Carolinas help lead nation in new home construction

The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE -- The Carolinas rank among the top 10 states nationwide in new home growth amid an explosive population boom, according to Census figures being released today.

Union, Cabarrus, Iredell and Mecklenburg counties in North Carolina and York County are helping lead the way with some of the fastest gains in Carolinas housing stock, from condos in uptown high-rises to tract houses on former farmland.

All told, 16 counties in the Charlotte region added nearly 169,000 houses, apartments, townhouses and trailers in a six-year stretch, according to an Observer analysis of the Census data.

Some 77,000 of those were in Mecklenburg County, where the population grew by nearly 132,000.

Yet, the Census data only covers through June 2006. Since then, experts say, the national real estate slowdown has started to hit the Carolinas and the Charlotte region.

Fewer homes are being sold and built. The number of home closings compared with last year has fallen each month since March. New home permits have dropped sharply in the Charlotte area, with Mecklenburg County building permits for single-family homes dipping 23 percent through August.

"There's no question things have slowed recently," said Mark Vitner, a senior Wachovia economist. But he added, "They've slowed less in Charlotte than around the country."

Nationally, the real estate market has faltered as foreclosures have risen in an overextended lending market. Charlotte had been somewhat insulated, Vitner said, because it didn't experience the boom of some parts of the country where investors flipped properties as values soared year after year.

Result of population boom

The construction boom here has stemmed from the population increase. The region's mild winters, job opportunities and relatively cheaper housing have drawn newcomers from around the country.

Mecklenburg has added by far the most homes to its housing stock of any county in the Carolinas. But its rate has slowed in recent years, from a 6.1 percent annual increase in 2001 to a 3.6 percent rise last year.

Mark Baldwin, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Charlotte, blames the local slowdown as a trickle-down effect from elsewhere. Some who would have moved to the Charlotte area from Buffalo, Miami or Detroit, for example, can't because they haven't been able to sell their homes in those cities.

He also said Charlotte's new construction has pushed out to communities such as Union and Cabarrus because large tracts of undeveloped land are now scarce in Mecklenburg. He said he has seen some of the largest construction companies based in Mecklenburg taking on jobs in outlying counties.

But the new homes are causing strains as demand increases for new trash and mail pickups, new water and sewer lines.

Local governments are trying to rein in the growth with zoning restrictions, new subdivision limits, fees on new construction and even halting new construction altogether.

Lack of sewer capacity has restricted new construction in Union and Lincoln counties, while Cornelius imposed a moratorium this year to catch its breath.

Some of that tension might slacken as the economic slowdown takes hold. In response to the national downturn, Vitner said, "builders are ratcheting down their production in anticipation of slower sales."

The National Association of Realtors on Tuesday projected that construction of new homes nationwide will fall to 1.4 million this year from 1.8 million last year. The real estate trade group called the cutback in new construction a "healthy trend" that will reduce housing inventory.

Still, Vitner expects the housing stock to continue to grow locally. "It will increase at a somewhat reduced rate," he said. "But the demand for housing in Charlotte remains."

Housing stock grew fastest in the following states between 2000 and 2006:

1. Nevada

2. Arizona

3. Georgia

4. Utah

5. Florida

6. Idaho

7. Colorado

8. North Carolina

9. Texas

10. South Carolina

Carolinas growing fast

North Carolina added more than 500,000 new homes and South Carolina 220,000 between 2000 and 2006.

Six Carolina counties were among the 100 counties nationwide with the fastest growth in housing stock during that time. That included Union, N.C., at No. 21 and Mecklenburg at No. 92.

-- Source: U.S. Census