Permits to built new single-family homes have been on the rise in Harford County this year, although the numbers are still much lower than they were during the last housing boom in the early 2000s, according to the county's planning and zoning department and local builders.
Daniel Whitehurst, president of Clark Turner Homes in Belcamp, said he has seen an increase in new housing construction, but again pointed out those numbers are relative.
"It's still not at the level that we saw in the boom [years] or in a normal market, but certainly better than in the last two years," Whitehurst said. "For us to be excited about an increase – I mean, it's an increase from the bottom."
The market overall, he said, "is just coming out a little," and people "have a little more confidence."
Whitehurst said he has seen homes staying on the market for fewer days, as well as the number of homes for sale going up.
Bob Ward, chief executive officer of the Edgewood-based Bob Ward Companies, said he has also seen some improvement and is cautiously confident.
"Our sales have certainly picked up, I guess really starting in January and February," Ward said. "Prices have been flat, so we have not seen much price appreciation."
The company is only finishing up some projects in which they were already building, namely Richardson's Legacy in Bel Air, which Ward said has been selling well.
"They have seen really good sales success," he said.
"I am cautiously optimistic, but I am glad to hear the permit numbers are up. But I am also concerned the economy just seems to be limping along," Ward said.
Numbers only part of story
Total building permits for new dwelling units issued by the county in the first half of 2012 are off slightly compared to last year; however, permit activity has been higher than in 2010, according to the county's latest cumulative reports.
The county approved 129 permits for single-family homes and single family modular homes between Jan. 1 and June 30, compared with 107 in the first six months of 2011 and 87 in the first six months of 2010, according to cumulative permit reports.
In all, the county has approved permits for 271 new housing units this year, including 134 townhouses and 12 condo units.
Last year from January through June, 422 permits were approved, a figure that included 212 rental apartment units, 84 townhouses and 12 condo units. There have been no new rental apartment units approved so far this year, nor were any approved in the first half of 2010, when 181 total new housing units were approved.
None of the above figures includes construction in the municipalities of Bel Air, Aberdeen in Havre de Grace. Of the three, Havre de Grace has two active developments where homes are being built; Aberdeen is reviewing plans for two to three new developments and Bel Air has a couple of condo communities where new units are being built.
Since few builders can afford to build on speculation in the current economy, a permit approved nearly always means a unit that a new single family home is going to be built and immediately occupied. In addition, most townhouse builders won't build a group unless at least 60 percent of the units are under contract of sale; the same holds true for condo buildings.
"It is markedly up from two years ago," Planning and Zoning Director Pete Gutwald said of the housing construction activity in the county this year.
The numbers also continue to rise overall from the start of the economic downturn, Gutwald said.
"It looks like it's on an uptick from that year," he said.
Gutwald likewise noted that the county saw a big spike last year from apartment units, which may have accounted for the drop in numbers this year.
"It's tough to compare to last year," he said. "Last year, it was an apartment complex that got built, so that kind of skewed the total numbers."
Gutwald also said, "It looks like there are more people doing additions and modifications to their homes than actually doing new homes."
For example, from January through June, Harford issued 264 permits to build additions to or to renovate single family homes, compared to 189 in the first six months of 2011 and 173 in the same period of 2010.
Gutwald also noted that the new building code that took effect July 1 requires that all new single family homes have fire suppression sprinkler systems, which may have accounted for an uptick in the activity during June, as builders tried to beat the deadline. There were 37 new single family home permits issued last month, compared with just 11 the previous June.
"It will be interesting to see what happens next month," Gutwald said of July activity. "There was a lot more applications for new dwellings."
Realtors see reason for optimism
Several local real estate agents also said they have been seeing relatively good sales numbers, although BRAC-related sales don't appear to the driving factor they were in recent years.
"I don't think BRAC is still a major factor. We are not seeing a ton of relocation from BRAC," Kirk Steffes, a Realtor with Garceau Realty, said Thursday.
Steffes also said new construction seems to be selling well.
"The pricing seems to be stable. It's not declining. Houses that are priced well and show well sell pretty quickly," he said. "We think we are pretty close to the bottom of the market. We don't see it declining any more."
"There is still a lot of new construction out there," he added, mentioning the Richmond American community off Tollgate Road, Richardson's Legacy, as well as one off Conowingo Road, Kelly's Glen.
"They sold the one out in Tollgate pretty quickly," Steffes said. "There seem to be a lot of people in the market. I think people sort of realize the market is starting to stabilize. Mortgages seem to be a little easier to obtain."
Steffes agreed he saw more people doing modifications to their homes as well.
"Hopefully we are on an upward trend. Obviously the interest rates are low; that's the main thing driving the market," he added.
Diana Hirschhorn, of the Hirschhorn Group, said her team's business mostly focuses on residential resales, but she has seen the level of interest increase nicely in recent months in the one major new residential development she markets, Ryland Homes' Trails at Beech Creek near Aberdeen.
"There we have seen more buyers calling and inquiring about the community and the various models we have listed," she said.
In terms of general business, "May and June were phenomenal. They were probably two of the best months we have seen in years," Hirschhorn said.
"I would say across the board, resales as well as new construction, buyer interest has risen nicely as of late. Inventory is still fairly low," she said, adding at times it can actually be competitive for buyers.
"Buyers are finally getting the message that now is a good time to buy, rates are incredibly low," Hirschhorn continued. "We are starting to see some economic recovery."
"If they are well-maintained, aggressively marketed and, most importantly, priced correctly, then homes are selling close to list price and in a very reasonable amount of time," she said.