Monday, June 24, 2024

In less than a year, national builders have strengthened their grip on Wilmington’s development market

Residential construction in Brunswick Forest and the greater Leland area rapidly continues as a $1 billion bridge is planned in its path. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
National homebuilders have ramped up their local presence in the Wilmington market with large land acquisitions, driving up the cost of raw land. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — National, publicly traded companies are amassing large tracts of undeveloped land in the greater Wilmington market at a greater frequency and intensity than they were previously, according to multiple industry experts. 

The companies have begun creeping further past the state line from the comfortable hub of Myrtle Beach, venturing deeper into Brunswick County. D.R. Horton, arguably the region’s only dedicated national builder over the past decade, has ramped up its presence in the tri-county region. “America’s largest homebuilder” is currently building out 23 neighborhoods across the tri-county region. 

It’s as if overnight the region’s spec sheet shifted. For big nationals, the numbers started making more sense. 

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Pulte, the parent company of Del Webb, which oversees a large retirement community in Riverlights, is expanding its reach in the region with three ongoing developments in the Carolina Shores-Calabash area. 

Just north of Varnamtown, H&H Homes bought a 181-acre undeveloped parcel for $6 million in March. Also that month, an LLC associated with the company acquired a 58-acre parcel for $2.95 million in Sunset Beach. 

A North Carolina-based company with an outpost in Myrtle Beach, H&H was acquired by the publicly traded Dream Finders Homes in October 2020 but will continue to operate in the Wilmington region under the H&H name. 

“Big nationals, whether it’s a builder, or CVS, or Dollar General, they have this whole 100 pages of statistics that they look for in areas that they want to grow in,” said Eric Knight, president of Cape Fear Realtors’ Commercial Alliance. “Once the demographics start meeting those, they’re going to really start moving in.”

Scarcity of land in Wilmington and a lack of utility infrastructure in northern New Hanover County — the only area where there’s a bulk of land left to develop — has in part spurred growth in neighboring counties. (Still, D.R. Horton is building a sprawling development, Riverside, where Kerr Avenue ends behind Wrightsboro Plaza.)

Between 2010 and 2019, Brunswick County was the fastest growing county in the state, adding 35,000 people, at a 32% growth rate. Ranked the fifth-fastest growing over the same time period, Pender County was not far behind, adding 20% to its population base with nearly 11,000 new residents. New Hanover was ranked 13th, growing 15% with 32,000 new residents. 

By 2029, Brunswick is projected to add another 35,000; New Hanover could add 29,500; Pender could add 8,000. 

Long considered a somewhat inconvenient offshoot from Myrtle Beach for supply-chain reasons, national builders are firming up their stakes in the peninsula.   

Whole parcel, full price

The sentiment among commercial agents is these deeper pockets are scooping up anything that’s left — and paying full price. 

Based out of Sunset Beach, Kelly Stuart of CarolinasCommercial said she noticed an uptick in interest from national developers who mostly do business in Myrtle Beach over the past six months. 

“They went from zero to, ‘We’ve got everything under contract,’” she said of national inquiries. “We met with some of the developers out of Myrtle Beach. And they keep asking, ‘What about this one? What about this one?’ I’m like, ‘Nope. That doesn’t work. Nope, that’s under contract.’” 

Stuart said the companies are vying for 100 or more undeveloped acres, preferably with wetlands already mapped out. “We’re talking 100 acres, owned by a family for 100 years, never been listed, never been touched, they’ll take it,” she said. 

This type of no-frills acquisition is getting harder to come by, Stuart said. There are some abandoned, Great Recession-era developments with roads laid and maybe a few homes speckled within that are otherwise ripe for development, still being held in an investment portfolio. Turning around these projects will take a bit more creativity.

A local squeeze

Local and regional builders comfortable in the Wilmington market are keenly aware of the shift. Used to perhaps purchasing large tracts of land in smaller phases or negotiating below-asking price for a bulk deal, locals are getting squeezed by nationals buying larger chunks at full price.

“Land and lot prices have dramatically gone up,” said Paul Loukas, partner and broker-in-charge at Cape Fear Commercial. “Our market was essentially dominated by one national builder and several regionals. That’s totally changed in the last nine months.”

The entrance and expansion of large nationals has already driven competition, impacting land and lot pricing, Loukas explained. In less than a year, he said it’s already uprooted the local dynamics of residential development.

“Wilmington is now on people’s radar,” he said. “The area is catching the attention of more builders wanting to either enter the market or expand the market share if they’re already here. Wilmington has proven to be a large enough market to support multiple national builders.”

Industry-wide, cost constraints related to land, labor, and materials are why builders who say they want to build affordable housing, can’t. Able to operate on slimmer margins, Loukas is optimistic the prevalence of national builders could help the region’s lack of affordable inventory. 

“Hopefully, more competition and more supply will help,” he said.

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Derek Woolard, director of construction and warranty of Stevens Fine Homes, a 28-year Wilmington-based firm, has noticed the push. 

“All builders are looking for land and/or lots to continue meeting the demands of our customers,” Woolard wrote in an email. “With the resources the large national builders have in place, they’re extremely well-positioned to move in, make an initial offer and quickly close on properties.”

The cost of raw land is on the rise — and continuing to increase, according to Woolard. “Other major impacts of the increase in land purchases include increased costs at the utility and jurisdictional level, as well as a rise in development costs,” he wrote. 

Development costs are up because of widespread material demands and a long-standing labor shortage —  “skilled labor is at a premium in our market,” Woolard said. “The local and regional developers are experiencing the same growing pains as most all other providers in our current economy.”

More players and development activity could lead to even more pressure on an already tight labor pool. While Woolard acknowledged increased competition could be a concern but added Stevens Fine Homes and other settled local builders that have well-established relationships with trade partners may see less detrimental effects. 

The nationals haven’t increased the labor market by much, according to Woolard. “A few new trades have established themselves from outside our market, but nothing to make a major impact.”

Hard to track

Agents pinpoint different timeframes of when they first realized nationals were gaining considerable ground — some say since last summer, some say the fall or winter. 

These kinds of land acquisitions are notoriously difficult to track: investors only voluntarily submit transactions into Multiple Listing Service (MLS), the private internal real estate playbook; large lot sales aren’t easily searchable in New Hanover or Pender counties. 

They are in Brunswick County, but even then, purchases are hidden behind a web of LLCs and combined and subdivided parcels that make tracking the parent sale difficult — even for those tasked with overseeing prospective developments. This leaves commercial agents best positioned to ascertain patterns, privy to the reality of who’s buying what at what price. 

At the approval level, planners rarely interact with builders. “Usually the builders won’t come in until well after it’s approved,” said Mark Pagès, Brunswick County senior planner, who said he was unfamiliar with the recent national phenomenon. 

Developers enlist engineering and land-planning firms as part of a pre-development approval process so builders don’t have to deal with the hassle or sometimes political back-and-forth, Pagès said — “all they wanna do is build.”

The preparation can be a tactic to get the land more marketable, in hopes a builder will pick it up — or plans can be developed and approved to the liking of a specific builder, without that builder’s name ever appearing before approvals. 

“Sometimes I find it hard to believe they haven’t been talking to somebody behind the scenes, but usually, we’re certainly the last to know,” Pagès said. 

Earlier this month, the Brunswick County Planning Board approved over 4,000 new units. “The question did come up at planning board,” he said. “‘Is this going to be a national builder?’ Their answer is, ‘We don’t know yet.’” 

Downward pressure

The trend is touchy within the real estate community. It could be good for the region, by creating demand for more jobs and adding much-needed entry-level rooftops at scale. Consumers may be wary, as nationals have a reputation of presenting contracts tilted in favor of the builder.

Locally, D.R. Horton has attracted unwanted attention in recent years: dozens of homeowners claimed the company used shoddy materials in The Farm in Brunswick County; homeowners created buyer-beware signs in front of the Bass Lake development in Wilmington; the company repeatedly evaded state environmental requests to address a stormwater system, prompting the state to request a building freeze at Hawkeswater in Belville; when the region was under a water shortage in the summer of 2019, the company was caught using county water around-the-clock to irrigate new lawns at The Sound at Washington Acres Hampstead. 

Recently, Pulte lowered its buyer agent commission rate at Del Webb in Riverlights, irking local residential real estate agents. (A Pulte representative acknowledged Port City Daily’s inquiries but did not provide responses.)

There’s a general sense that local companies who live and work in the region — and rode out the recession in-place — may take greater care of their developments and customers. At the same time, nationals may be capable of delivering at a quicker pace, recognizing value in land or opportunities that locals overlooked or viewed as too pricey. 

Even if builders aren’t in direct competition for product, they are for raw land. 

“If you look at the greater tapestry, most of our local builders aren’t necessarily threatened by D.R. Horton, as far as a product is concerned, but there’s probably some downward pressure on land,” Knight explained. “[D.R. Horton] can run on much tighter margins because their money is spread out — it’s an economy of scale.” Besides increased lot pricing, “it’s too early in the game to see any actual effect of it,” Knight guessed.

D.R. Horton first entered the Wilmington market in 2012, according to a company spokesperson. The company’s national scale and relationships with manufacturers and suppliers have aided as the industry reckons with supply chain issues, the spokesperson explained. 

“The support of our trade partners in helping us get materials onsite so we can deliver homes to our customers has been instrumental in our success,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “We can’t thank our local real estate agents enough for their support and for giving us the opportunity to provide their clients with homeownership opportunities across the tri-county region.” 

Jenna Parker, Stevens Fine Homes’ sales manager, said the company is grateful for the relationships it has with hundreds of buyers’ agents. The company “would never engage in any practices, or implement any policies, that would lead them to believe otherwise,” Parker wrote in an email.

“For nearly three decades, we’ve had long-standing relationships with numerous local Agents, and in the coming years, we look forward to building excellent working relationships with many more,” she wrote.

In front of the market 

As executive officer of the Wilmington Cape Fear Home Builders Association, Cameron Moore supports all homebuilding — without preference for who’s performing the work. 

“Everyone at this point is working and jockeying, so to speak, to find where the growth nodes are happening,” he said. 

Recent transactions offer a glimpse of what’s ahead. “It’s trying to get out in front of the market,” Moore explained. “They’ve got to look out long-term two, five, seven, 10 years, and [work] all the time basically to have the next development to move into. That’s how a builder survives. We have to move onto the next neighborhood.”

A majority of the region’s multi-family projects that developed in recent years were the result of outside financing, Moore said. National companies are comfortable in denser markets with a greater diversity of housing, and could help bring that experience here, he explained.

“We’re going to have to really have some serious conversations — particularly when it comes to housing — of what we want our housing to look like,” Moore said. “Are we going vertical construction? Do we want more multi-family? It is getting harder and harder to build at an affordable level for a first-time homebuyer.” 

Regardless of who’s building, the market demands what gets built.

“Just as the nationals and local and regional builders, they have to adjust to the market trends.  Otherwise they could put a product on the ground — no matter who they are — and it may not sell,” Moore said.

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at

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