Houston is more than an oil town these days, but an oil company merger is being blamed for knocking it off the list of the hottest home-lending markets.
No one expects a repeat of the early 1980s, when plummeting oil prices hammered Houston's economy, including its banks. But lenders say layoffs due to last year's merger of Amoco with British Petroleum are what pushed the city to 25th place in the Mortgage Bankers Association ranking, from fourth last year.
The annual ranking of 80 metropolitan areas was released last week. It uses mortgage volume growth, home sales, and other economic factors to identify the best markets for home-purchase loans.
David Whitsell, a loan officer at the Houston brokerage Assurance Mortgage, said the BP-Amoco merger resulted in 1,500 to 2,000 layoffs in the Houston area. A local oil services giant, Haliburton, also cut its work force in recent months, he said.
Mr. Whitsell was quick to add that the slowdown in mortgage lending appears to have been temporary. "The first two months of the year were a little slow, but in the last weeks it's like somebody lit a fire," he said. "If you talk to a realtor, they will tell you that there are not enough houses to list. And you better be ready to buy if you are looking-it won't be there if you come back in a few days."
Las Vegas was first in the new ranking, followed by Orlando and Phoenix. New to the top 10 were Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif., which jumped to seventh from 13th; and Tampa, which jumped to eighth from 14th.
Among other Texas cities, Dallas slipped to sixth, from first place, and Fort Worth to 10th from sixth place. Austin moved up a notch to ninth.
Mr. Whitsell said Houston has changed for the better. "In the 1980s, we used to be singly an oil economy and when there were oil layoffs, all hell broke loose. Now all that has passed, and people are back to buying and selling houses."
Brian Carey, the Mortgage Bankers Association's regional economist, attributed Dallas' slip in the ranking to a slower growth in payroll employment.
Mr. Carey said that neighboring Fort Worth fell despite "sizzling increases in existing home sales and housing starts, and one of the affordable housing markets in the nation."
James B. Witherow, president and chief executive officer of FT Mortgage Cos. in Dallas, said it is difficult for an already large community like Dallas/Fort Worth, which has more than five million residents, to sustain double-digit growth in mortgage originations.
"If you have been lagging, as we have not, it takes a smaller increase in housing activity to show a greater growth rate," Mr. Witherow said. "The larger the market is, the harder it is to maintain growth rate. That is why you do not see places like Los Angeles in the numbers."
Mr. Witherow said that Dallas and its suburbs benefit from rapid corporate and commercial expansion and relocation into the area.
"Companies like Fidelity and Fedex are expanding dramatically here, " Mr. Witherow said. "It's all increased (mortgage) activity,"
Mr. Carey said that the Las Vegas metro area is experiencing the fastest population and household growth rates in the nation, supported by rapid payroll employment growth and personal income gains.
The Riverside-San Bernardino metropolitan area is expected to have the second-highest payroll employment growth and the third-largest increase in existing home sales in 1999, he added.
He said Tampa moved up the list because of increasing employment and rising personal incomes.
Mr. Carey added that the association expects the nation's housing market to retreat this year, and purchase originations to level off. Still, he predicts that volume will keep growing in the hottest markets.