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Construction is under way at a home off Queen Street in Boone, a promising sign after years of decreasing residential building activity. Kellen Moore | Watauga Democrat.

Originally published: 2013-01-05 17:33:02
Last modified: 2013-01-07 10:10:26

Building activity surges upward

For the first time since 2007, Watauga County’s annual building activity figures are worth celebrating, a county official says.

The county issued 186 more permits in 2012 for construction, renovation and alteration projects, and the total estimated cost of the projects increased by almost 44 percent.

For the first time since the recession, the number of permits issued for single-family, detached homes also increased — by a startling 41 percent over 2011.

“It rebounded from last year, which was not a good year,” said Joe Furman, director of Watauga County Planning and Inspections. “That was a surprise, the amount of the rebound. I’m hoping ’11 was rock bottom, because it was a pretty bad year for us.”

While building activity is still nowhere near what it was in 2007, the positive review may offer cautious optimism to local businesses in the construction arena.

What the numbers say

Among the most important indicators of economic conditions nationwide is single-family, detached home starts.

In Watauga County, those numbers have been dwindling since 2007, when 305 permits were issued. Year after year, the numbers fell: 217, then 133, 115 to a low of 90 in 2011.

But in 2012, the county provided 127 single-family home permits with a total estimated construction cost of $35.8 million.

“For single-family permits, we’re at the 2009 level — which is nothing to write home about — but that’s certainly better than the two years after that, ’10 and ’11,” Furman said.

The recession and generational preferences also have driven a shift toward smaller, less costly homes than the county typically saw before 2007, he said.

While single-family homes were certainly an important measure for the county, its saving grace in 2012 was multi-unit projects.

Since the recession, the county has granted between one and four multi-unit construction permits each year. But in 2012 there were 32 permits issued — exceeding even 2007 levels by 60 percent.
In fact, a single project may be to thank for the explosive growth in multi-unit permits: The Cottages of Boone.

The student housing community currently under construction off Poplar Grove Road is expected to add 894 beds by August 2013. Duplexes are currently under construction there, with apartments to follow soon, Furman said.

Residential addition and remodeling permits also increased in 2012.

Exactly 161 permits were issued for those projects, a nearly 9 percent increase compared to the previous year.

That growth comes as less of a surprise for Watauga County, as addition and remodeling projects have weathered the economic storm better than other types of building.

It’s those projects that have continued to be the bread and butter for Watauga Building Supply through the recession, said owner Betty Koontz.

“Our business is about the same as it was last year,” Koontz said. “All we’re selling is mostly remodel stuff, like windows and doors and roofs and deck.”

Room to grow

Overall, Watauga County tallied 914 permits for projects with an estimated cost of $63.3 million. The figures still pale in comparison to 2007, when Watauga County offered 1,095 permits for projects totaling $140.9 million.

Within Boone, the annual permit tallies are still being compiled, but Planning and Inspections Director Bill Bailey said he expects the town will also see growth.

While more of the town’s activity is likely to be in commercial, not residential, projects, Bailey said his staff noticed a surprising uptick in home construction toward the end of the year.

“I haven’t compared this year to last year yet, but I expect we’ll be about 6 to 8 percent busier than last year,” Bailey said.

With several projects on the horizon for 2013, both Boone and Watauga County have much to anticipate.

Mark Kirkpatrick, owner of Mountain Construction in Boone, also is looking into the new year with encouragement. Although remodeling is what has kept the company’s doors open since 2007, it currently has two new houses under contract, he said.

Both contracts came from families that first talked to Kirkpatrick about four years ago but put projects on hold when the economy tanked.

“There was a hiccup in the economy and ... three months ago they both walked in our door and said, ‘We’re back!’” he said.