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Building permits increase, but still weak

MANATEE -- Homebuilders have pulled more permits so far in 2010 than they did in all of the previous year, but construction activity remains well below pre-boom levels, government figures show.

Manatee County and its municipalities have issued 1,099 new residential construction permits as of Nov. 30, the latest for which U.S. Census figures were available. That’s already above the 963 permits they issued in all of 2009.

The modest increase -- the first after five straight years of decline -- has homebuilders cautiously hoping the local housing market is turning around and will continue improving in 2011.

“They’re not great numbers, but they’re positive numbers,” said Alan Anderson, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association Manatee-Sarasota.

Despite the improvement, permits remain well off prior levels. The number of permits issued in 2010 likely will be at similar levels to the early 1990s, according to Census figures.

A Bradenton Herald review of Manatee County permits found just four builders accounted for more than half of those issued so far this year.

Neal Communities has the most by far. It and various affiliates have pulled at least 271 permits, easily outdistancing the 105 issued to Medallion Homes and its affiliates so far.

Others who have pulled large numbers of permits in Manatee were D.R. Horton (97), Ryland Homes (67) and Lennar (61), according to the Herald’s review.

A large portion of Neal’s permits were in the company’s River Song and Central Park developments, which feature smaller homes, fewer amenities and lower price points.

That has made Neal “about the only success story over there,” said Jack McCabe, a real estate analyst and consultant in Deerfield Beach. “Everybody else is still hurting pretty bad.”

And the pain likely will continue in 2011, he predicts.

Competition from foreclosures and short sales, tight construction credit and high unemployment portend “another lackluster year for builders,” McCabe said.

“Builders are planning and looking ahead to 2012,” he said. “This year (2011) they’re going to be doing a lot of fishing and golfing and waiting for the market to come back.”

The National Association of Home Builders said builders remain glum about market conditions, with its latest builder-confidence index at 16. A reading above 50 reflects more optimism than pessimism, which hasn’t been seen since April 2006.

But Anderson said local builders increasingly are seeing better days ahead, based on the area’s draw to retirees., a business news site, recently named the Bradenton-Sarasota area as the most desirable for retirement.

“We still have that market of Baby Boomers,” Anderson said. “We won’t get all of them, but we will get our share of them.”

Duane Marsteller, Herald staff writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.