell.

"It's no secret they need to sell some houses," said Earl McLeod, chief executive of the Home Builders Association of Greater Columbia. "It's been a bad year."

McLeod said he hopes to be able to offer the parade again - when banks ease up on lending.

"We're all in this thing together," he said. "We've got to fight our way out of it."

LEAN TIMES

While there is rising national sentiment that an economic turnaround is starting, South Carolina's vital home-building sector remains depressed.

Thousands of S.C. workers have lost their jobs as builders look to cut costs or get out of the business altogether.

The construction industry statewide has lost 25,500 jobs since hitting its peak two years ago, according to the S.C. Employment Security Commission. The agency doesn't break out those numbers for the Columbia area.

About 20 percent of builders in the Columbia area have quit building new homes at least temporarily, said McLeod, head of the home builders' group.

They've either been forced out of business or are trying to pick up remodeling work to make it through the lean times, he said. "They're doing whatever they can to stay in business."

The smaller membership roll of McLeod's group - which includes builders and related businesses, including heating and air or mold specialists - reflects the impact of the recession. The Columbia home builders association has lost 31 percent of its members since its 2007 peak of 1,419.

Some builders are gone.

Beazer Homes, which built 400 homes in the Columbia area in 2006 and 2007, pulled out of the market last year, for example.

Others have pared back their operations.

KB Home and Great Southern Homes, for instance, built only about half the number of homes in 2008 as they built in 2007, according to permit reports.

Sales of new and existing homes in the Columbia area were down 37 percent through the first half of this year compared with same period in 2007, according to data from the S.C. Realtors trade group.

With sales down, builders have taken out far fewer building permits - 1,625 for new homes through August. That's 57 percent fewer than during the same period in 2007 and 61 percent fewer than the market's peak in 2006.

'THEY CAN'T GET FINANCING'

Columbia builder Wayne Berry said he saw the slowdown coming but never thought it would be this harsh.

Berry stopped building homes without a buyer in place three years ago. Still, one of the six homes he built during the height of the market still has not sold. Originally priced at $489,000, it now is listed for $399,000.

"We still can't move it," said Berry, who builds in Northeast Richland. "We've had three or four buyers, and they can't get financing."

To stay in business, Berry is doing renovation work and a couple of custom home-building jobs a year for buyers who have their own financing.

"A couple of big banks ... no matter how much money you bring to the table, they won't fund any construction loans," he said. "It's getting tighter and tighter."

McLeod said it's hard for builders to know what banks want anymore due to the changing lending environment. Sometimes, even if a builder has good credit and has sold all of his or her new homes, lenders are requiring substantial down payments before considering a construction loan, he said.

Bankers say their regulations are requiring them to get tougher on construction loans.

Regulators want more balance - and fewer real estate loans - in bank loan portfolios, said Chuck Garnett, chairman of the S.C. Bankers Association board and president of The National Bank of South Carolina.

"There are a lot of banks out there that don't have an appetite for growing real estate loans," he said.

Bryant, who developed Shandon Square, blames bad timing for the neighborhood's sluggish sales. Its homes were featured on the Home Builders Association of Greater Columbia's Tour of Homes in May 2007.

Bryant sold about half of his lots to builders. But most of the houses they built remain empty.

Four months after the 2007 Tour of Homes, the Columbia area recorded its first quarterly decline in home sales. Ever since, the market has been struggling. Home sales were down 20.6 percent in 2008 and have dropped another 23 percent so far this year.

One builder in Shandon Square ran out of money halfway through constructing several homes and lost them to the bank, Bryant said. Buyers had to come in and finish putting up drywall, laying hardwood floors and installing cabinets, he said.

"We were at the height of the market," Bryant said. "By the time they got the houses up, the market had cooled off substantially."

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