Home construction market rebuilding in Beaufort County

dburley@islandpacket.comSeptember 21, 2013 

  • Residential building permits

    Town of Bluffton:

    2009: 161

    2010: 242

    2011: 252

    2012: 318

    2013: 271, through August



    Unincorporated Beaufort County:

    2009: 191

    2010: 144

    2011: 164

    2012: 210

    2013: 173, through August



    City of Beaufort

    2009: 4

    2010: 14

    2011: 41

    2012: 29

    2013: 21, through August

    Source: town of Bluffton, Beaufort County, city of Beaufort

Homebuilders Ron and Patricia Strimpfel took on commercial projects to survive the recession.

In the last five years, their company, Reclamation by Design, has built Captain Woody's Seafood Restaurant in Bluffton, Bluffton BBQ and Garden Gate Nursery, among other buildings.

But now, Patricia said the resurgent real estate market has allowed the couple to return to their original passion: building houses.

"We're back doing what we love," she said Friday.

So are some other Beaufort County homebuilders.

In the last two years, the town of Bluffton and the rest of Beaufort County have issued homebuilding permits at the highest rate since the housing market crashed.

Through August, 465 single-family residential permits have been granted by Beaufort, Bluffton and Beaufort County this year, according to local government records. That's on pace to top the 557 permits distributed last year and already more than were issued in 2009.

Speculative construction hasn't returned in full-force since the recession, but the number of permits issued is a helpful indicator of an improving market for new home sales, said Bryan Byrne, broker-in-charge at Palmetto Bluff.

"It's encouraging," said Bill Campbell, architectural review board administrator at Colleton River Plantation, a gated development in Bluffton with more than 700 home sites. "We've definitely seen an uptick in housing starts, especially in the second and third quarter this year."

This new home construction reflects a surge in the local real estate market, where sales in the Beaufort and the Hilton Head areas are up more than 10 percent this year compared with last year, according to a report last week from trade association South Carolina Realtors.

The construction is adding inventory to ease pent-up demand among buyers who are finally ready to enter the market, according to area real estate agents.

It is also increasing construction jobs in the area, as homebuilders who downsized during the recession rehire subcontractors and their crews.

"There's a trickle-down effect," said Ashley Feaster, executive director of the Hilton Head Area Home Builders Association. "More construction means more people moving into the area, and more people working overall."

IF YOU BUILD IT ...

After a harrowing recession, the local real estate market has been slowly creeping back over the past few years.

Home prices have risen, and consumers have been buying some of the speculative homes that had sat empty after the bubble burst, said Johnny Ussery, managing partner at Gateway Realty.

"We haven't been able to show potential buyers new homes for the past five years," Ussery said.

But over the past few months, he's noticed a change: "Now builders are more confident, and we're seeing more and more houses go up."

In Beaufort, Allen Patterson, who owns Allen Patterson Residential, said new construction is up 20 to 30 percent from last year.

He's working on 12 to 15 homes, nearly double his workload during the recession. He's got sites on Fripp Island, in Battery Creek and in downtown Beaufort.

"Interest rates are staying strong, the value of construction material is down -- I think everyone is feeling better," Patterson said. "Two years ago you couldn't give homes away, now you're scrambling for them."

At Palmetto Bluff, 112 homes are either being built or in the design phase -- 44 more than this time last year, Byrne, the broker, said.

Byrne said he expects about 40 of those projects to be completed this year, nearly quadrupling the total number of homes completed in Palmetto Bluff at the height of the housing downturn in 2010.

Across S.C. 46 from Palmetto Bluff, 45 homes are being built at the May River Preserve development, said sales manager Bryan Jacoby.

Most home designs that pass Byrne's desk at Palmetto Bluff will cost about $1.3 million when finished, he said.

May River Preserve's sweet spot is $350,000 to $600,000, Jacoby said.

Both developments are finding buyers, Jacoby and Byrne say.

"We're seeing pricing where it should be, and people feeling better about the economy," said Linda Frank, president of the Hilton Head Area Association of Realtors.

ADDING JOBS

When times got tough, the Strimpfels scaled back on hiring workers.

They had fewer projects, and Ron Strimpfel, a master carpenter, started doing most of the work himself.

Patricia said many contractors in the area also cut back. Some got rid of their subcontractors for painting, cabinet-making and electrical work.

But as the housing market has resurfaced, Patricia Strimpfel says her company has re-hired masons, framers and siding-installers to help with the larger homes.

"We've brought back quite a few people," Strimpfel said. She estimated between 50 and 100 workers are part of the subcontracting crews.

Although nowhere near the pre-recession highs, jobs in the construction industry have climbed in recent years.

The industry added more than 1,500 jobs in the Lowcountry region, which includes Beaufort and Jasper counties, between May 2011 and May 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This year, the state has added more than 4,500 construction jobs, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.

Patterson, the Beaufort contractor, said he's added six to eight workers in the past year and is looking for more.

"I'd hire a whole crew of framers today," Patterson said. "There's almost a labor shortage."

Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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