By Luke Mullins

When you buy a new home, you're not just moving into a different neighborhood. You're injecting a dose of adrenaline into the heart of the American labor market. Think about it: Building a home requires architects to design plans, workers to hammer nails, and manufacturers to provide everything from lumber to bulldozing equipment. Purchasing a previously owned home also provides an employment jolt. By the time you sign the closing documents, you'll have created demand for real estate agents, lawyers, appraisers, inspectors, and mortgage lenders. And once you move in, you'll probably make a few more purchases, helping to support jobs for makers of carpets, home appliances, furniture, and other goods. "Look at it as a spider web," says Mike Larson of Weiss Research. "The real estate transaction is in the center, and then you have all of these ways that it reaches out into different parts of the economy."

During the first half of the decade -- when Americans purchased homes at a frantic pace -- this arrangement worked out beautifully for job seekers. From 2001 to 2006, total mortgage industry employment surged by 83 percent, to nearly 500,000 positions. The tally of Realtors jumped by 66 percent, to roughly 1.3 million, and home-building employment increased by nearly a third, to more than 3.4 million. But as the boom turned to epic bust, real estate-related jobs evaporated even faster than they had appeared. The 1.3 million residential construction positions cut since February of 2006, for instance, represent about 22 percent of the entire net job reduction that occurred during this period. "We are at a low point with respect to employment in housing-related activity," says Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's

Despite this bloodletting, jobs related to real estate are expected to slowly re-emerge this year as the housing market flickers back to life. IHS Global Insight projects that housing starts will nearly triple by 2012, to about 1.6 million units annually, and total home sales will increase 29 percent, to almost 6.5 million. "People have to live somewhere," says IHS economist Patrick Newport. (It could be three to five years, how- ever, before employment reaches pre- bubble levels.) But these new jobs won't be identical to those that preceded them, as shifting demands are already forcing workers in housing-related fields to develop new skills. Here's a look at the changing job descriptions for workers in three specific subsectors: home construction, real estate sales, and mortgage origination.

Home construction:

In January, executives at Beazer Homes announced the company would take additional steps along its innovative path. The half-century-old builder had already committed to install a slew of high-performance features -- programmable thermostats, fluorescent light bulbs, and more efficient dishwashers -- into every home it built. But beginning that month, Atlanta-based Beazer pledged to make additional insulation and energy-efficient low-emissivity windows standard as well. The new features will enable Beazer to lower a buyer's energy costs by as much as 46 percent versus a comparable home built 10 to 15 years ago. And by leveraging its size -- Beazer is among the nation's 10 largest builders -- the company can implement such changes without raising prices.

The decision to devote more resources to so-called green building was driven by changing consumer demands, says Tony Callahan, Beazer's senior vice president for national purchasing, planning, and design. In addition to environmental concerns, the recession has forced many Americans to take a scalpel to their monthly expenses. "People are now looking at homeownership as more than a mortgage, taxes, and insurance," Callahan says. "You add utilities, and outside of that mortgage, the utilities could be their next-largest budgetary item." It's estimated that by 2012, green homes will represent as much as 20 percent of the new-home market, up sharply from just 2 percent in 2005. But building a green home can require skills that differ significantly from those used in traditional home construction, Callahan says. Green home builders, for example, take pains to create a tightly sealed thermal envelope inside the home. And given the direction the new-home market is heading, it's imperative for builders to obtain these green-building skills, Callahan says. "They are a cost of entry." Green home-building education programs offered through the National Association of Home Builders can help make workers more attractive to prospective employers.

Since the real estate market will remain saturated with cheap foreclosures for some time, it may take a while for builders to begin hiring in earnest. Jobs in a related field, however, might materialize sooner, says Lawrence Katz, a labor economist at Harvard. President Obama's "cash for caulkers" program, details of which were unveiled in March, offers up to $3,000 to homeowners who make qualified energy-efficient upgrades. If successful, the program could result in additional demand for workers with the skills to retrofit existing homes -- which make up a much greater share of the total housing stock than new homes. "A lot of people who had been in construction in housing are going to have to move into more of the renovation, the energy-fitting [side]," Katz says. The National Association of the Remodeling Industry is offering a course designed to help remodelers develop these skills.

Home selling:

To survive the downturn and grow business as the market recovers, real estate agents should take steps to become "an expert in a specific aspect of the business," says Rick Davidson, the president and CEO of Century 21. Today's real estate market presents a number of opportunities for brokers to carve out their niche. With more than 2 million distressed home transactions last year and 2.4 million expected in 2010, real estate agents with the ability to shepherd buyers or sellers through short sales and foreclosures can capitalize on the market's upheaval. But distressed transactions are often complicated by differing state laws and practical hurdles. To provide agents with the tools they need to handle such sales, the National Association of Realtors offers a Short Sales and Foreclosure Resource certification program. Large residential brokerages, like Coldwell Banker, offer similar training in-house. "Dealing with foreclosures and dealing with short sales . . . takes an awful lot of patience and an awful lot of practice," says Jim Gillespie, president and chief executive officer of Coldwell Banker.

Increasing demand for green home features has created another area of specialty for real estate agents. NAR has developed an education program tailored specifically to buying and selling high-efficiency homes. "The demand for green building and environmentally sensitive home features is growing," says NAR's Michelle Wardlaw.

Mortgage origination:

In 2005, nearly a third of all mortgage loans were originated by independent brokers before they were sold to banks or investors. But after the housing bubble popped and delinquencies surged, big mortgage banks began to back away from the broker origination model. Since 2005, the share of home loans originated by brokers has been cut by more than half, to about 14 percent. And the trend isn't expected to reverse anytime soon, says Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance.

Instead, the bulk of lending jobs over the next several years will be at larger companies, like retail banks, Cecala says, although smaller community banks and credit unions may also increase their mortgage staffs a bit. And with banks still saddled with piles of delinquent loans, lenders are expected to keep their standards tight for some time -- extending financing only on conservative terms like 20 percent down payments and FICO scores of 720 or above.

At the same time, the Federal Housing Administration -- a government agency that insures mortgages against default -- is expected to remain a key cog in the home-loan market. Chris Freemott, the president of All American Mortgage, argues that obtaining approval to make FHA mortgages is essential for lenders looking to succeed in the market over the next several years. "If you don't have [FHA approval], you're dead," he says.

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