North Coast builders continued to struggle in 2010, taking out the second-lowest number of new housing permits on record.
Builders pulled permits to construct 667 new homes and apartments last year in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties, according to the Construction Industry Research Board, an industry-funded research center in Burbank.
Although building activity rose 11 percent from 2009 — the slowest year in more than four decades — the increase provided little solace for construction companies battered by the recession.
"The report confirms what everyone in the industry knows, and that is there's been an extraordinary downturn over the last several years," said Keith Woods, chief executive officer for the North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group. "There's just not much work out there."
Even with the increase in permits, the value of new residential construction for the three-county region slid to $119 million last year, down 11 percent from $134 million in 2009. The reason: Fewer single-family homes were built last year.
In Sonoma County, builders pulled permits to construct 464 homes and condos, just a quarter of the annual average over the past 20 years. In comparison, 430 permits were issued in 2009.
Mendocino County reported 157 permits for new housing units issued in 2010, compared to 114 the previous year. Lake County had a total of 46 housing permits, compared to 57 in 2009.
Statewide, builders took out permits for nearly 45,000 new housing units last year, up 22 percent over 2009. But the increase came completely from a jump in condominium and apartment construction. The number of single-family home permits dropped by a few hundred to 25,080, the lowest on record.
"It's pretty much the same story as at the start of the recession," said Ben Bartolotto, research director for the construction research board. "It hasn't really improved."
The national picture isn't any rosier. The Commerce Department estimated that U.S. builders sold about 321,000 new homes last year, the lowest number in records going back nearly five decades.
Builders and real estate agents say home construction is hampered by the depressed values of foreclosed homes currently on the market.
"You can still buy a home for less than you can build it," said Randy Waller, a broker/owner of W Real Estate. His company is selling new homes at the Countryside development in west Santa Rosa.
Santa Rosa issued permits for 67 new single-family homes last year. Chuck Regalia, the city's community development director, expects the number of such permits will rise to 100 or 150 this year.
The value of all residential and commercial construction for the three-county region remained essentially flat last year at $298 million.
Commercial construction in the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County resulted in 54 new buildings last year, including 24 at wineries, said Dewayne Starnes, the county's building official.
The county also issued 88 permits for single-family homes, Starnes said.
Roger Nelson, president of Midstate Construction in Petaluma, said the region still has a significant number of vacant offices and industrial buildings.
"Until that space absorbs, I don't think they'll be a lot of new buildings," he said.
His company is looking to do more work on multi-family and retail projects, as well as schools, community centers and other institutional developments.