The homebuilding industry, that slumbering giant, has officially reawakened, firing off more permits last month to build new homes than Tampa Bay has seen in six years.
Builders sought to turn dirt on 880 local single-family homes last month, a 70 percent jump over May 2012, new census data show. Those homes were valued at more than $260 million.
Apartment developers were just as busy, bringing last month's building permit count past 1,600, three times the number of permits filed one year ago.
Building permits submitted to local planning officials give perhaps the best idea of what developers expect to unveil in the near future, but builders are already hard at work.
Construction crews broke ground on 780 new homes across Tampa Bay last month, their highest level since early 2007, Commerce Department data show.
The sale of new homes make up a fraction of an industry dominated by sales of existing homes. Even so, homebuilding — with all its jobs and spending on side items, like appliances — is credited as one of the economy's strongest upward pulls.
Tampa Bay's home construction still has a ways to go before it can be called healthy. Ten years ago, in May 2003, builders filed almost twice as many permits for single-family homes, census data show. And between 1995 and 2000, builders here in an average month filed more than 900 new-home permits. Last month came close to that average. But one month, or even a few good months, doesn't make up for years of anemic numbers.
Builders' business froze during the housing bust as home sales and prices crumbled. And in recent years, as many homes were off-loaded at large discounts, new homes proved hard to sell.
But newly confident buyers have returned to the market seeking bigger and more extravagant living. The typical new Tampa Bay home has grown consistently for the last two years, hitting 2,600 square feet, data from construction research firm MetroStudy shows.
Michael McElveen, the founder of Urban Economics, a Tampa real estate advisory firm, said homebuilders have established their busiest "ground zero" among north Hillsborough and south Pasco counties.
Homebuyers have flocked to the area's winding suburbs for its good interstate access, easing commutes. Over the last year, land prices there have surged dramatically, as developers have looked to ramp up construction.
In other areas where builders once scooped up land, such as the open plots and exurbs of east Hillsborough, McElveen said low demand has emptied subdivisions and left "cows standing under the streetlights."
But as opposed to the sprawling, speculative, thousand-acre deals of the housing boom, McElveen said builders are moving more tentatively now, dropping big money only where they feel most optimistic about success.
"They're saying, 'We are only going to spend money and take risks on what we can have a comfortable feeling about in the next six months,' " McElveen said. "They only want to buy now what they can eat right now."
Drew Harwell can be reached email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.