Tampa Bay area home builders pounded more nails in the past three months than during any other quarter in the past three years.
Local builders started 1,158 homes in the third quarter. That's the most since the third quarter of 2008, when builders started 1,201 homes, according to Tampa's Metrostudy, a national company that tracks the construction industry.
Tony Polito, a housing consultant with Metrostudy, said the quarterly results are encouraging and continue to point to the 727 new starts in early 2009 as the bottom for the region. Starts should continue to rise because national builders aren't carrying a high inventory of new homes in the area, he said.
"If we stay out of recession and continue to add jobs, the housing market will continue to improve," Polito said. "If the builders feel confident, they will start more unsold units."
Compared with those in earlier periods, new starts are up 4 percent from the third quarter of 2010, up 15 percent from the second quarter of this year and up 41 percent from the first quarter.
The increase also occurred nationally. Housing starts jumped 15 percent in September, the most since April 2010, the U.S. Commerce Department reported Wednesday.
Locally, builders closed deals on 1,255 units in the third quarter. That figure is down 12.5 percent from the third quarter of 2010, when a government tax credit artificially boosted closings. This year's third-quarter closings bested the second quarter's by 60 percent.
While housing starts have increased, employment in Florida's overall construction industry continues to decline, according to state figures.
Since the housing market crashed, builders have designed lower-priced houses to attract a bigger pool of buyers. For the 12 months ending in August, builders started 2,178 homes priced at less than $200,000 in the bay area, Polito said.
In the wake of the housing bust, lenders tightened standards and now require larger down payments for conventional loans. The alternatives are government-backed loans that require only a 3.5 percent down payment and a credit score of about 620 or better.
Financing still remains a problem, even with record low interest rates, said Jeff Thorson, Tampa division president for William Ryan Homes. First-time buyers and those looking for entry-level prices are having the most trouble getting loans, he added.
The company's starts rose from 15 in the second quarter to 21 in the third quarter.
"We have seen an increase in traffic," he said. "We're cautiously optimistic."
Mark Puente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.