An uptick in the number of building permits for new homes filed in Bluffton last year may be a sign the town's economy is improving, and town officials, homebuilders and Realtors are cheered by the figures.
Although commercial building permits remain low and multi-family home permits are nonexistent, the drop-off in single-family home permits appears to have hit bottom in 2009, at 161 permits issued in Bluffton, according to figures provided by the town and Beaufort County.
In 2010, 281 permits were issued for new single-family homes in the town.
The numbers are still a far cry from those posted in 2007, the last year before permits plummeted. In that year, 697 permits were filed for single-family homes.
Assistant town manager for growth management Marc Orlando said the new homes are spread out, going up in a variety of neighborhoods in Bluffton, from old town to Palmetto Bluff.
"We love to see that diversity," he said. "One of the things that has helped this growth is...we're not just Anywhere, USA," he said.
Driving the increase in building permits are consumers buying foreclosed land at a low cost and then building homes with the savings, local Realtors say.
Matt Rowe of Carson Realty said his clients have lately found buying a foreclosed home costs about the same as buying cheap land and building their own. He added that foreclosed homes often aren't in prime locations or in the best condition. He said January has been the busiest month for the company since it opened five years ago.
Meanwhile, foreclosed parcels of land go for pennies on the dollar, he said. In addition, homebuilders who survived the recession have streamlined their costs and have become more competitive.
"The builders still in business have come through one of the worst real estate times in history," Rowe said. "They have become more competitive because they're fighting for the work."
One of the hot spots for new homes is Hampton Hall, a community where 20 houses went up last year, with 14 more permits filed in January. General manager Mary Claire Gaze said many of the community's new residents managed to sell their homes up North before deciding to come to Bluffton.
"They've looked at the foreclosed homes we have in here, but they want their own homes," she said.
Jeff Waddle, Hilton Head Island division president with David Weekley Homes, said the company had a record number of housing starts in the Hampton Lake community in 2010.
The typical buyers, he said, are retirees looking for a second home.
"What we found in almost every circumstance is they love the area so much they go ahead and move down here," Waddle said.
Town officials are also feeling the love, as revenues from permits stream in. According to the town's financial department, revenue from building permits during the first half of the fiscal year, from July 2010 until December, were 51 percent higher than the same time period in 2009.
"We're in a better place than we were," town manager Anthony Barrett said.