Sonoma County home construction rose in 2011 to its highest level in three years, but the pace of building still trails far below historic levels.
Builders took out permits for 585 new houses, apartments and condominiums in the county last year, according to the Construction Industry Research Board, an industry-funded research center in Burbank.
That was better than the 470 permits issued in 2010, but still far less than the average of 2,198 homes built annually over the last 24 years.
In the four years since the housing crisis hit in 2007, the county's contractors have built a total of just 2,076 new homes — a number they used to erect in a single year.
"We've bottomed out and are starting back up," said Keith Woods, chief executive officer at North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group.
Even so, Woods doesn't expect a quick turnaround for the construction industry. "This will be a long, slow crawl out of the hole," he said.
Home construction remains sluggish around the state and nation. The National Association of Home Builders expects that 2011 will rank as the worst year on record for construction of new single-family homes.
For California, preliminary numbers suggest single-family construction did hit a new record low of just 21,400 houses last year. It was the first time in 25 years where the number of new apartment and condo units — 25,600 of them — outnumbered new houses, the research board reported.
Foreclosures and other distressed homes are still selling for less than the cost of building new ones, builders said.
"We're still in a very difficult time in the economy, and projects don't pencil out under the current economics," said Bob Glover, executive officer of the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area, a home builders group.