published Monday, April 19th, 2010

Building data show increase in permits

by Dan Whisenhunt

To hear Bo Arthur tell it, the recession hasn't harmed the manufactured paradise of the Seven Lakes subdivision in Ooltewah.

As the drums on the concrete trucks spin in the light of a warm recent morning, the workers hired by Seven Lakes Associates LLC assemble homes.

Mr. Arthur, who oversees construction in the subdivision for developer Emerson Russell, said the company is selling houses quickly in the development, which started in 2009.

Building permits in the unincorporated parts of the county show a less rosy picture over the last three years. Permits dropped sharply from 2007 to 2008 as the recession began and declined further through last year.

However, first-quarter data from the Hamilton County Building and Zoning Department hints at an uptick in permits for all types of construction. Last year, the county had issued 191 permits as of March, records show. This year, it's 231.

The value of all construction permits also has increased, records show. In March of last year, permits were issued for a total of $16.26 million in construction; this year, it's $20.7 million.

A good sign, department Director Pat Payne said.

"It looks like things are starting to pick back up a little bit," Mr. Payne said. "I just think it's going to take a matter of time. It seems like there was such a heavy inventory out there when this thing hit. That's got to be absorbed."

Still, he cautioned the figures aren't anywhere close to prerecession levels.

The recent economic troubles have changed home buying, Mr. Payne said.

Homebuilders are cranking out more $150,000 to $200,000 homes than the $300,000 and $500,000 homes that were the norm before the recession, he said.

Mr. Arthur said the homes in Seven Lakes start at $215,000, but the developer is also planning some cottages starting at $170,000.

Teresa Groves, executive officer of the Homebuilders Association of Southern Tennessee, said she's noticed an upward trend in construction. There are more custom homes being built than spec homes, she said, which is a good sign.

"I rode in the subdivisions two weeks ago," she said. "It's amazing some of the homes (built in) the last six or eight months."

Mrs. Groves said the homes costing less than $250,000 are popular because they're considered affordable. But, like Mr. Payne, she said the numbers of homes being built aren't what they used to be.

"I'm hopeful that we are on the rebound," she said. "I think things are going to be better. Volkswagen is coming, so hopefully we'll see progress."

Building permits issued in Hamilton County unincorporated areas

Year Number

* 2010 231*

* 2009 909

* 2008 998

* 2007 1,420

* 2006 1,600

* 2005 1,616

* As of March 31

Source: Hamilton County Building and Zoning Department

about Dan Whisenhunt...

Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...

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