Tampa Bay area home builders have pounded a lot more nails so far this year.
New housing starts rose 26.8 percent in the first quarter, according to Tampa's Metrostudy, a national company that tracks the construction industry. Local builders started 1,040 homes between January and March compared to 820 last year.
The quarterly results are encouraging and continue to point to an improving economy, said Tony Polito, a housing consultant with Metrostudy. He believes the worst of the housing crisis has passed and attributed the increase to falling unemployment.
"The improvement in new housing starts mirrored the improvement in the Tampa job market," he said.
The bay area's low for housing starts — 727 — occurred in the first quarter of 2009. Builders ended 2011 with 3,981 new starts in the bay area. Polito projects the figure to rise between 5 and 15 percent in 2012.
Steve Kempton, west Florida president of national builder Taylor Morrison Homes, attributed the uptick to increased consumer confidence and an improving housing market. The firm's starts rose 35 percent in the first quarter.
"People are getting off the sidelines," he said. "We're also seeing price appreciation in some communities. It's creating a buzz in the housing market.''
Although starts are up, builders aren't building up inventory homes as they did during the boom. But they are preparing for brighter days. Builders have been buying failed subdivisions in anticipation of increased sales in the next two years.
Jeff Thorson, Tampa division president for William Ryan Homes, said his company's starts jumped about 40 percent in the first quarter. He is optimistic that business will continue to improve.
"Instead of it just being a drip, it's a steady drip," he said. "We're hoping it continues."
Mark Puente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.