Has North Coast building industry hit bottom?

  • Jimmy Vanda works on the roof of a new home under construction in the SouthGate subdivision in Petaluma on Friday, April 29, 2011.

North Coast construction activity remained flat for the first three months of the year, and some industry leaders took solace that at least things aren't getting worse.

Contractors in Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties took out building permits worth $70 million in the first quarter of 2011, according to the Construction Industry Research Board, an industry-funded research center in Burbank. The amount, which includes all residential, commercial and other private projects, was down 1 percent from a year ago.

North Coast builders pulled permits to construct 123 single-family homes during the first quarter, up from 85 a year ago. But five years ago, permits totaled 519 for the same period.

For Sonoma County, 98 new house permits were issued for the quarter, compared to 54 a year ago.

Building group leaders said the numbers suggest the industry has hit bottom after three years of pain.

"At this point even flat looks good," quipped Keith Woods, chief executive officer for the North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group. "This is an industry that has been bleeding for so many years."

Across California, contractors received permits in the first quarter for nearly $5.9 billion worth of construction, up almost 5 percent from a year ago.

The research board is forecasting 55,000 new housing units this year, up 22 percent from 2010. Even so, analysts predicted 2011 will join the previous three years as the worst on record.

"We have nowhere to go but up," said Bob Glover, executive director of the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area.

Builders, he said, are cautiously optimistic of better times ahead as the economy rebounds.

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