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M/I Homes Inc (NYSE:MHO)
Q4 2019 Earnings Call
Feb 5, 2020, 4:00 p.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by. And welcome to the M/I Homes Fourth Quarter and Year End Earnings Conference Call. [Operator Instructions] Thank you. Mr. Phil Creek, please go ahead.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Thank you. I appreciate you turning into the call today. Joining me in Columbus, Ohio is Bob Schottenstein, our CEO and President; Tom Mason, EVP; Derek Klutch, our President of our Mortgage Company; Ann Marie Hunker, VP, Corporate Controller and Kevin Hake, Senior VP.

First to address Regulation Fair Disclosure, we encourage you to ask any questions regarding issues that you consider material during this call because we are prohibited from discussing significant non-public items with you directly. And as to forward-looking statements, I want to remind everyone that the cautionary language about forward-looking statements contained in today's press release also applies to any comments made during this call. Also be advised that the company undertakes no obligation to update any forward-looking statements made during this call.

Also during this call, we disclose certain non-GAAP financial measures. A presentation of the most directly comparable financial measure calculated in accordance with GAAP and a reconciliation of the differences between the non-GAAP financial measure and the GAAP measure was included in our earnings release issued earlier today that is available on our website.

Now I'll turn the call over to Bob.

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

Thanks Phil, and good afternoon, and thank you all for joining our call today. 2019 was a very strong year for M/I Homes, highlighted by record revenue, record new contracts, record homes delivered and record pre-tax income. For the year, we sold 6,773 homes, an increase of 16% over 2018. And during the fourth quarter, we sold 1,677 homes, a fourth quarter record and 43% better than a year ago.

Our community count during 2019 increased on average about 6%. So with our sales up 16%, we experienced nearly 10% better sales pace per community per month. And we are very pleased with the sales results of our most affordably priced Smart Series product. Our Smart Series continues to represent a greater percentage of our overall sales mix, as well as a greater percentage of our overall community mix.

At the end of 2019, our Smart Series houses were being offered in just over 25% of our communities. That compares to roughly 10% a year ago and comprised an even slightly higher than 25% of total sales. We continue to achieve both good pace and good margins in our Smart Series communities and expect that segment of our business to continue to grow in a very good way.

Our revenues for 2019 increased 9% to $2.5 billion and homes delivered increased also 9% to 6,296 homes. We ended 2019 with the highest year-end sales backlog in company history, with an average sales value of $1.1 billion, that's 18% better than a year ago. And we continue to improve our profitability.

Pre-tax income, aided by improved operating leverage increased 18% for the year to $166 million and net income grew by 19% to $128 million. More specifically, in terms of our operating leverage and improved profitability, we achieved a 20 basis point improvement in our SG&A expense ratio compared to 2018. And our 2019 full year gross margins also improved by 20 basis points compared to 2018.

M/I Financial, our financial services segment, also recorded another strong year with a record number of loans originated, as well as record revenue. As a company, we have achieved steady and consistent growth over the past 10 years with new contracts growing at an impressive 11% compounded annual growth rate since 2010. Revenues during that period have grown by 17% and EBITDA over that same 10-year period has grown at a very strong 28% compounded annual rate. And with our improved returns, our return on equity in 2019 reached 14%.

From a balance sheet standpoint, we are in the best shape we've ever been in. We improved our homebuilding debt-to-capital rate 38%, increased our net worth to just over $1 billion and successfully extended our debt and our debt maturity and improved our borrowing rate by redeeming $300 million, a 6.75% senior notes that were due in 2021, replacing it with a $400 million offering of eight year notes with a rate of 4.95%.

Now I'd like to provide a little bit more detail about our various markets. First, beginning with the southern region which is comprised of our three Florida, four Texas and two North Carolina markets. In the southern region, we had 1,178 deliveries during the fourth quarter and 3,814 deliveries for the year. That's 10% better than last year and 61% of the total of the company for the year.

New contracts in the southern region increased by 35% during the fourth quarter and 15% for the full year. The dollar value of our sales backlog in the southern region at the end of 2019 was up 16% and our controlled lot position in the southern region increased 22% year-over-year. We had a 129 active communities in the southern region at year-end, that's 8% better than a year ago.

We experienced solid increases in both closings and sales in all four of our Texas markets in 2019, as well as in Charlotte, and are making significant progress in growing our relatively new operation in Sarasota, Florida, where we now have 10 communities open and selling. All of this will lead to substantial increase -- all of this led I should say to substantial increases in both sales and closings for the fourth quarter and full year. Orlando and Tampa also grew their unit volumes in 2019. And as we've stated in previous calls, continue to be two of our strongest markets in operations.

Finally, let me note that during 2019, as we reported earlier, we decided not to invest further in the DC market. We have substantially sold out and closed that operation as of the end of 2019. We have merely a handful of homes remaining to close in 2020.

Next, moving to the northern region which is comprised of our six Midwest markets. In the northern region, we delivered 743 homes in the fourth quarter and 2,482 for the year. That's a 7% increase from last year and 39% of companywide total for the year.

New contracts in the northern region were up 58% during the fourth quarter and 17% for the year. Our sales backlog in the northern region was up 21% from the start of the year in dollar value and our controlled lot position increased by 8% year-over-year. We ended the year with 96 active communities in the northern region, that's an increase of 7% over a year ago. Overall, our markets in the northern region continue to perform at the high level.

Columbus is one of our strongest markets. Cincinnati is performing very well. And we achieved significant growth and very solid financial performance in Minneapolis. We also experienced significant increases in closing and sales in Indianapolis, and are on track to achieve higher volumes this year in our relatively new Detroit operation. And we are pleased with the progress we expect to make in Chicago this year.

Before turning the call over to Phil, let me conclude with just a few points. First, 2019 was a berry year for our company. We ended 2019 with a record backlog. Our balance sheet is as strong as it's ever been. We're excited about our position and our communities in all 15 of our markets. We continue to experience strong performance out of our growing Smart Series. And housing conditions are good and we are optimistic about the spring selling season. In sum, M/I Homes is very well positioned for a very strong 2020.

With that, I'll turn it over to Phil.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Thanks, Bob. New contracts for 2019 increased 16% to an all-time record of 6,773. And for the fourth quarter, our new contracts were up 38% in October, up 38% in November and up 56% in December for a total of 43% improvement compared to last year's fourth quarter and our traffic for the quarter was up 19%. As to our buyer profile, about 49% of our fourth quarter sales were to first-time buyers. This compares to 46% in 2019's third quarter and 44% of our fourth quarter sales were inventory homes compared to 47% in the third quarter.

Our community count was 225 at the end of 2019, up 8% versus 2018's year-end. The breakdown by region is 96 in the northern and 129 in the southern. During the quarter, we opened 22 new communities, while closing 18. And for the year, we opened 80 new communities and closed 64. And for the year, our average community count was up 6%. For 2020, our current estimate is that our average community count will be up about 5% from 2019.

We delivered 1,921 homes in the fourth quarter, delivering 66% of our backlog compared to 64% a year ago. And our more efficient Smart Series is aiding our backlog conversion rate. Revenue increased 3% in the fourth quarter of 2019, reaching a fourth quarter record $742 million. This was primarily a result of the record increase in the number of homes delivered. And our average closing price for the fourth quarter was 377,000, a 2% decrease when compared to last year's fourth quarter average closing price of 383,000.

Our backlog average sale price is 396,000, down 3% from a year ago, and our backlog average sale price of our Smart Series is 302,000. We recorded $5 million of impairment charges in 2019's fourth quarter compared to $5.8 million in 2018's fourth quarter. The 2019 charge was primarily for higher priced lots in Chicago and Charlotte.

Our adjusted gross margin for the fourth quarter was 19.9%. This was a 100 basis points higher than last year's comparable adjusted gross margin. And for the full year of 2019, our adjusted gross margin was 19.8% versus 2018's 19.9%. And our construction cost had minimal change during the fourth quarter. Our 2019 full year pre-tax income was impacted by $600,000 of acquisition-related charges from our Detroit acquisition in March of '18 compared with $6.8 million in 2018.

Our fourth quarter SG&A expenses were 11.7% of revenue, up from 11.1% in last year's fourth quarter. This increase was primarily due to increased compensation cost associated with our strong earnings, cost from opening a significant number of new communities. We opened 22 new communities in 2019's fourth quarter versus 13 new communities in 2018's fourth quarter. And increased cost related to upgrades in our information technology systems. For the year, our SG&A expense ratio was 12.1%, a 20 basis point improvement compared to 2018. And improving our operating efficiencies continues to be a major area of focus.

Interest expense decreased $500,000 for the quarter compared to the same period last year and increased $900,000 for 2019. The increase for the year was due to higher weighted average outstanding borrowings in 2019. Interest incurred for the quarter was $12.5 million compared to $13.1 million a year ago. We have $21.6 million in capitalized interest on our balance sheet. This was about 1% of our total assets.

Our effective tax rate was 19% in 2019's fourth quarter compared to 27% in last year's fourth quarter. And our annual effective rate in 2019 was 23% compared to 24% in 2018. Our fourth quarter and annual tax rate benefited from the extension of the energy tax credit in December of '19. And we expect 2020's effective tax rate to be around 24%.

Our earnings per diluted share for the quarter increased 19% to $1.57 per share and increased 15% for the year to $4.63 excluding the impact of acquisition-related costs and impairment charges. And during the first quarter of 2019, we repurchased 5 million of our outstanding shares. We did not repurchase any shares during the remainder of 2019.

Now Derek Klutch will address our mortgage company results.

Derek J. Klutch -- President & Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Phil. Our mortgage and title operations achieved a number of fourth quarter records in 2019, including record pre-tax income of $6.4 million, up $1.1 million over 2018, record revenue of $15.8 million, which was up 20% over last year and record closings. For the year, pre-tax income was $23.7 million and revenue was $55.3 million, another all-time record.

We saw some improvement in pricing margins, particularly in the second half of the year. Loan-to-value on our first mortgages for the fourth quarter was 82% in 2019, a modest increase from 2018's fourth quarter of 81%. 76% of the loans closed in the quarter were conventional and 24% were FHA or VA. This compared to 79% and 21% respectively for 2018's same period. Our average mortgage amount increased to $303,000 in 2019's fourth quarter compared to $300,000 in 2018. The number of loans originated increased 13% from 1,242 to 1,398 and the volume of loans sold increased by 23%.

For the quarter, the average borrower credit score on mortgages originated by M/I Financial was 744, a slight decline from 746 last quarter. Our mortgage operation captured about 84% of our business in the fourth quarter, a significant increase from 80% in 2018's fourth quarter.

At December 31, we had a total of $137 million outstanding under our two M/I Financial mortgage warehouse credit facilities, which expired in June and October of this year. Both facilities are typical 364-day mortgage warehouse lines that we extend annually. Due to our typical high volume of fourth quarter closings, we include a seasonal increase in our warehousing facilities, which provide temporary availability of $225 million through January of 2020, after which time, the total availability returns to $190 million.

Now I'll turn the call back over to Phil.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Thanks, Derek. We continue to manage our balance sheet carefully focusing on investing in new communities, while also managing our capital structure. Total homebuilding inventory at 12/31/19 was $1.8 billion, an increase of $95 million above 12/31/18 levels, primarily due to higher community count and more finished lots.

Our unsold land investment at 12/31/19 is $835 million compared to $782 million a year ago. At December 31, we had $344 million of raw land and land under development and $491 million of finished unsold lots. We owned 6,220 unsold finished lots with an average cost of $79,000 per lot and this average lot cost is 20% of our $396,000 backlog average sale price.

Our goal is to maintain about a one year supply of owned finished lots. And the market breakdown of our $835 million of unsold land is $385 million in the north and $450 million in the south. Lots owned and controlled as of 12/31/19 totaled 33,300 lots, 44% of which were owned and 56% under contract. We own 14,700 lots, of which 47% are in the north and 53% in the south. Based on 2019 sales, we currently own a 2.2 year supply of lots and control a 4.9 year supply. A year ago, we owned 14,000 lots and controlled a total of 28,700 lots.

During 2019's fourth quarter, we spent $73 million on land purchases and $83 million on land development for a total of $156 million and about 31% of the purchase amount was raw land. For 2019, we spent $600 million on land purchases and land development and about 44% of the purchase amount was raw land. Our current estimate for 2020 land purchase and development spending is $650 million to $700 million.

At the end of the quarter, we had 668 completed inventory homes and 1,459 total inventory homes. And of the total inventory, 622 were in the northern region and 837 are in the southern region. And at December 31, '18, we had 591 completed inventory homes and 1,443 total inventory homes. For comparison, we had 3.0 finished specs per community at 12/31/19 versus 2.8 at 12/31/18.

Our financial condition continues to be strong with a record $1 billion in equity at year-end, equal to a book value of $35 per share and our homebuilding debt-to-cap ratio declined to 38% at year-end from 44% a year ago.

In 2019, we generated $240 million of EBITDA, up 14% over last year and generated $66 million of cash from operating activities. Interest incurred was $49 million in 2019 compared to $47 million last year. And in January of 2020, we issued $400 million of 4.95% eight year senior notes and redeemed our $300 million, 6.75% senior notes due 2021 at par. And at 12/31/19, there were $66 million outstanding under our $500 million unsecured revolving credit facility.

This completes our presentation. We'll now open the call for any questions or comments.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Your first question comes from the line of Thomas Maguire from Zelman & Associates. Your line is open.

Thomas Maguire -- Zelman & Associates -- Analyst

Hey guys, really strong results. Congrats on the quarter and a strong finish to the year. I guess just first on the volume side of the equation. As we think about the go-forward sales per community, as you talked about, it's really strong on an absolute basis. And I think the fourth quarter is probably the highest level we've seen in our model. But is there a room for absorptions to go higher with the tailwind from affordable communities going forward? Or do you think we're at a little bit of a wall from an absolute pace perspective right now? And then can you just talk about the difference in absorptions for the entry-level product versus traditional communities and how wide that spread is?

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

I hope there is room for absorptions to go up. But I will say, even if they stay right where they are, I think we can perform at a high level an improved profitability. Clearly, the pace is a little bit better in our Smart Series communities. I think -- I don't know that I have an exact number to give you. In fact, I guess I should say I know that I don't have an exact number to give you. But the other side of it is that an average could be a little bit misleading because some of them -- we have some smart communities that are running four, five, six, seven sales a month and then we might have some that are running 2 to 2.5. So they're not all -- they're not all home runs, and I know you probably understand that. But on average, we clearly have better pace.

And we -- and I think that our Smart Series will continue to represent a greater percentage of overall business. Last year at this time, we thought it might be around 20%, 25%, it's actually higher than that now. I think it could still creep up to north of 30%, 35% over the next 12 months to 18 months. And if conditions as they are now remain pretty much the same, that should improve our pace.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

And we're also excited about continuing our community count growth. I mean it's challenging for all of us with sales as strong as they've been. But as we've said, we were able to open 80 communities last year. We did close out 64 with average communities up about 6%. But again, we are looking to continue to increase that community count on average by 5% this year. So we're very excited about that.

Thomas Maguire -- Zelman & Associates -- Analyst

Yeah, absolutely. It looks like you guys sold land -- the lot pipeline tick up too, so that should support that moving forward. And then just to go back really quick. If we think about pricing power, Bob, you know you've talked about the business from a profitability perspective being in a tight range. Is today's environment any different when you think about the consumer? Is there an ability to raise price or how do you think about that? And marrying that with the comment of costs being relatively flat right now, how would you frame kind of the price cost dynamic, understanding there is both consumer side and this side that you have?

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

Well, just to be consistent, we've said we think it's a 20% to 21% business today. And I think we're more optimistic about margins being better than not. I think we have a little bit of pricing power. Not a lot, and it's very -- it's market-dependent and location-dependent. But I think our margins -- I know there is sometimes mix in the quarter and fourth quarter we tend to see a lot more specs closing. On average, spec margins tend to be a little lower than to-be-builts. But I think that our gross margins have been trending up. And you know I don't think they're going to get any worse. I think that we gave no guidance on this, but I would expect them to be at least where they are now, if not better for the year.

Thomas Maguire -- Zelman & Associates -- Analyst

Sounds great. Thanks guys.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Thanks.

Operator

And your next question comes from the line of Alex Barron from Housing Research Center. Your line is open.

Alex Barron -- Housing Research Center -- Analyst

Yeah, thanks. I guess on the margin front, I think last quarter you guys had indicated you thought the margins might be a little better this quarter and they were a little bit lower. So was it mainly what you just said that it was more spec that closed?

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Yeah, Alex, it was mix for sure. We did close a few more specs, like Bob said. I mean if you look at our margins in 2019, they were kind of flat the first half. The second quarter went up over 20%, the fourth quarter was a little below. So there wasn't a major, major swing. But no, nothing really unusual.

Alex Barron -- Housing Research Center -- Analyst

Okay. And then I was wondering if you guys could comment on -- you -- I think I heard you say December was up 50% something. How was January and what are your overall expectations about how sustainable current sales paces are for the rest of the year?

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. As far as going through the numbers, again, October was up 38%, November was up 38% and December was up 56%. We don't really make any specific comments about January.

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

Yes. And I'll add to that, as Phillip just said that we're optimistic about the selling season that's under way. I think it even -- in my view it started earlier this year than normal. There used to be some sort of belief that it would start after the Super Bowl, but housing didn't pay any attention to Super Bowl this year and started earlier. And I think as -- we're in a favorable rate environment. And I think consumer confidence is certainly in a good spot. And as long as rates stay at this roughly 4% or below 4% level, which I think it's reasonable to assume that they will for some time, I think housing has got a little bit of room to run and I think we do too.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

I mean we had at the end of the year 8% more stores going into the year. We also opened, as we said, 80 communities last year with 22 of them being in the fourth quarter. So we're excited about hitting the ground running. So yes, we are excited about the spring selling season.

Alex Barron -- Housing Research Center -- Analyst

And if I could ask one more. Is there any change in the outlook for markets? Is there any markets that you are thinking of entering? And I think you had indicated you were going to change your DC exposure, any changes there?

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

We've closed our DC operation. We announced that about a year ago. We executed it about as flawlessly as I think we could have. It's never easy to close up a market for all the obvious reasons. But it was somewhat seamless and painless at least from a financial standpoint. And basically we have nothing, but just a small handful of lots left either to sell or close in DC.

As far as further expansion going forward, it's something we always look at. We have nothing to report, but it is something we continue to look at and watch and monitor. We believe we have the capital, both human and financial to further expand our geographic footprint if there was this transaction that we thought which was sensible and in the best interest of the company.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

But also having said that, as we said in the past, Alex, we think we're really positioned well to continue to have strong growth for the next few years in our existing markets. Job one has been trying to grow our existing markets. We've entered a number of new markets the last few years. So if we can find something that makes sense, we want to be all about that. But we sure do not have any type of need to do that.

Alex Barron -- Housing Research Center -- Analyst

Okay, great. Well, good job. I'll get back in the queue. Thanks.

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

Thanks.

Operator

And your next question comes from the line of Art Winston from Pilot Advisors. Your line is open.

Art Winston -- Pilot Advisors -- Analyst

Thank you for a great quarter. Could you explain in little more detail how you managed to increase the inventory? And at the same time, it seems to me decreased the debt, if I'm looking at the balance sheet appropriately? Maybe I'm not doing it right, but that's what it seems like to me?

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Well, as far as the investment side of it, as we talked about, we did spend $600 million on land; feel very good about our owned and controlled land position. We also had record closings in the fourth quarter and the year. So with the record closings and the higher income level, we've talked about for the year, we generated about $70 million of cash from operations. So that's what led to the strengthening of the balance sheet.

Kevin C. Hake -- Senior Vice President, Treasurer

Yeah. Art, this is Kevin. And I'll just add. I mean we generated -- most of that cash we generated was from earnings. And you know without us paying the dividend, we were able to -- to answer your questions, we were -- we grew inventory less than what our earnings allowed us to grow. So we paid down debt.

Art Winston -- Pilot Advisors -- Analyst

Excellent. Would it be fair to say that on apples-to-apples basis, the cost of the inventory or the units in inventory isn't much higher than it was a year ago, apples to apples per unit?

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

No, not unit per unit increasing a lot more volume. And if you look how much closings were up in the fourth quarter and the year, there was more unit volume closed as opposed to the cost of the units because our average sale price has actually come down a little bit.

Art Winston -- Pilot Advisors -- Analyst

No, that's -- I mean my question is, are you having to pay up very much to buy the raw land, and the completed lots, is it going up appreciably or is it just going up a little?

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

I think our average finished lot cost is roughly equivalent to what it was a year ago. It's probably within the $1,000 or $2,000. I don't have the number.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Yeah, around $80,000.

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

It was like $80,000 a year ago and it's like $79,000 right now. Look, the land markets are competitive, they're tight. The good sites aren't becoming less expensive. I think we've just been able to manage through it so far. But if housing continues to run the way it is, I think we'll see a little bit of inflation on the land side.

Kevin C. Hake -- Senior Vice President, Treasurer

And also, Art, when you look at the land costs; we talked about the average sale price in backlog with Smart Series house being 302. I mean the land price per Smart Series lot is less than our more higher priced stuff. So that also the equation as far as keeping that land price pretty flat.

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

I think one other thing and it's sort of maybe slightly related to your question, Art is, we have a very strong land position, at least we believe that we do. And we control just under a five year supply. The great thing about our land position is that quite a bit less than half of it is on our books. When you compare us to other builders, you'll typically see at least 50%, if not 60% or so of their owned land is already acquired, which sort of means there is no turning back. And look, we don't want to turn back or walk away from any deals. But we've got a lot more under contract that we control rather than already owned, which I think is just a safety net.

Art Winston -- Pilot Advisors -- Analyst

Terrific. Thank you very much.

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

Thank you.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Thanks.

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

Operator, are there any more questions? Hello? Can anybody here us?

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Operator?

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

Operator?

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Jay McCandless from Wedbush. Your line is open. You may ask your question.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Hey Jay.

Jay McCandless -- Wedbush Securities, Inc. -- Analyst

Can you hear me?

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, we can you fine. We thought we lost everybody.

Jay McCandless -- Wedbush Securities, Inc. -- Analyst

No, we're still here. So I want to ask two, three questions on SG&A. The first one, is there any tailwind filled that we might see dollar-wise for spending you all may have done on DC in '19 that isn't going to repeat in '20?

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Not really as far as DC. We're down to a couple of people. So those costs are pretty much passed us. Jay, I am sure you heard the explanation that we did give for SG&A...

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

Phillip, excuse me. I think he was asking if we expensed a lot of stuff last year that we wanted to expense this year. No, it's really a pretty much of that point.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

And as far as SG&A expenses, it can be a little lumpy at sometimes. Bonuses and those types of things, you tend to book more as the earnings are made and that's part of the reason also. Also another thing in SG&A is opening a lot of new communities. In other way, we treat those new communities is that a pretty significant amount of those dollars are expensed as we open up those new sales centers, as we construct those sales centers, as we put furniture in there, technology, brochures, have broker functions and those type of things. You know when you get into opening new communities, it's not unusual to spend $25,000 to $50,000 per sales center and those things are expensed, and there was a lot of new communities opened in the fourth quarter. So those were couple of the reasons it was a little bit higher in the fourth quarter, Jay.

Jay McCandless -- Wedbush Securities, Inc. -- Analyst

And that actually leads into my next question. When we think about the growth in community count this year, is it going to be pretty even or you are going to have a waiting of one quarter or two quarters getting more of the openings?

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

If you look at 2019, it was kind of what the 42 the first half and 38 the second. So it was about 50% in the first half. The second half looks to us like it will be pretty similar to that again this year. But again, looking for like a 5% average growth during the year.

Jay McCandless -- Wedbush Securities, Inc. -- Analyst

And then the other question I had on SG&A, should we -- if we look at the dollar amount spent in 1Q '19, 2Q '19, should we think about adding some to that just for the IT upgrades you were talking about?

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

No, I wouldn't necessarily to do that. I mean, when you look at our year in 2019, revenue was up almost 10%, SG&A expenses were up 8%. If you look today, our headcount is up about 4%. So obviously there will be some cost increases because we are a larger company. We have more people. We will still be opening a number of stores.

Are we trying to have at least 10% revenue growth? Yeah. The answer is, yes. So it's hard to give any specific guidance. As we said in our comments, we really are working hard to get operating efficiencies. But one of the challenges is we are having a lower average sale price come through and that impacted it. But again, we still hope to get operating efficiencies.

The good thing also if you look for the year, pre-tax went from 6.2% to 6.6%. When you look at the fourth quarter pre-tax, the fourth quarter pre-tax was 6.9% versus 6.1%. So we are getting better returns. And so we're making progress, but SG&A could be a more lumpy now than quarter-over-quarter.

Jay McCandless -- Wedbush Securities, Inc. -- Analyst

Got it. And that was -- and actually on the price side, that was the next thing I was going to ask. I mean we're assuming for '20 the average closing prices and average backlog prices basically in '20 about the same levels they did in '19. Is that what you guys are seeing in your community count right now or should we think about it ticking down 1% or 2%?

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

You know it's -- if you're talking about average sale price, Jay?

Jay McCandless -- Wedbush Securities, Inc. -- Analyst

Yeah.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

I mean as Smart Series continues to increase a little bit, we would tend to think it's going to be in that 2%, 3% downward range overall ASP. That's hard to predict, but that's kind of what our thoughts are.

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

It should slightly moderate down.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

It's kind of hard to predict, Jay because as you know, we do about 40%, 45% specs. So that's a pretty good moving target. But we're very focused on margin improvement, as Bob said. We're still opening a lot of stores. You tend to have pricing power when you have something a little different, a little better product in a better location. But our thoughts are ASP would be down 2% to 3%.

Jay McCandless -- Wedbush Securities, Inc. -- Analyst

Sure. That's great. And then the last question I had on Smart Series and on some of your more entry-level price communities. What type of behavior are you seeing from competitors? Is there still a decent amount of discounting and incentives out there? Are people being more aggressive with price? Any insight you could give there would be helpful?

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

We've been able to -- first of all, we've had I think really good success in most of our Smart Series communities. So is there competition? You bet there is. And frankly some of the most successful Smart Series communities in our company are in some of the most competitive markets like Houston and San Antonio in terms of affordable offerings by other builders. We haven't been impacted by a lot of discounting from other builders. I know some of it goes on and every now and then we do it too, but it's -- I don't consider that a big issue.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

I mean as we've said, Jay, I mean our Smart Series has above company average pace and has above company average margins. So we've been very pleased with that product line.

Jay McCandless -- Wedbush Securities, Inc. -- Analyst

That's great. Thank you all so much for the color.

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

Thanks.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Thanks, Jay.

Operator

[Operator Instructions] We have a follow-up question from Alex Barron from Housing Research Center. Your line is open.

Alex Barron -- Housing Research Center -- Analyst

Yeah. Thanks for taking the follow-up. At the beginning of 2019, the year was pretty slow and eventually I think got better and you guys still managed to get 20 basis points of operating leverage. Do you feel given the stronger conditions this year that maybe you could get at least that or more this year?

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Well, when you're looking at the SG&A line, yes, that did improve 20 basis points. When you look at the bottom pre-tax line for the year, it actually went from what 6.2% to 6.6%. So it's a 40 basis points improvement.

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

Alex, we're always focused on income increases. We are continuing to invest more of our business for growth the next year or two. So it's a challenge to always keep all the metrics going the right way. But are we focused on improving our income percent and our SG&A leverage, we sure are. We're also pretty pleased that our interest incurred has kind of flattened out. We think there is a little room on margins. So there's a lot of different moving parts affecting that equation. Overall, we talked about our strong ROE. So there's a lot of things we're focusing on.

Alex Barron -- Housing Research Center -- Analyst

Great.

Operator

[Operator Instructions] There are no further questions at this time. Presenters, you may proceed.

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Thank you very much. Looking forward to talking to you next quarter.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

Duration: 46 minutes

Call participants:

Phillip G. Creek -- Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Robert H. Schottenstein -- Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer

Derek J. Klutch -- President & Chief Executive Officer

Kevin C. Hake -- Senior Vice President, Treasurer

Thomas Maguire -- Zelman & Associates -- Analyst

Alex Barron -- Housing Research Center -- Analyst

Art Winston -- Pilot Advisors -- Analyst

Jay McCandless -- Wedbush Securities, Inc. -- Analyst

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