WHITLEY COUNTY — Nationwide, the housing crisis continues to grow, and Whitley County is no exception.
During the recession of 2008 and 2009, home development and buying were put to a quick halt as the housing market crashed. According to Whitley County Executive Director of Planning and Building Nathan Bilger, the housing demand has steeply increased since 2015.
However, while an increase in home development seems like positive movement, the rate of its growth has caused an issue with supply — those interested in purchasing a home now have little to look at and no time to decide.
Whitley County has the fastest-selling market in the state, according to real estate research firm Trulia. In Whitley County, homes are on the market for an average of 41 days. Comparatively, Marion County (Indianapolis) has a 60-day median and Hamilton County (Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville) has 54-day average.
In 2017, only 15 lots in Churubusco were developed and 17 new single-family homes were constructed. Currently, Churubusco and South Whitley each only have one active subdivision and the Quail Ridge apartments in Columbia City filled up in eight weeks, prompting the owners to build two more apartment buildings.
Multiple factors are in play into this perfect sellers’ market storm.
Construction and development companies are currently unable to keep up with the housing demand. Part of this is because there is a significantly lower quantity of tradespeople available than before the recession. The decrease in skilled tradespeople is a result of two major factors: high schoolers are increasingly encouraged to obtain four-year degrees, which has left few who enter the world of trades, and tradespeople who were laid off during the recession have moved on to more stable production.
“When the recession hit, there was a vacuum of inactivity,” said Kevin Biggs of Biggs Development and Ideal Builders, which has been active in Whitley County for more than 30 years. “We’re up 75 percent in year-to-date home sales. Too much growth is almost as bad as too little growth.”
Even in such a good market, companies are hesitant to jump right back into rapidly developing homes. Many are still scarred from the recession and as it takes roughly three to five years to obtain a return on a home — it’s a risk that many don’t want to take. Builders are taking the safer route and constructing single-family homes rather than apartments or subdivisions.
This demand for homes is becoming progressively exacerbated by the slowly but steadily increasing interest rates. As the rates increase, homeowners are less likely to sell because the original interest rate when they purchased their home was lower. This then also creates a sense of urgency for homebuyers to find a house as soon as possible before interest rates climb too high. In turn, the interest rates increase more.
“Buyers can’t afford to low-ball because it’s a sellers’ market,” said Brian Graham of Ruoff Home Mortgage. “Some buyers are bidding $10,000 over the asking price.”
Demand is currently driven most by first-time homeowners and the baby boomer generation. Both are interested in the same type of home: a three-bed, two-bath home for $150,000 or less. This price point is becoming more difficult to come by as demand increases but supply stays low.
“The last few years have been tough, but this year is worst. I have houses going in a few hours or days. One was up for 45 minutes and in that time, I had 15 showings booked,” said Kim Slucher of Century 21 Bradley Realty.
Brooks Langlow of Orizon Real Estate has experienced similar issues.
“If people aren’t willing to take off work to go see a house, they probably won’t get the house … if people aren’t ready right at the time a house is available, they are not likely to get the house,” Langlow said. “A home that was valued at $120,000 a few years ago is now $180,000.”
Other factors that have also affected the housing market include the success of the current farming market, which has made farmers less likely to sell their land for development, and the 30 percent cost increase in lumber and building supplies as their demand has increased.
As Columbia City is a midpoint between Warsaw in Kosciusko County and Fort Wayne in Allen County, Bilger anticipates families will continually relocate to better accommodate couples who may work in either county. With the new Columbia City High School construction underway, there is a concern that families interested in moving to the area will have nowhere to live and will have to relocate elsewhere, taking away commerce and growth for Columbia City.
As the demand continues to increase, Bilger and Whitley County Economic Development President Jon Myers are working closely to find solutions for the housing crisis in Whitley County. The county has set up a new regional sewer system as a way to incentivize construction, since individual septic systems would not need to be installed with each new home in serviced areas. Additionally, redevelopment commissions can become directly involved in increasing the amount of multifamily buildings available by redeveloping some of the older buildings in the county.
While many ideas are being thrown around and set into motion to better combat the low supply of homes, the county currently looks to Bilger’s previous experience in a growing sellers’ market, as he worked in Indianapolis 25 years ago when its demand for housing increased far more quickly than the supply.
“We’re lucky to have Nathan Bilger on board,” said Myers. “It’s one thing to have a planner, but another thing to have a planner with experience.”