The Housing Scene

Quick Takes: Too Few Workers, Too Much Debt

Looking for work? Look no further than the residential construction business.

Builders across the land say the lack of workers is one of their most pressing problems -- even more important than the dearth of buildable home sites or tight lending standards.

According to a survey in June by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), labor shortages have become more widespread over the past year, even as the new-home market has picked up steam.

Shortages are most acute for the basic skills that are necessary to building any house. For example, 69 percent of the builders who participated in the survey reported a shortage of workers who are willing and able to do even rudimentary carpentry. And 1 in 4 of them said the shortage was "serious."

But builders seem to be even more concerned about the availability of subcontractors. Nearly 75 percent of the work in building a typical single-family home is done by subs.

In the rough carpentry category, 74 percent of builders reported a shortage of subcontractors. Nearly 75 percent cited shortages of framing crews, 69 percent said they couldn't find enough finish carpenters and 56 percent reported a dearth of bricklayer-mason contractors.

And so it goes, on down the line. There aren't enough painters, electricians, plumbers, roofers and heating and air conditioning subs to satisfy the need.

"The incidence of shortages is surprisingly high given the rate of new home construction, which has only partially recovered from its 2008 downturn," said Paul Emrath, an economist with the NAHB.

How bad is it? Shortages in the nine trades covered in the NAHB survey are now "substantially higher" than they were at the peak of the 2004-2005 housing boom, when annual starts were averaging around 2 million (twice the current average). The last time labor shortages were so widespread was just before 2001, during a prolonged period of strong economic growth.

The bottom line for new homebuyers: It may take longer for your house to be built than you were told when you signed your contract. Worse, perhaps, your house may have more than the normal number of cosmetic defects like broken tile, chipped bathtubs and uneven paint.

Or worse yet, because builders are being forced to use neophyte workers, your new house may be both late and substandard.

CAR AND STUDENT LOANS WEIGHING DOWN HOMEOWNERS

Homeowners today are carrying more non-mortgage debt than at any time in the last 10 years -- too much, perhaps, to allow them to move up to a new house or even pay down their current loans, according to a new report.

On average, today's mortgage holders owe a whopping $25,000 on car loans, student loans, credit cards and the like, according to the data and mortgage analytics division of Black Knight Financial Services in Jacksonville, Florida.

That's $1,400 more on average than just one year ago, and nearly $2,600 more than in 2011.

The primary driver: auto-related debt, which accounted for 81 percent of the overall increase in non-mortgage debt over the past four years, Black Knight found. At the same time, student loan debt owed by homeowners is at an all-time high. Some 15 percent of all homeowners carry school loans, with average balances of nearly $35,000. The share of mortgage-holders carrying student loans has increased by 44 percent since 2006.

The offshoot of all this is that today's homeowners may owe so much that if they are hit by any kind of financial setback -- a major illness, for example, or a layoff -- they might not be able to make their house payments. Alternatively, they may not qualify for a new loan if they want to refinance or move up the housing ladder.

Non-mortgage debt among U.S. mortgage holders bears close watching due to its potential impact on both the lending and housing industries, says Ben Graboske, the executive who runs Black Knight's data and analytical division.

"Non-mortgage debt is another key piece of the home affordability puzzle -- the more total debt borrowers are carrying, and the higher monthly non-mortgage payments they have, the less money they have to put toward a new home purchase, or potentially even (to) their current mortgage obligations," Graboske says.

The company has already noticed "a clear correlation" between non-mortgage debt and borrowers inquiring about a new mortgage, with those who have recent mortgage inquiries on their credit reports carrying nearly 40 percent more debt than borrowers who do not.

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