Home builders suffer through a brutal winter, too

The Verandas in Newtown Square is at least 30 to 45 days behind schedule because of weather delays, developer David Della Porta says.
The Verandas in Newtown Square is at least 30 to 45 days behind schedule because of weather delays, developer David Della Porta says. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 10, 2014

An easy winter for builders it's not, especially in the colder, snowier regions of the country.

In January, housing starts fell 16 percent; permits for single-family homes, a gauge of future activity, gained just a bit.

"Cold weather clearly put a chill on new home construction [in January], and this is also reflected in our latest builder confidence survey," said Kevin Kelly, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders and president of the Wilmington builder Leon N. Weiner & Associates Inc.

Builders continue to face other troubles, too, Kelly said: rising materials prices and a lack of buildable lots and labor.

All these have thrown huge obstacles in the path to recovery for an industry struggling to increase U.S. output to the 1.5 million units per year that economists consider normal.

When February's numbers are thoroughly crunched, it may turn out that the rebound in construction that typically "comes part way back in the month after bad weather ends" may be delayed, said Jed Kolko, chief economist for Trulia, the real estate search engine.

Locally, this winter has "crushed construction," said John Westrum, of Westrum Development Co. in Fort Washington, who is building in East Falls, Northeast Philadelphia, and West Chester, and replacing housing destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in Ortley Beach, N.J.

"We are at least a month behind," he said, and anything started before the first of the year has a better chance of being done.

"People think we can get right back to it when the sun comes out," Westrum said, but a warm-up such as the one in late February "leaves the ground a saturated, muddy mess."

Brad Haber, who is building the 400-home Neighborhoods of Cedar Creek in Egg Harbor City, said the long series of snowstorms "made it difficult to even see the sites," and prolonged periods of subfreezing temperatures made excavating foundations impossible.

Using a calcium additive to counter freezing in concrete allowed his crews to pour curbs, sidewalks, and "other flatwork," Haber said. But the "stones we use in basement slabs froze," making foundation work impossible.

Even as temperatures rose, soil "thawed only to about six inches deep, and the mud and dirt draining from the sites made it difficult to keep things clean," he said.

Pressure on utilities to restore power to hundreds of thousands of customers delayed installation of electric and gas service to newly built homes, he said.

Developer David Della Porta said he was at least 30 to 45 days behind on his multifamily projects, Eastside Flats in Malvern and the Verandas in Newtown Square.

"The biggest drawback is scheduling delays," said Della Porta, noting that between December and the last week of February he had lost 30 days of work due to snow and temperatures so low that no concrete could be poured.

At Eastside Flats, that meant he has been unable to finish the stucco-and-concrete building exterior and has not started the adjacent, stand-alone Kimberton Whole Foods building. Della Porta said he puts erosion-control measures in place to keep sites from washing away when melting and heavy rains occur at the same time.

The builders also cited pressure on subcontractors, whose schedules are thrown off for weeks when weather cancels work.

"Their employees are hourly and only get paid when they work," Haber said. "They have to find indoor work or stay at home and do nothing."

South Jersey builder Bruce Paparone said "interior work continues without any problem" on his projects. But "our suppliers are all waiting for the tidal wave of deliveries once everyone tries to put all their foundations in at the same time."

On the sales side, Paparone said, "we have seen a strong push . . . over the last week or two. The general public has finally decided they are not waiting for better weather any longer."

Other builders, too, said sales agreements continue to be signed, even if delivery dates are pushed back.

"Fortunately," Paparone said, "March is here, which means spring can't be far behind."


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