Clark County homebuilding permits up 52% in July

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Builders broke ground on more Clark County homes in July than during the same month in any of the last four years, adding to signs of stabilization in the residential construction market.

But some say the equilibrium could be thrown off balance soon due to a short supply of housing lots that are ready for development. Regardless, builders throughout Clark County say they are selling more houses this year to buyers enticed by historically low mortgage interest rates, a dwindling supply of existing homes listed for sale and the feeling that home prices are about to head higher soon.

"That's what's pushing the urgency," said Matt Lewis, a spokesman for Pacific Lifestyle Homes, a Vancouver-based homebuilding company.

Lewis said the market has shown signs of recovery since April.

"It's held steady since then," he said.

In July, 64 permits were issued to build single-family homes in unincorporated parts of the county, up 52 percent compared with the same month last year, according to the Clark County Community Development Department. The July total was on par with the 66 permits issued in June and 66 permits in May,

The county has handed out 290 permits to build houses from January through July, representing a 42 percent increase over the 204 permits issued during the same period in 2011.

"The market is very strong right now," said Terry Wollam, a broker with Re/Max Equity Group in Vancouver.

Wollam, who is also developing a Camas subdivision with partners, estimated about 20 percent of Clark County's new houses are being built by investors for the now booming rental market. Many of those developments were pre-approved duplexes and row homes planned before the housing market started to falter in the final months of 2007.

Since the housing industry slump, investors can now purchase and complete the planned developments for less money.

"They like the price point and the rents they can get," Wollam said, adding that the prolonged housing downturn has created demand for rentals.

Lots in short supply

But the inventory of pre-approved and ready subdivisions is fading fast, said Mark Jeffries, a spokesman for Horns Corner Properties in Ridgefield. Wollam added that it can take an average of three years for a newly planned development to go from bare land to the end of the permitting process.

"There's not many lots left," said Jeffries, a real estate broker who is marketing the 279-lot Pioneer Canyon subdivision in Ridgefield and its neighboring housing project, Green Gables.

He and Wollam say the remaining Clark County builders now face new competition from national builders that are buying up the available lots. The Ridgefield subdivisions once supported five local builders who were building the projects one lot at a time, Jeffries said. That changed about two weeks ago when Miami-based Lennar Corp. purchased all of the remaining lots. The company also bought the 120-lot Falcons Nest subdivision in Brush Prairie, Jeffries said.

"They (Lennar) see a lot of opportunity here," he said. "They see we're at the bottom and this is a great time for them to move into the market."