The nation's home builders are still singing the blues, but in Sonoma County the tune is now sung by a new set of builders.
New home construction remains close to record lows here again in 2011. And most of the new homes are the work of out-of-county builders, often those who received deep discounts when they purchased other builders' stalled projects.
The current companies include three of the nation's top 10 home builders: Lennar Corp., KB Home and Meritage Homes.
It's quite a change from the days when smaller, local companies like Christopherson Homes and Pinnacle Homes oversaw the work of turning the county's bare ground into brand-new communities with hundreds of homes.
"There aren't many locals left," said Chris Peterson, president of Rivendale Homes in Santa Rosa.
Several local builders have closed their doors. Others, like Peterson, are keeping busy in other ventures, including building rental housing.
Eventually more home buyers will return and building will resume, Peterson said. But today construction loans are nearly impossible to get, foreclosures have pushed prices far too low and new home building still contains too much risk.
Builders took out permits for 430 new housing units in the county in the first nine months of the year, according to the Construction Industry Research Board, an industry-funded research center in Burbank. That represents a 31 percent increase over the same period from a year earlier. But it's only about a quarter of the building permits that were issued in the first nine months of 2006.
This year is on track to end as the worst in a half-century for single-family home construction. The National Association of Home Builders last week predicted the U.S. will add only 422,000 houses this year, down 10 percent from 2010. In 2006, that figure peaked at 1.7 million houses.
Similarly, the Research Board predicts that California builders will construct a record-low 21,500 single-family houses, down 16 percent from last year.
"We expected some improvement this year and it didn't show up," said Ben Bartolotto, research director at the Construction Industry Research Board.
Sonoma County did somewhat better. Builders here have received permits to construct 316 single-family homes to date this year — 74 percent higher than for the same period last year. The total for all of 2010 was just 276 single-family houses, the lowest number in decades.
However, both Lake and Mendocino counties are on track to hit new lows. In Mendocino, builders pulled permits to construct just 73 single-family houses during the first nine months, compared to 122 for the same period in 2010.
And Lake issued permits to build just 26 single-family houses during the period, down from 35 a year ago.
For the first three quarters, the value of all residential and commercial construction projects in the three counties rose to $251.7 million, up 13 percent from a year earlier. However, it still is just a fraction of the activity from five years ago, when there were $772.8 million in construction projects during the period.
Paul Campos, a senior vice president with the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area, said smaller builders have struggled to survive "a depression for the home building industry."
In Sonoma County, the downturn forced the bankruptcies of prominent landowner Clem Carinalli and developers Wendell "Del" Nordby and Orrin Thiessen.