Growth in Columbia County, the fastest-growing section of the Augusta metro area, is finally starting to slow.
Housing statistics and anecdotal evidence show the booming bedroom community has not been immune to the nationwide housing slump that has resulted in a slowdown in construction, declining home prices, weak sales and, in extreme cases, foreclosures.
The bright side is that the county's housing market is not as bad as many other parts of the country.
"Columbia County is definitely holding up better than the average, but we have felt it," said Jim Courson, the owner of Jim Courson Realty in Martinez. "There's no question about that. Any Realtor who tells you differently is lying."
Johnny Hensley, a vice president for ReMax of Augusta, agrees.
"I think by any standard, based on the people I've talked to at other ReMax offices throughout the country, that we're doing better than average," Mr. Hensley said. "That's not to say we're doing great."
Columbia County home sales were down 21 percent in February from the previous year, according to sales figures from the Greater Augusta Association of Realtors. Sales of new homes -- houses built within the past year -- declined 32 percent during the same period.
In 2007, building permits for new single-family houses fell 13.5 percent from the previous year, which itself was down 24 percent from the number of permits issued in 2005.
Industry watchers, however, say the slump is mild because the area's conservative banking climate did not churn out a lot of subprime loans during the housing boom. Such loans, which are made to consumers with spotty credit histories, are blamed for the nation's skyrocketing foreclosure rate.
Columbia County has so far averted a spike in foreclosures. In 2005, 150 homes were foreclosed on in the county, according to data from the county's clerk of court office.
That figure rose by one in 2006. In 2007, foreclosures fell to 129.
So far this year, about 35 homes have been foreclosed on. If that rate continued, the number of foreclosures in 2008 would be in the same ball park as 2007.
For those who can qualify for a mortgage, Columbia County is a buyer's market. There are more than 1,400 homes for sale in the county, according to the Realtors association. The large inventory, coupled with relatively low interest rates, is prompting many existing homeowners to step up to a more expensive home.
Faced with paying long-term interest on unsold new homes, many builders are discounting home prices in an effort to sell them quickly.
"A lot of them now don't want the cheese," Mr. Hensley said. "They just want to get out of the trap."
Mr. Courson said nearly half of his recent business comes from existing county residents looking to upgrade.
"There are a lot of people living in nice homes who are moving on up like The Jeffersons, " he said. "If they can afford it, they're getting a $400,000 or $500,000 house."
Many of the homes left behind are being filled by former residents of Richmond County and other surrounding areas.
"That's how they're coming in," he said. "They're coming to those $100,000 homes."
Ernie Mateer is among those who recently moved up, leaving the Candlewood Crossing section of Martinez for a home in Springlakes subdivision near Evans that is 600 square feet larger than his previous home.
"We were getting cramped for space," said Mr. Mateer, who has a wife and two children. "We needed more breathing room."
The county's population grew in 3,000-resident increments each year from 2000 to 2005, but has slowed to about 2,000 new residents annually for the past two years.
Enrollment in schools also has slowed.
"We're still growing, but not at the rate that we were in the past," said Sandra Carraway, the county school system's deputy superintendent.
School administrators predict enrollment will increase by 484 students in 2008-09.
The enrollment increase was projected at 680 this year, but the student population grew by only 345.
Overall enrollment increased by 636 students in 2006-07.
Market watchers say that the slowdown in growth should not be considered a sign that the county's growth will end.
"It's still the place people want to be," Mr. Courson said. "It still has a lot of things going for it."
Mr. Hensley believes the housing market will recover in about a year's time.
"It seems like every 10 or 15 years we hit a lull like this," he said. "The good news is though that this too shall pass."
Staff writer Betsy Gilliland contributed to this article.
Reach Donnie Fetter at (706) 868-1222, ext. 115, or email@example.com.
LOOKING AT COLUMBIA COUNTY
1,400: Approximate number of homes for sale in Columbia County
1,550: Approximate number of homes for sale in Richmond County
Source: Greater Augusta Association of Realtors Inc.
BUILDING PERMITS FOR RESIDENTIAL UNITS ISSUED IN COLUMBIA COUNTY
Source: Columbia County Planning and Development Department
COLUMBIA COUNTY POPULATION GROWTH
Source: Columbia County Commission office
COLUMBIA COUNTY FORECLOSURES BY HOME
COLUMBIA COUNTY FORECLOSURES BY PERSON
Source: Columbia County Clerk of Court's office