Last Updated: June 4, 2008: 7:34 AM EDT
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Downsizing the American home

During the housing bubble, KB Home priced out first-time homebuyers by building bigger. Its new, more modest model provides a glimpse of what the return of the housing market may look like.

By Shawn Tully, editor at large

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This is now (l): Price: $271,000; Sq. Ft.: 2,100; Purchased: 2008. That was then (r): Price: $460,000; Sq. Ft.: 3,633: Purchased: 2006.
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Honey, they shrunk your house: KB's first CEO, Jeff Mezger (l), and Chairman Stephan Bollenbach are luring first-time buyers with smaller homes.
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Renters no more: This winter the Murkeys bought a 4-bedroom Las Vegas house at $213,000. More than $80,000 less than the KB model cost 18 months before.

(Fortune Magazine) -- In the history of real estate there are a handful of legendary homebuilders - William Levitt, who created Levittown on Long Island, being one, and then there's Eli Broad, who became a billionaire building tract homes throughout the Midwest and Southern California.

Surrounded by the famous Jasper Johns series "The Seasons" in his office 11 floors above Los Angeles' Wilshire Boulevard, Broad does not miss much. The 75-year-old real estate pioneer has seen bull and bear markets, and in recent years he watched as the company he founded (and cashed out of so he could focus on philanthropy) lost its way. During the bubble, KB Home (KBH, Fortune 500), like many other big builders, blew up its old-line business by going ritzy and building expensive houses. Now KB is among the first homebuilders to recognize the error of its ways, and it is returning to its roots as a purveyor of low-cost, smaller homes. In some cases KB is even using the same façades from the go-go years and then shrinking the house that lurks behind them to be half as deep - and about half as expensive. "If I had to write a headline for housing, it would be back to basics," says Broad. "The right thing to do is just what KB is doing: build starter homes that compete with rentals."

KB's recovery plan is not just a tale of two houses. It is a tale of two CEOs. During the bubble Bruce Karatz, a flamboyant marketer, believed that the public's hunger for McMansions would keep the good times rolling for years to come. It was his successor, Jeff Mezger, a hammer-and-studs operator, who recognized that the world had gone mad and steered KB back to first-time buyers. That strategy shift may prove to be a primer on how the housing market rejuvenates itself after a boom and a bust.

When owning is as cheap as renting

When the real estate market comes back, it will not be with a sonic boom. It is likely to be subtle, below the public's radar. The revival will probably begin in the areas hit hardest by the bust: in Florida, Las Vegas, and the honeycombed tracts that flank the broad freeways east of Los Angeles known as the Inland Empire. (Indeed, home sales in Southern California surged 22% from March to April, hitting their highest levels since August.) Why will housing come back? For a reason as solid as floor joists: The entry-level buyer, for the first time in years, is finding that owning a new house is suddenly just as cheap as renting. "Those first-time buyers got locked out by high prices," says John Karevoll of DataQuick, a research firm that assembles data on the U.S. real estate market. "Now the buying activity that was on hold is starting to come back."

In hindsight, the reason for the current malaise is simple: too few buyers. By 2007 more and more people were frozen out of the market - especially the entry-level buyers, who now account for as much as 30% of new-home sales. They're the twentysomething young professionals who rent until they get married or the first child arrives, and then reach for the American dream of homeownership. From 2005 to 2006 some first-timers rushed to purchase homes they couldn't afford with the help of exotic loans. But another big group of young consumers steered clear and are finally looking to buy. Now that prices of new houses have fallen as much as 30% in areas including the Inland Empire and the outskirts of Phoenix, they are returning- prompting a turning point in the housing cycle. Call it the New Affordability.

Three factors are driving the New Affordability: housing prices, house size, and the government's expanding role in the mortgage market. The experience of Richard Murkey, 28, and his wife, Kayla, 25, epitomizes the trend. The Las Vegas residents started shopping in 2006 but couldn't remotely afford the $300,000-plus prices that modest houses were fetching at the height of the frenzy. "Then, in the middle of 2007, we saw prices dropping, so we started looking again," says Richard, who sells safety products to construction sites. In January the Murkeys went to contract on a four-bedroom, Tuscan-style house at $246,000, more than $50,000 less than that KB model sold for 18 months before. It gets better. KB Home offered a program called "price protection" that guarantees that if the price of your model falls before the closing, KB will lower your price to match it. Result: The Murkeys got a discount that dropped the price from $246,000 to $213,000.

Nor was financing a problem. The Murkeys obtained an FHA-insured loan at under 6%, with a down payment of just 3%. Their mortgage, taxes, and insurance total $1,400 a month, a mere $200 more than the rent they were paying on their three-bedroom apartment. The FHA's role is something that housing bears have mostly overlooked: The FHA, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac are now guaranteeing more than 90% of loans to first-time homebuyers. The FHA is providing lending that the private market has stopped making to borrowers with blemishes on their credit records. Both the rates and down payments are extremely low.

Today seven in ten KB customers are getting financing from the FHA. The current rates are below 6%, more than 100 basis points under those on jumbo mortgages not backed by the FHA or Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. (Fannie and Freddie lend less readily to people with past credit problems and hence aren't as crucial to the entry-level market as FHA financing.) Congress has raised the FHA limit to $729,750 in high-cost areas like Los Angeles through the end of 2008. But even if the limits aren't extended, virtually all the houses KB sells are priced for an FHA loan.

The houses themselves are being radically downsized to meet buyers' budgets. At the peak of the last boom, in 2006, KB's customers craved cathedral ceilings, formal dining and living rooms, and fancy wrought-iron railings on windows and balconies. Today's buyers, KB found, are willing to trade size and amenities for far lower prices. But they're extremely specific about what they want to keep. Buyers welcome houses half as big as the models that reigned at the peak, as long as they offer plenty of bedrooms. They also don't miss the formal living and dining rooms if KB provides a "great room" combining the two in one open space that includes a generous-sized kitchen.

Bargain-hunters are drawn to these small houses, which look just like the behemoths built in 2005 and 2006. In Beaumont, a community of tract homes 70 miles east of Los Angeles, the Seneca Springs community is dotted with 4,000-square-foot, seven-bedroom Mediterranean homes that KB built at the peak. But right next to them the company is erecting new houses with exactly the same 50-foot façades- and a big difference you don't notice from the street: They're about half as deep and roughly 2,000 square feet. Those homes preserve the community's curb appeal by keeping the façades looking similar and sumptuous. But purchasers love that the new homes boast five bedrooms, and they especially appreciate the pricetag: about $220,000, vs. $420,000 for the big neighboring homes built at the peak (and that now sell for around $300,000). Over time this New Affordability may swell the ranks of buyers. "What's been killing the market is people who are waiting to buy or incapable of getting financing," says Jonathan Dienhart of Hanley Wood Market Intelligence, a residential real estate research firm.