Living in uncharted territory: Realtors, builders weigh in on depleted housing inventory

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Construction continues on houses in the Fox Crossing subdivision in St. Joseph on Nov. 15. Southwest Michigan is part of the nation trend of declining housing inventory. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

The housing market has rebounded enough that it’s matched pre-recession levels that were last seen in 2006.

Sales are up and interest rates have been favorable. Everything is going well for real estate agents and homeowners with one exception: There are not many houses left to buy.

The housing inventory has continued to fall through a variety of reasons in Southwest Michigan and the rest of the country. Some say not enough houses are being built to keep up with demand. Others say people are unwilling to move and sell their homes like before.

Phil Amodeo is among the latter.

Amodeo, who recently became the association executive for the Southwestern Michigan Association of Realtors Inc., said the housing market is in uncharted territory.

“This phenomenon is really unprecedented,” he said. “When there is a recession, markets slow down and people pull back. But when it speeds up, things go back to normal. After this recession, that just didn’t happen.”

Several communities have been experiencing an inventory shortage for several years. Basically, there simply aren’t enough active listings within the in-demand neighborhoods that homebuyers covet.

At the end of October in Southwest Michigan, there were 2,069 houses on the market compared to 2,356 in October of 2015. At this number, the inventory had a 7.1-month supply of homes for buyers.

This was a decline from 7.5-months supply in September and 8.6-months supply in October of last year. Those recorded houses are in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties.

To determine the months supply of inventory for a given area, the number of active listings on the market is divided by the number of homes sold per month on average during the previous 12 months.

A “healthy” market usually has between 5 and 6 months supply of inventory. However, that normally is aligned with larger metropolitan cities like Santa Monica, Calif. In the Midwest, a 7.1-month supply is low.

Amodeo said there is no single reason why there’s a low number of available houses for sale. But when homeowners learned there was a tight inventory, Amodeo said people became more hesitant when choosing to move.

“People were saying we don’t think we’re going to find a house, so we’re not going to put ours up for sale,” he said. “A year or two later it’s still like that. If people would do the normal thing it would go back to normal.”

By the numbers

With a low inventory, it’s not surprising that selling a house isn’t hard in 2016.

The average time a home stays on the market before it sells has dropped to 104 days in October, down from 132 days in October of 2015. That’s a 21 percent decrease.

Year to date, the time on market has dropped from 134 days to 119, an 11 percent decline. This means homes are selling at a faster pace than in recent years.

Amodeo is moving from Texas and noted how the market there fully rebounded three years go. Unlike down south, Amodeo said states in the Midwest – like Michigan and Indiana – are the first ones to go into a recession and the last ones out.

“Homes are selling quickly there, but there is only a month- or two-month supply there,” Amodeo said. “I can’t explain it. I’ve studied economics and real estate for my entire career. There are patterns and trends, and it seems like you throw that out the window.”

Lawrence Yun oversees the production of existing home sales statistics as the chief economist for the National Association of Realtors. Yun can predict the direction a mortgage rate will trend, but even he doesn’t know when the inventory shortage will let up.

Nationally, the total housing inventory at the end of October declined 0.5 percent to 2.02 million existing homes available for sale, and is now 4.3 percent lower than a year ago.

What’s more frightening for the country’s housing inventory, is that figure has fallen year-over-year for 17 straight months. Unsold inventory is at a 4.3-month supply at the current sales pace nationally.

“The ramp-up in housing (construction) in October is a hopeful sign that overall supply can steadily increase enough to provide more choices for buyers and also moderate price growth,” Yun said. “A prolonged continuation of the robust single-family starts pace seen last month would go a long way in giving homeowners much-needed assurance that they can list their home for sale and find a new home to buy within a reasonable timeframe.”

Home improvement

David Kiel owns Kiel Construction in Benton Harbor and focuses on remodeling existing homes. But as president of the Homebuilders Association of Southwest Michigan, Kiel said the area housing is affected by where people work.

“With Whirlpool (Corp.) and how it is, a lot of people move into the area,” he said. “It also depends on how early people like to retire in the area. Because of how close we are to the lake, it makes it harder to find an available spot.”

Kiel said builders aren’t doing spec homes as much as they used to because securing financing for such projects has become harder and places a larger risk on builders.

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A for sale sign is pictured at a home along Langley Avenue in St. Joseph. The average time a home is on the market before it sells is 104 days as of October of this year, down from 132 days a year ago. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Spec houses is short for speculative houses, which are homes built for sale with no particular buyer in mind.

“There’s a lot more paperwork involved,” Kiel said. “But that’s just because the banks are doing more homework to ensure there’s not another housing crisis.”

Kiel said the biggest problem in the soon-to-be future will be a lack of skilled workers. Along with a depleted inventory will be less professionals who have the capability to build a home.

Second homes

Joshua Schmidke is the owner of Schmidke Construction in Baroda. He said affordability has a big impact on the housing inventory problem as it became prevalent about four years.

Houses that cost $300,000 or below are selling before they are even completed, Schmidke said. Anything higher tends to sit longer, which sometimes makes up a larger percentage of the available housing in regions.

Schmidke said another reason why it’s so hard to find an available home in Southwest Michigan – especially Berrien County – is Chicagoans and the second home market.

As chairman of the Parade of Homes Committee, Schmidke said cities like St. Joseph are big sites for second home owners who wish to spend summer in a nice community. With the addition of Harbor Shores and the emergence of the Senior PGA, vacation homes are becoming more popular.

“It’s probably 80 to 90 percent of our business,” Schmidke said. “We’re focused on making second homes for a lot of Chicago clients. At the same time, we don’t build the $300,000 houses that other people do locally.”

Amodeo should know how hard it is to find a new home locally.

He and his family are originally from northwest Indiana, but he’s just now moving from Texas.

Because he can’t find a more permanent home since taking the job of association executive, Amodeo leased a small house that’s split into a few units in St. Joseph that normally serves as a summer rental.

“We have our house on the market and I’ve been keeping my eye out for something, but there’s not a lot out there,” Amodeo said. “Our requirements aren’t really strict and yet in the St. Joe and Stevensville area, there’s not more than four or five houses in our criteria – unless you go into a higher price range.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 27, 2016)

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Shopping small: Downtown SJ preps for Small Business Saturday

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Downtown St. Joseph businesses were bustling with preparation and sales Friday.

Many owners got a jumpstart on Small Business Saturday by offering deals that began Friday, while shoppers gradually moved from big box stores to smaller, locally owned ones.

Erik and Demrhy Youngquist offered deals not only because of Small Business Saturday or Black Friday, but also because it was their one-year anniversary since buying Purely Michigan at 406 State St.

“We’re definitely thankful for being here,” Erik Youngquist said. “It’s been great running the business for a year, so we want to give back during the holidays.”

On Saturday, Purely Michigan will also host Greenbush Brewing Co., which will be bringing a sample of their beers.

As a way to promote one of their giveaways, the Youngquists hung a larger-than-life Stormy Kromer hat from the ceiling at the front of their store. Among their other promotional ideas for Small Business Saturday and the Christmas season was a drawing for a gift basket. They then decided to give away a free Stormy Kromer hat once a week through December 24.

At FuzzyButz Pet Bakery, owner Mary Schaut said they were offering 15 percent off everything in the store from Friday and Saturday.

They’ve done sales like these for several years to take advantage of the influx of shoppers.

“We get busy Friday, but it’s later in the day after they’ve already hit the big box stores,” Schaut said. “They come downtown and want to see more personable items you can’t find elsewhere.”

Like other downtown stores, FuzzyButz is extending its hours for Small Business Saturday. Schaut said it’ll be open until 8 p.m. this weekend, instead of the normal 6 p.m closing time.

“There’s a lot of foot traffic, a lot of people coming down for dinner and dessert from Chocolate Cafe,” Schaut said. “We’ll be here.”

Andy Vescolani took over The Toy Company last year around November. He’s gone another route from the other businesses.

From a promotional standpoint, The Toy Company hasn’t done anything too differently. But Vescolani said they have upped their game for gift wrapping and product recommendations.

“Small Business Saturday in particular was wonderful (last year),” Vescolani said. “With the competition from online sales to big box stores, it’s hard to survive without the support of the community.

“This time of year is great, because we’re seeing those smiling faces,” he said. “People are a lot more receptive this time of year to recommendations. We’ve been going to international toy shows and conferences trying to find the best toys.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 26, 2016)

Pri Mar seeking approval to construct gas station

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Pri Mar Petroleum is again looking to build a gas station/convenience store along M-63 in Benton Township.

The St. Joseph business submitted a request for the township to rezone land along the corner of M-63 and Enterprise Way. Trustees will make a decision at its next board meeting Dec. 6.

Treasurer Debbie Boothby said the same company had come to the board for a special use permit for a gas station in 2007. After the Planning Commission recommended it be denied, Boothby said the company withdrew its request before the board could vote on it 10 years ago.

When the rezoning proposal was submitted for approval this year, the Benton Township Planning Commission recommended the township’s board reject the plan during an October meeting. Then the Berrien County Planning Commission took a look at the proposal in November and agreed with the Planning Commission.

The land, owned by Pri-Mar, is zoned D-2 professional as the company is trying to rezone it to D-1 retail commercial, which Boothby said has more options for developments.

Craig Marzke, chief operating officer of Pri Mar, said when they first applied for a special use permit in 2007, the land was zoned residential.

The convenience store would be about 6,000 square feet, with 3,500 of it being showroom space. Marzke said the store would carry an expanded grocery selection and have a modern look to it with tall glass walls and a high-tech security system.

The station would offer gas and diesel and be open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Marzke said it would create about a dozen jobs.

The exterior lighting would be LED directional lighting, which doesn’t cast out into the distance.

“They’re used at new stores,” Marzke said. “The lighting doesn’t look like a football field when you pull into a parking lot.”

Marzke said 2.5 acres would be part of construction with the remaining property to be used for something “that would benefit the surrounding neighborhood.”

“The store’s laid out in a manner that matches up with the (next-door) fire station. We want to fit it into the neighborhoods,” Marzke said. “The landscaping plan surpasses twice the amount the ordinance calls for. We want it to look nice.”

This wouldn’t be Pri Mar’s first gas station. Marzke said they have 13 other stations, which includes Benton Harbor, Berrien Springs, Stevensville and St. Joseph.

The proposal faces resistance from some nearby residents. The Planning Commission’s October meeting minutes indicate residents were vocal during the public hearing portion.

Traffic was a concern since the station would be just south of where M-63’s four lanes become two.

Boothby said the majority of opposition to the proposed gas station is coming from Woodridge Place and Rocky Gap residents.

Marzke said he understands their concerns, but felt Pri Mar has an opportunity to provide a service that is not currently available in the area.

“I know we can tastefully do this project that would be a benefit to the neighborhood and an asset to the entire community,” Marzke said.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 26, 2016)

Patience, planning key to Black Friday shoppers

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — Fernando Hernandez has spent the last five years perfecting his craft of getting a jump on Black Friday.

The St. Joseph resident pulled up to the locked doors of Best Buy around 11:30 a.m. and saw no one else.

Hernandez was waiting outside in the cold for a few hours because of a special deal on a flat-screen TV, a Canon camera and a Boost Mobile cell phone. He had not had a Thanksgiving meal yet. However, once he was done shopping he planned on driving another 2.5 hours north to Pentwater to spend time with family.

He secured the 49-inch television for $200 by default as he was first in line. Hernandez has waited outside the Benton Township Best Buy for the last five years, where he’s slowly climbed up a few spots in line. But this year was the first time he was at the very front.

Hernandez came prepared to brave the approaching winter weather. Dressed in a cap, gloves, insulated shoes and overalls, Hernandez also ran through his process on picking out the best deals.

“I do a lot of research online to see if it’s actually a deal because a lot of times a store will boost the price up and tell you it’s a deal,” Hernandez said. “There’s a website that leaks the ads for nearly every main store.”

The savvy shopper scopes out all the big box stores in advance, which includes Wal-Mart, Sears and JC Penny.

The first time he stood outside a store for Black Friday sales was for a Samsung TV. He showed up at midnight and waited until 5 a.m. But that was when Black Friday was more serious.

“I learned to dress right because I got cold the first time,” Hernandez said. “I also learned to be among the first 15 in line. A few years ago I waited in line and was too far back. Everybody got crazy. When they were handing out tickets, a guy was pulling it away from the Best Buy worker.”

After that, Hernandez said the store put in temporary gates to make a single file line leading to the doors.

Henrique Gomes is originally from Brazil, but he’s enrolled at Andrews University.

The Berrien Springs resident got to Best Buy around noon and was also waiting in line for the $200 TV. Gomes said he was there to buy a 49-inch TV for his church.

The first time Gomes took part in bargain shopping around Thanksgiving was in 2001 when he still lived in Virginia.

“It was a much simpler process. You would go get a newspaper and circle the deals while looking with your family. There was not a lot of places you could go to check prices,” Gomes said. “It was also more serious back then. People would go at 5 a.m. on Friday, but now it’s Thursday afternoon which doesn’t feel as intense.”

Gomes said he comes well dressed because he learned the hard way.

In addition to bringing a hot drink, Gomes said the idea is to keep things moving and fun.

“Have some patience. Don’t just sit down, get to know people,” he said. “You come across some nice people waiting in line. You start taking and then time flies by. If you keep thinking about it, it will take a long time for the doors (to open).”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 25, 2016)

Stuffing it to calories: Turkey Trot returns for Twin City runners

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Runners head into the first turn Thursday at the start of the 10K run during the second annual Twin Cities Turkey Trot in downtown Benton Harbor. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Thanksgiving is a tradition that normally involves family and eating.

A few hundred that found themselves in Benton Harbor on Thursday morning threw in a twist to that tradition. Nearly 400 people from across the country and state ran and walked in the second annual Twin Cities Turkey Trot, which began just outside of Dwight P. Mitchell City Center Park.

Among the few who withstood the sobering temperatures were two who were more accustomed to the south.

Alia Adams and Andy Wildman are from Tennessee, but spent the holiday in South Haven to visit with family from Grand Rapids.

The two recently got engaged and chose to celebrate with a run. Wildman and his father actually took on the first Turkey Trot held in Benton Harbor last year. Adams said this was only her second 5K.

“We’re not from Michigan originally,” Wildman said. “I’ve never lived anywhere this cold. I like running and felt this was a good way to get ready for all the calories we’re going to eat later.”

Marianne Groth, president of the SWMI RACERS, organized the 5K and 10K races around several Benton Harbor parks and monuments.

For the second time around, Groth said they were able to get the city to close the route to traffic. The event’s organizers released a survey after last year’s race and found the traffic to be a recurring concern.

This involved changing some of the routes so the city wouldn’t have to close as many streets.

“There’s more room for the runners to go,” Groth said. “On the 10K, we changed it to remove any trail running.”

With more participating in the run this year, Groth said there were more zip codes represented as families from all over the country were in town for Thanksgiving.

Runners came from as far as Alabama and Virginia. Registration was inside the Benton Harbor Public Library.

A few family members from North Carolina came up for the weekend and coordinated with others to wear turkey hats. Some had feathers, while others had drumsticks atop their heads.

Supporting the parks

Turkey Trots have picked up in popularity over the years as a way to exercise together on a day that is predominantly known for eating. Some have taken it a step further by dressing in goofy outfits and costumes for the race.

“The weather is different for people traveling. It can be a big difference,” Groth said. “We had a race like this in Niles, but this one gives people in the St. Joe-Benton Harbor area an opportunity for a closer race.”

Benton Harbor resident Jen Van Beek wore a turkey hat Thursday alongside her family, which included younger participants in strollers.

“I like supporting the parks district, so when the race moved here it was perfect,” Van Beek said.

Groth directs races for a lot of events, which is where she came up with the idea for a Turkey Trot last year.

The race began when the previous president of the Benton Harbor Parks and Recreation Conservancy was looking for a charitable event that would not only raise money, but introduce people to the parks in the area.

Funding raised from the race will go to programming and equipment for the parks as AEP was the title sponsor once more for the Turkey Trot.

“I’m really hoping we get to 500 participants next year,” Groth said. “We got started a little later this year with the change in leadership at the parks conservancy. So, hopefully next year there will be an even bigger outreach.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 25, 2016)

Benton Harbor Parks Conservancy ponders new position

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — The Benton Harbor Parks and Recreation Conservancy did not choose its next president at its Tuesday meeting.

Instead, members discussed the option of hiring an executive director – something the nonprofit organization has never had.

Leading the discussion was John Egelhaaf from the conservancy’s executive committee. Egelhaaf led the board meeting because the conservancy has been without a president since June.

“Our president left on a medical condition, our vice president is unable to take on the role because of his job responsibilities at Lakeland (Health),” Egelhaaf said. “It’s become apparent to (the executive committee) that we need an executive director. There’s evidence that this model is burning out our presidents and that is not a situation we want to continue.”

There’s a lot of scenarios that could involve a less-than full-time director, Egelhaaf said. He said a director could help string together continuity in meetings, become a contact for people in the community and handle fundraising.

The conservancy works as a nonprofit organization that manages the 13 parks in Benton Harbor.

“I think the conservancy is potentially a wonderful instrument to the people of the city, “ Egelhaaf said. “But it has to be a series of collaborations.”

After beginning the nomination process Tuesday, the board kept it open for absent board members until the next meeting Jan. 17.

By the January meeting Egelhaaf said there should be a roster of nominees, where members can then vote. Since the conservancy was challenged in attendance so close to the holidays Tuesday, it made sense to not officially take a vote.

Jerry Edwards formerly nominated himself for the role of president and said he was in support of discussing whether to create the new position.

“I think we can find that balance between two people,” Edwards said, referencing the duties that would be divided between president and executive director.

The conservancy’s executive committee previously announced in June that Stephannnie Harvey-Vandenberg would be resigning as president. She cited personal reasons.

Walt Pullins, executive director of environment of care and hospitality services at Lakeland Health, was named interim president while the board began its search for a successor to Harvey-Vandenberg. Pullins was vice president.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 23, 2016)

Honor Credit Union merger in the works

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BERRIEN SPRINGS — Honor Credit Union announced a proposed merger with a Battle Creek-based financial institution, which is pending a member vote in 2017.

The Berrien Springs-based credit union’s planned partnership with Battle Creek Area Community Federal Credit Union was announced through a news release Tuesday.

Upon regulatory approval and a positive member vote from the Battle Creek credit union members, BCACFCU would become a part of Honor Credit Union.

“Collaboration is what the credit union movement is all about,” Honor CEO Scott McFarland said in the release. “We’re excited to partner with BCACFCU and the opportunities that will come with working together with this great team and community.”

Honor spokeswoman Kaylee Williams said BCACFCU selected Honor Credit Union to align resources with “in order to offer greater opportunities for both memberships.”

“This is a voluntary merger pending a member vote from the Battle Creek,” Williams told The Herald-Palladium on Tuesday. “Battle Creek put a lot of thought and preparation to make sure this made sense for everyone.”

BCACFCU’s total assets are nearly $19 million with a membership of about 2,500. HCU’s total assets are more than $706 million with a membership of about 63,000.

In Berrien County, HCU has six locations, including Benton Harbor, Berrien Springs, Coloma, Niles, St. Joseph and Stevensville. Williams said the lone branch in Battle Creek would become an Honor Credit Union location.

“We are excited to be entering a partnership with Honor Credit Union,” Liz Amundson, CEO of BCACFCU, said in a release. “Combining forces with an organization that shares our core beliefs and values is key and we look forward to expanding upon our tradition of excellent member service.”

Williams said the member vote would take place in January, which follows a December Q&A session in Battle Creek.

The Q&A session will be at the BCACFCU branch at 240 North Helmer Road in Battle Creek at 5 p.m. Dec. 13. Williams said the forum would be open to the public.

HCU is no stranger to mergers. In 2014, HCU merged with SIR Federal Credit Union, which previously served residents in the Negaunee, Marquette and Gwinn areas in the Upper Peninsula.

Allegis Credit Union, previously based in Kalamazoo, joined HCU in 2012.

This is among a few big moves HCU made in 2016. Honor recently opened its new operations center in Berrien Springs and broke ground a few months ago on a new St. Joseph branch along Niles Avenue.

Additional information for both credit unions is available at www.bcacfcu.org and www.honorcu.com.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 23, 2016)