Rooftops in Columbia County aren't rising as fast as they were a few years ago, but county officials and builders say that's not a harbinger of doom for the housing market.
Though the number of houses built has declined the past two years, builders and county officials say it is not as bad as the slump seen in many areas of the nation. In fact, they say, it's likely more of a leveling off for an area that has experienced an unprecedented construction boom.
Columbia County saw single-family home construction peak in 2004 and 2005, when 1,363 and 1,419 building permits were issued in those years, respectively. The number issued as of mid-November was 865, according to county figures.
Though the numbers are off considerably from those peak years, 2007 numbers are similar to the heavy growth years of 1999 and 2000, according to county figures.
Richard Harmon, the county's building and commercial services director, said fallout from the national subprime mortgage industry collapse has slowed single-family home construction in the county.
"Certainly there's been a decrease in single-family permits, but any time I do more than 800 in a year's time, that's a good year," he said. Still, he said, there are many subdivisions in the county with vacant lots.
Builders Association of Metro Augusta President Scott Patterson said interest rates are still favorable and purchases are being made by home buyers with down payments and good credit.
"I believe that on a national scale it could be that you had investors buying new homes to be used as rental property and that has slowed considerably," he said. "I like to think that the local market has just leveled off to where we are accustomed to being before the expediential growth of the past several years."
Building permit figures seem to back Patterson's assessment. Though 2007 will likely be another year of decline, it should top the 878 permits issued in 1999 and the 867 issued in 2000. This year might also come close to the 1,004 permits issued in 2001, the first of five consecutive years the county bested the 1,000 mark.
Two forecasting measures for the construction market could be the number of preliminary and final plats issued for new subdivisions.
Preliminary plats are essentially the layout of streets and lots. The numbers of preliminary plats submitted by developers to the county for review are down from 2,117 last year to 1,268 through October, according to county statistics. But submissions of final plats, which are completed subdivision and lot plans, are up by more than 700 this year.
County planning director Jeff Browning said the process from preliminary to final plat takes several months. The number of preliminary plats sought might be an indication of builders' longer-range views of the market, whereas the high number of final plats reflect past projects that now must be built.
Patterson said builders seem to be hedging their bets, slowing production to ensure they do not have too much product available without waiting buyers. But, he said, there is good news for the future.
"With the possible expansion of Plant Vogtle and added missions at Fort Gordon, our market should be back to the rapid growth of years past," Patterson said.
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