About 65,000 people descended on this city last weekend for the big event. No, not the Super Bowl, which was played in Tempe, Ariz.

They came for the Builders Show, an annual event sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders that this year includes 170 educational programs, an appearance by country singer Willie Nelson, and a big football party.

Why start the conference on Super Bowl weekend? "Why do they hold the Super Bowl on our weekend?" responded Betty Christy of the trade group's public affairs department. The show accommodated football fans, she stressed, by closing educational programs and the showroom floor early on Sunday.

The conference typically attracts builders, architects, contractors, and even lenders.

Many of the largest lenders typically attend, said a spokeswoman, and relationships between builders and mortgage bankers are beginning to strengthen. "People come to see the newest and latest in everything," she said.

Leading educational sessions on lending this year are James A. Johnson, chairman of the Federal National Mortgage Association; Angelo Mozilo, vice chairman of Countrywide Credit Industries; and R. Keith Pedigo, an executive in the Department of Veterans Affairs, among others.

Also featured is the New American Home, an 8,000-square-foot luxury home built in the Astrodome for the show.

After a disappointing 1995, when single-family housing starts took a nosedive of more than 10%, builders are looking forward to a slightly better 1996.

Housing starts should creep up a few percentage points, according to most economists. Low interest rates should also spur home purchases. "It's really looking pretty good for the home market," said a spokesman from the builders' group. "Mortgage rates are terrific, and consumer confidence in many parts of the country is good."

But lurking beneath the high hopes is economic uncertainty. The implications of tax reform proposals are weighing heavily on the minds of builders and lenders alike.

"If there is a flat tax, it will have (the) effect of delaying buying decisions," said Joel Rassman, chief financial officer of Toll Brothers Inc., a Huntingdon Valley, Pa.-based luxury home builder.

Nationwide erosion of home values has also driven down market prices, affecting home purchases, said Dave Seiders, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders. A recent survey by the trade group found that more than 50% of the association's members think buyers are less likely to view a home as a good investment.

This development comes at an unfortunate time, as "banks and thrifts are once again awash with money," said Mr. Seiders. Getting construction money is no longer a problem, he said; credit availability is much improved over last year.

The Northeast and Pacific regions should see the greatest growth in 1996, he said. "Believe it or not, California will be turning some corners."

One issue he'd like to see addressed in 1996 is the interest rates builders pay to borrow money. Surveys by the home builder's association say all but the largest home builders are borrowing at a little above the prime rate, which is too high, Mr. Seiders said.

On another topic, representatives of the Manufactured Housing Institute are expecting to improve relationships with traditional real estate developers at the conference, said a spokesman. "We're stressing the benefits from financing manufactured homes, like short-term construction debt."

The manufactured housing industry is starting to see more vertical integration, he said, as large companies continue to offer homebuyers financing options.

"Mortgage bankers are intrigued by the concept," he added. "Once they're convinced manufactured housing is here to stay, they'll figure out a way to get their piece of the pie."

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