Clark County's homebuilding industry picked up speed in 2012, with the most permits for new homes issued for the year since the sector flat-lined in 2008.
Still, the number of permits handed out in last year's construction upswing ran far behind the lofty heights the housing sector annually hit at the turn of the 21st century, as measured by the number of single-family building permits issued in unincorporated Clark County. Some experts blamed this year's still-sluggish production figures on new-home sticker shock and a shortage of ready-to-build lots, despite emerging demand resembling the trends of a decade ago.
"The difference is, we had lot inventory (homebuilding lots) then, and now we don't," said Terry Wollam, a broker with Re/Max Equity Group in Vancouver.
Builders say they are selling houses as fast as they can build them, and that demand is pushing prices higher.
In 2012, the total value of the county's 577 new-home permits grew to $182.7 million. It was up $63.9 million from 348 permits valued at $118.8 million in 2011, the county reported.
The 577 permit total was 65.8 percent higher than in 2011. That represented the first year-over-year production increase in a row for Clark County homebuilders since 2010, the year the federal government offered a tax credit for some home buyers. But last year's total production is not anywhere near the more than 2,000 housing permits issued annually in Clark County during the first few years of the past decade.
"I don't think there are as many buyers out there," said Dan Wisner, a partner with Osprey Homes, a Vancouver-based homebuilder.
Of the potential buyers he is seeing, Wisner said many are ill-informed.
"The general public is very much a step behind the market," Wisner said. "They think there's a lot of inventory available and a lot of distressed homes at distressed prices."
To the contrary, the county's supply of listings has been shrinking steadily, pushing prices higher and spurring homebuilding on a limited number of finished lots, said Mike Lamb, a broker with Vancouver-based Windermere Real Estate Stellar Group.
The RMLS reported that Clark County's supply of homes listed for sale declined to 5.2 months worth of inventory in November. It was down
35 percent from an eight-month supply in November 2011. The number means it would take 5.2 months to sell the 2,120 houses listed for sale countywide if no new inventory were added.
But the county's inventory of listings would have been lower if not for a significant number of pending short-sale transactions, which involve lengthy negotiations, according to Lamb. He said the total supply of listings also includes a number of listings for construction of new houses that haven't been built.
"The problem is some of these don't exist. They're proposed," Lamb said, estimating it leaves all of Clark County with about 1,081 existing houses for sale.
"The demand is definitely there," Lamb said of the uptick in housing starts that has pushed prices higher through the year.
By November, the selling price of area homes had increased by 22.6 percent from the start of the year. The median sales price (half sold for more, half for less) increased to $203,500 for all Clark County homes sold in the month, according to the RMLS, a Portland-based listing service. It was up from a median of $166,000 in January 2012.