Originally created 01/21/05

Counties see construction gains in different categories

Richmond County outpaced Columbia County in its percentage of new home construction last year. However, Columbia County surged far ahead in commercial construction.

Richmond County issued 801 new single-family home permits in 2004, a 22 percent increase over the 656 in 2003.

Though it issued more permits - 1,028 - Columbia County saw a 7.6 percent decline from the 1,113 recorded in 2003.

"It steadily has gone up, but it was a pretty good jump from 2003 to 2004," said Rob Sherman, Richmond County's license and inspections director. Mr. Sherman credited low mortgage rates and several new subdivisions for the increase.

"They're continuing to develop new neighborhoods in the southern part of the city," he said.

Columbia County officials say that the 51.6 percent increase in commercial construction permits - from 64 in 2003 to 97 in 2004 - is a byproduct of heavy residential growth during the past several years.

"If you look at residential the last few years, those numbers are going to perpetuate commercial," Columbia County building official Richard Harmon said.

Nationally, new home construction surged as mortgage rates were unaffected by the Federal Reserve Bank increasing interest rates 1.25 percentage points.

Mortgage rates peaked at about 6 percent in May but quickly fell, averaging between 5.25 and 5.5 percent the rest of the year, according to www.bankrate.com.

"Because mortgage rates stayed lower than we expected, housing did better," said Jeff Humphreys, the director of the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.

Some of the area's largest home builders capitalized on the low rates.

"2003 was a record year for us; 2004 beat that," said Donna Redd, the assistant vice president at Nordahl Homes Inc., one of Richmond County's largest builders.

Ms. Redd said the company built more than 300 homes last year, mostly in south Augusta.

Bill Beazley, the president of Prudential Beazley Real Estate, called his company's output extraordinary.

The company built 151 homes in both Richmond and Columbia counties. Most of those were "second homes," in the $140,000 through $230,000 range.

"We had a slight pullback after school started," he said. "But as we pulled into 2005, the activity was strong."

Commercial construction nationally didn't have as solid a year. According to reports by the Selig Center, commercial construction tends to be more affected by economic conditions, which makes lenders less willing to finance new construction.

Richmond County fell victim to this trend. The county issued 75 commercial building permits in 2004 worth almost $35 million. In 2003, the county issued 105 permits worth more than $55 million.

An improving economy and increasing mortgage rates are expected to reverse those trends.

Mr. Harmon said Columbia County should see another large increase in commercial development, particularly as the new Target shopping center opens and attracts more retail.

But mortgage rates, which some in the industry expect to top 6.5 percent, likely will slow housing construction.

The 2005 Georgia Economic Outlook developed by the Selig Center predicts the state's single-family housing construction will decline 10 percent in 2005.

Area builders are optimistic, nevertheless.

Ms. Redd said her company plans to build as many homes in 2005 as it did in 2004.

And Mr. Beazley said he hopes to build 180 homes this year, a 20 percent increase over his company's 2004 figures.

"You have to be an optimist," he said. "We're doing a good job, and we're doing better every year."

Reach James Gallagher at (706) 823-3227 or james.gallagher@augustachronicle.com.


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