Part I: The NAHB Chart of Accounts Income Statement: Comparative, Compliant . . . and Utterly Useless.

(published on Escape from Averageness® every year since 2009;  updated, incorporated, and republished, here as the first in the five-part series)

The NAHB Chart of Accounts enables builder-to-builder comparisons, complies with GAAP reporting requirements, and allows the same consultants to give the same presentation year-after-year at IBS.  But, to the extent that its Income Statement presents costs as anything other than a true delineation based on behavior in regard to Revenue, it is – from a managerial accounting standpoint, and therefore, from a larger management standpoint – utterly useless.

It is useless, because it prevents a builder from understanding how it makes money.

The ability to generate cash, make a profit, and produce an economic return depends on an understanding of cost classification.  How costs are classified, or associated, according to structural hierarchy, cost objects, and behavior.

Does it matter how costs are classified?  Does it matter where they are incurred, what caused them to be incurred, or whether they vary in relationship to anything?

Yes, it does matter.

Costs are the most operative part of a home builder’s Income Statement, and an understanding of how costs are allocated and classified provides a basis of operational insight that is otherwise completely missing.  Understanding where costs are incurred and whether they are incurred directly or indirectly is important, but the distinguishing characteristic of costs is how they behave.

Here is the operative question:  Does the cost vary with the volume of Revenue, or does it not?

Cost behavior presents a builder with the truest picture of what its production capacity costs, where its breakeven points are, and how it analyzes changes in costs, production levels, and margins.

Not only the truest picture, but the only picture.

At the core of variable costing is the understanding that costs have attributes, and those costs cannot be managed as if their attributes don’t exist.

Builders need to control their direct, variable costs – the costs that should be “above the line” on their Income Statement;  they need to either reduce the cost, or extract maximum value (benefit in excess of cost) from having incurred it;  they need to exploit it, optimize its potential, find productive ways to get more value out of it, and understand, if they didn’t generate the Revenue, they didn’t incur the cost.

At the same time, they need to leverage their indirect, non-variable costs – the costs that should be “below the line”, costs that will be incurred regardless of the Revenue generated;  the objective should be to produce as many closings as possible, from having incurred the cost in the first place.

Controlling and extracting value from direct, variable costs is how a builder improves margin;  leveraging indirect, non-variable costs is how it increases velocity.  Economic return is Return on Assets;  ROA is margin x velocity;  it is velocity acting upon margin.

Builders must distinguish between variable and non-variable costs, to have any picture whatsoever of breakeven, i.e., the rate at which it absorbs overhead.  If Cost of Sales contains non-variable costs, and Operating Expense contains variable costs, that understanding of breakeven is destroyed.

These three examples of the problem with the NAHB COA Income Statement make our point:

  1. Indirect Construction Cost is treated as a cost that is deducted from Revenue to determine Gross Profit; the only difference between Gross Margin and Gross Profit is the inclusion of Indirect Construction Cost.  Do Indirect Construction Costs generally vary according to Revenue?    For the most part, they are non-variable costs that will be incurred regardless of the Revenue produced.
  2. Selling Expenses (including Real Estate Commissions) are treated as an Operating Expense, part of overhead. Anything allocated to Selling Expense should, therefore, be a non-variable cost.  Is that the case?    The bulk of Selling Expense is a variable cost.
  3. Financing Costs are treated as an Operating Expense, but it would only be a non-variable cost if a builder had its construction lines of credit fully-drawn every day of the accounting period, or if the LIP balance on the construction line of credit never varied. Is this typically the case?    Are loan fees non-variable costs that do not fluctuate with volume?  Typically, no.

Bottom-line:  Report your financial condition and meet your tax reporting obligations, as required.  Mindlessly compare your company with other builders, if you choose.  But – give yourself cost information that guides your operating decisions.

Next:  Part II:  The Problem with the NAHB Chart of Accounts Income Statement

 

(variable costing and the Contribution Income Statement format are addressed at every Pipeline workshop™;  learn more here:  http://buildervelocity.com or http://saiconsulting.com/buildervelocity-pipeline-workshops/)