SPRING HILL — While no one would dare call it a boom, an upswing in single-family home construction this year in Hernando County is bringing encouraging news to those who have been hoping for any sign that the industry might one day get back to normal.
According to county building records, 102 permits for single-family homes were pulled between January and April of this year. That's a 62 percent increase over the same four-month period in 2013, and a marked increase in the pace that in 2011 saw just 124 home permits pulled for the entire year.
While local housing experts say a combination of factors is at work, most agree that the uptick seems to reflect a pent-up demand for nicer homes, which have become more scarce as the real estate market has improved.
The homes are being built in locations across the county.
Alexander Custom Homes owner Mark Alexander said that eight of the nine homes currently under construction by his company cost $300,000 or more, a significant trend that he hasn't seen in several years.
"Buyers of homes in that range all but disappeared after the economy collapsed," Alexander said. "Now, the pendulum is swinging back, and it's good to see."
No one believes that home construction will return to the record levels seen during the mid 2000s. Buyers and lenders are much more wary now, said Brenda McDaniel, executive officer of the Hernando Builders Association. But she remains cautiously optimistic that the construction industry is marching forward again.
"With interest rates and impact fees remaining low for now, it makes sense for people who were thinking about building to start acting," McDaniel said. "A year or two from now, it might be a totally different scenario."
Indeed, the big winners so far have been national builders such as Pulte Homes, Adams Homes, Artistic Homes and others, which typically build in the $150,000 to $250,000 range.
Many of their customers are Northern transplants who have managed to sell their former homes as the economy has strengthened.
John Roberts with Adams Homes of Northwest Florida said his company has sold 10 houses in Hernando this year, and seven more permits are in the approval process. Like many others, he believes Hernando's housing market is poised to bounce slowly back to health, with moderately priced homes leading the way.
"New homes are becoming more attractive to today's buyers partly due to the low interest rates," Roberts said. "Buyers can afford more in a brand new home today than in years past."
Homes with modern features such as energy-efficient kitchens, tile and wood flooring are big sellers, especially if they are in neighborhoods with amenities.
Still, some builders say, because of financing issues, there remains a tentativeness among many prospective buyers. Since the collapse of the economy, even well-heeled clients have been forced to put more money up front than was traditionally needed previously.
Alexander, who has been building homes in Hernando for four decades, said the new ball game has been difficult to learn.
"For several years, banks weren't willing to take any risks whatsoever," he said. "Cash was king, and still is to a degree. The days of buying more than you can comfortably afford are long gone."
However, a continued easing of restrictions by lenders is gradually allowing more people to enter the new-home picture.
"A good credit rating can now get you a home loan with anywhere between 20 and 30 percent equity," Alexander said. "But those numbers are going to keep coming down as more lenders enter the picture. And that will be good for the marketplace."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.