Brothers Derek and Chad Ogle signed contracts this year for new homes in the same development, thinking they'd get the $8,000 tax credit for first-time buyers.
But Ryland Homes, which started construction on the Harford County townhouses last month, says they aren't slated to be done until December - just after the credit is due to expire.
Industry experts are warning that it's probably too late now to buy a new home and get the credit unless construction is already well along. A contract isn't enough. New-home buyers must occupy their homes by Nov. 30, the Internal Revenue Service says, and they can't do that until work is complete.
Even some of the buyers who signed on the dotted line in the spring and early summer - as the Ogles did - could end up out of luck.
"Unfortunately, a lot of the delays in construction are not within the builder's control," said Jerry Howard, chief executive of the National Association of Home Builders. "There are permitting delays, there are inspection delays, there are supplier issues, and very, very frequently ... there are issues with the customers not making decisions quickly enough."
Homebuilders across the country are lobbying senators and representatives - by telephone, mail, e-mail and in person - to restart the clock. The national trade group is asking Congress to extend the credit 12 more months and make anyone eligible as long as they're buying a primary residence.
A number of extension bills were introduced before Congress took its August recess. The homebuilders' campaign has stepped up a notch since elected officials returned to Washington this week.
"We're pushing full-bore," Howard said. "A broader credit will have a much bigger economic impact."
Mid-Atlantic homebuilders put on a teleconference Thursday to "urge policymakers to revive the housing market," in part by extending the credit. The Home Builders Association of Maryland, meanwhile, is pressing for a $15,000 tax credit for anyone with a household income of $500,000 or less - even those buying homes that won't be their primary residences. John E. Kortecamp, executive vice president of the state group, notes that the current credit started out as $15,000 in the Senate and dropped to $8,000 after differences in stimulus plans were ironed out with the House.
"We want to go back to the $15,000 number," Kortecamp said. "We've been meeting with our delegation in their offices."
Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities, figures Congress probably will extend the credit but not expand it. And he's not counting on it being reactivated without a break. Congress has its hands full with health care.
"I think it's been fairly successful," Vitner said of the credit. "It's given housing a lift at a time it really, really needed it."
Teasing out the number of Americans who decided to buy because of the $8,000 isn't easy, but the National Association of Realtors believes the credit will be responsible for a 350,000-home bump in resales this year. That would mean a 1 percent gain over last year rather than a 6 percent drop. In the Baltimore metro area, year-over-year home sale numbers began to rise this summer after a slide that began in late 2005.
About 1.4 million homes sold in the first seven months of the year were bought by first-timers, the Realtors group said. That would be a collective $11 billion in tax breaks, if they all qualify. (The credit phases out for higher-income buyers and decreases for lower-priced houses.)
The credit was an important motivator for the Ogles, who live with their parents and have a lot of household items they'll need to buy when they move. Chad Ogle, 22, signed a contract in May for a Ryland townhouse in Aberdeen. Derek Ogle, his older brother, signed a contract in the middle of June for a home in the same townhouse group, both because he thought it was a good deal and because he said he was told that construction would get going quickly if one more unit were sold.
If not for the credit and its impending deadline, Derek Ogle said, he might have taken his time and looked at more homes for sale.
"That was just a huge reason I bought so quickly," said the 24-year-old, an emergency-room nurse. He and his brother are aggravated about other aspects of their purchases, but it's the thought of losing out on the tax credit that frustrates them the most.
Nothing in the contracts promised that the homes would be complete in time to meet the tax-credit deadline, as Ryland points out. John Meade, president of Ryland's Baltimore division, said the company doesn't make oral promises to customers, either, because there are no timing guarantees in construction. "We're very careful that they understand we cannot commit to a delivery date," he said.
Derek Ogle's agent, Gail Angel of Long & Foster, was sitting with him the day he signed the contract, and she remembers representatives for the builder and lender saying "they would make every effort to settle so everyone would have their tax credit."