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.
In Sonoma County, the combined value of all residential and commercial construction rose 14 percent last year to $266 million.
In contrast, both Lake and Mendocino counties last year hit new lows in both home building and overall construction value.
Builders in Mendocino County last year received just 107 new home permits, down from 157 in 2010. The total value of all residential and commercial construction dropped 8 percent to nearly $44 million.
Lake County builders received just 36 new home permits — down from 46 the year before. Total construction value dropped 7 percent to $20 million.
The research board predicts the state's builders will construct a total of 57,000 new single- and multi-family homes next year, an increase of 21 percent. The total of all non-government construction in California is expected to increase 12 percent to $30.7 billion.
In southeast Santa Rosa, Taylor Mountain Homes is building six new houses in a subdivision off Kawana Springs Road near the Sonoma Academy high school. A 3-bedroom, 2-bath house there starts at $369,000.
"It's still really tough out there," said Aaron Matz, Taylor Mountain's president.
Most of the new houses now for sale are in subdivisions that were lost in foreclosure or similar distressed sales by one builder and picked up by another at a substantial discount, Matz said. That discount makes it possible to build out the developments and sell the homes at a profit.
"Once those dry up, I wouldn't be surprised if it's a very slow year for construction," Matz said.