Clark County homebuilders saw continued demand in May that pushed single-family permits 53 percent higher than the same month last year, according to a report that tracks permits for single-family homes.
Some builders also are building homes with no advanced buyer, signaling a rebound for the speculative — or "spec" — market, especially in high-end areas, such as Camas and Felida, considered to have the best schools, said Nathan Cano, of Cano Real Estate.
Builders in unincorporated parts of the county filed 98 permits in May, compared with 64 in the same month a year ago and a 77-permit total in April. In Vancouver, homebuilders have been issued 118 permits in the first five months of the year, holding steady with the number handed out during the same period in 2012.
"Things are very busy for us this time of year," said Avaly Scarpelli, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Clark County, which represents 535 companies from the homebuilding industry.
The group is preparing for its annual Parade of Homes tour July 12-28, which will feature five luxury homes of 3,400 to 4,600 square feet.
The high-end segment of the market has been hot for two years, according to Cano, who is marketing homes in the 55-lot Erickson Farms subdivision, where houses are priced between $400,000 and $600,000.
Area experts predict steadily increasing housing starts through 2014, although homebuilding could level off dramatically as builders work through an existing supply of available lots to build on.
"There's not as much vacant land to meet the demand," said Terry Wollam, a broker with Re/Max Equity Group in Vancouver.
Five local builders are building houses at the Erickson Farms site, which now includes 10 houses built without a buyer.
Cano said each builder owns several lots, an arrangement that mitigates the risk of one developer owning the large, undeveloped tract if the market should turn.
Some experts are just beginning to see financing options open up for single-family home developers.
"In many cases, the lots were acquired at a lower price range," said Glenn Crellin, associate director of research at the University of Washington's Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies in Seattle.
A 70-lot second phase is set to break ground later this year at Erickson Farms, where homes will be priced from $600,000 to $1 million.
High-priced by pre-recession standards, the $400,000 to $600,000 price range is now considered "mid-level," Cano said. "We have a lot of people coming here for professional jobs and they're drawn to the schools."
Wollam also is seeing new-home seekers employed by several of the area's expanding and new businesses, including metal fabricator Greenberry Industrial, Fisher Investments and PeaceHealth.
"We also get retirees and people who work in Portland," he said. "I've had people from Texas, China and New Jersey."
Crellin said builders across the state are experiencing a similar uptick in business, giving residential builders the confidence to dabble in spec building. He attributed the trend, in part, to shrinking inventory in the existing home market, as underwater homeowners revisit selling homes on which they owe more for the mortgage than the house would fetch on the market.
"Since the resale side isn't coming up with the inventory to sell -- the builders are saying maybe we can get something on the market to sell," Crellin said.
Area builders predict steadily increasing housing starts through 2013 and 2014.
Permits to build houses in unincorporated parts of Clark County in May were valued at a $33.1 million total, up from an $18.3 million total the same month last year.