Weathering the Storm: Surveyors as Economic Indicators
Professional Surveyor Magazine - January 2011
Bill Beardslee, PLS, PE, PP
When the housing bubble burst, surveyors received as much of a soaking as any group and were among the first affected. In most of the country, the surveyors who primarily relied on mortgage surveys found their levees had broken, and the work was washed away. Those firms that primarily provided services on land development projects were not necessarily destroyed by the shifting economic tide (although I know some that were), but experienced severe erosion of personnel and profit. The housing crash corrupted the availability of financing which, in turn, shut down private construction.
Multi-disciplined firms whose workload spanned a greater spectrum experienced an ancillary impact of the deluge. Decreasing home values and unemployment decreased tax income. Therefore, public agencies slowed or ceased their capital work projects. Even those firms that escaped being washed away or severely eroded still had ominous puddles in their yards. Personally, I survived downturns of the late 70s, early 90s, and 2002; but those were child’s play compared to today’s conditions.
But all is not lost, we are told. While some minor statistical data suggests a recovery, I haven’t heard one person on the street indicate being in a better position than a year ago or feeling more secure about his or her employment.
One can hypothesize on the indicators for a housing turnaround. Is it an increase in bank lending, or will people just use that to pay debt? Is it the increase in existing home sales? New home sales?
Isn’t the real leading indicator the surveyor? If a foreclosure is sold, a survey should be in the wind. As existing home sales increase, the surveyor will be on the scene. If financing becomes available and new construction commences, the surveyor leads the charge. As all of these situations happen and tax income increases, public projects will come off the shelves, with the surveyor leading the way.
While we all wait for this resurrection to begin, take advantage of the time. Here are some to-do items to consider:
- Check on cell phone, insurance, and equipment contracts. Are there better deals available? How about refinancing?
- Maintain all your equipment and inventory your supplies. Many suppliers are offering great deals, but don’t overbuy. Study new technology and evaluate it to see if it might lead your firm in a new direction.
- Market your services. Call old clients to see if any new projects are on the boards. And most of all, network, network, network! Would you like a free meal and 15 or 20 minutes to talk about your choice of surveying topics and your firm? If so, call your local Rotary or Kiwanis representative.
- For smaller firms, research subcontract possibilities with the larger firms in your area. As business becomes available, larger firms will hesitate to put on new crews, but they may be interested in your services on a will-call basis at a set fee. I used several local surveyors in my area when we had a large short-term work load.
- Catch up on or get ahead on your continued education credits where required.
- Most importantly, sit with your staff and evaluate your company. Where are you and where do we want to go? No comment is irrelevant—ask for just an open, honest discussion.
Washington can have all the Ph.D.s they desire calculating theoretical recovery values, but I will save them a lot of time and effort: Keep your eyes on the land surveyors. When the new leaner and meaner survey firms start recalling and hiring, then, and only then, can one be realistic about a rebound in housing and the economy.
About the Author
Bill Beardslee, PLS, PE, PPBill Beardslee is the past president of the New Jersey Society of Professional Land Surveyors and their 2006 Surveyor of the Year.
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