The new president of the board of the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association called 2023 “a pleasant surprise” for the industry and is confident of a continued rebound in 2024 as interest rates fall.
Carlos Zuluaga, vice president of operations for Tri Pointe Homes, has been elevated to the presidency after serving on the SNHBA board for nearly a decade. He takes over at a time of recovery for the new-home market that saw sales increase 22 percent in 2023 as buyers adjusted to elevated interest rates and builders benefited by helping buy those rates down and offering other incentives.
The industry is better positioned since interest rates that surpassed 7 percent have come down below that mark. That’s helpful for those in existing homes who want a new house but don’t want to give up their low interest rate.
“I would say 2023 was a pleasant surprise,” Zuluaga said. “At the beginning of the year, we were buckling up for what was to be a very bumpy road because of interest rates. People continue to buy homes, and this year we’re optimistic of the current outlook that the lowering interest rates is going to encourage people to get off the sidelines and purchase a home.”
Zuluaga said buyers are starting to realize that a 3 percent interest is “probably not going to come back,” and it’s a point “where we move on” and start buying a home.
Speaking as board president, Zuluaga said he expects builders to continue buying down interest rates and provide “reasonable” incentives “for a while” because it’s necessary to “get the sales primed and ready to go” for the year.
“I think there will be a higher demand for housing this year, and we’re pretty confident about what’s coming,” Zuluaga said. “We continue to get an influx of people into Las Vegas that is driving up demand for housing. Now, we need to get land out to developers so we can supply the demand for those coming in.”
Affordability continues to be an issue for the industry, and Zuluaga said he expects builders will continue to offer town homes to help address it, especially those looking to buy for the first time. But that’s not any magical solution, he added.
The way to address affordability over the longer term is to expand the boundaries of the valley and make more federal land available for housing development, Zuluaga said. The SNHBA is part of a coalition that has been pushing a bill in Congress to expand the disposal boundary, and he said they won’t stop lobbying.
“The only way to do that is to continue to have conversations with leadership locally and federally and at the state level and offer our resources at the SNHBA to discuss the impact of not having enough land and how that impacts affordability,” Zuluaga said. “At the end of the day, the American dream is still alive. People want to own a home, and it’s more difficult if there’s not enough supply to meet the demand. The demand is going to be high, and that’s going to make it super expensive. We will keep chipping away at the things, and we have been hopeful we will have some more land to build at a more reasonable cost to us and, which will turn into reasonable cost for homeowners.”
The industry has moved past most of the issues it had at the start of the pandemic, when the supply chain was broken and builders were unable to get the materials, appliances and equipment they needed, Zuluaga said.
Labor supply, on the other hand, continues to be an issue as workers age out — with a lot of experience leaving — and not enough people entering the industry to replace them, Zuluaga said. It’s vital to show the younger generation that it’s a career in which they can make a good living and support their family. The Southern Nevada Trades High School is helping do that and show students what’s possible, he said.
That was the case for Zuluaga.
Zuluaga, 53, a Queens, New York, native, said his parents, Adriana and Jose, emigrated from Colombia and eventually moved to South Florida. In 1988, Zuluaga enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base from 1989 to December 1992, when he left the military.
Trained as a plumber, Zuluaga went to work for then-Pardee Homes in 1993 as a laborer at the entry level. It would propel his career at Pardee, which eventually was renamed Tri Pointe. He worked in customer service, as an assistant superintendent, superintendent and management general superintendent, which led to his current position.
As vice president of operations, Zuluaga has responsibility for three areas — customer service, purchase and construction.
“There’s success that can come from starting at the ground level of anything, and I try to teach my son and his friends to go get a job with a builder in an entry-level position,” Zuluaga said. “If you like building, start at the bottom. You can’t be a manager right away. This can be a lucrative career for you that provides you an opportunity to make a great living and provide for a family.”
Now, Zuluaga will have another role as SNHBA board president, which has an important job this year in filling the vacancy of Nat Hodgson, the organization’s CEO who died unexpectedly in October at the age of 59.
“Filling that is a tough one,” Zuluaga said. “Nat is irreplaceable. He was a one-of-a-kind guy that you will never find another one like him. He was great with people and legislators on both sides of the aisle and knew how to push our initiatives forward but do it in a way that’s well-accepted.”
It’s still difficult to deal with the loss of Hodgson, who was the face of the building industry, Zuluaga said. “If someone needed something, Nat was the person to call and had a great staff behind him.”
“I had something come up, and was thinking I have to call Nat and quickly realized I can’t do that and reached out to staff,” Zuluaga said.
Zuluga said they’re conducting a search and interviewing candidates and could hire someone by mid- or-late February.
“We want to make sure we have the right person in place to push the association’s agenda forward in the years to come,” Zuluaga said. “We want somebody who can build the association and be a voice of both our customers, builders and contractors who build our homes. And be someone who can engage with people on difficult topics but do it in a manner that can be constructive and well-accepted by people whether legislators or local leaders.”
Zuluaga said it’s not a requirement that it be someone who is part of the homebuilding industry because there’s a lot of resources within membership to support whatever is lacking in a candidate in homebuilding experience.
“We are just looking for other qualities that are good for the government, and things like that,” Zuluaga said. “We hope to find someone who is as passionate as Nat was. We are trying to find the best candidate to come as close as possible.”
Zuluaga and his wife, Janet, have been married 26 years and have two daughters, Alyssa and Siarra, and a son, Zachary. They also have a granddaughter.