Last Modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2014 at 2:32 p.m.
Home builders across Southwest Florida picked up the pace in the first quarter of this year, pulling more permits than at any time since the market crashed seven years ago.
The increase in residential construction stems primarily from seasonal residents and tourists, who typically boost regional housing market figures from Thanksgiving to Easter.
After being decimated by the Great Recession, home building in the area has roared back to its healthiest levels in nearly a decade, adding jobs to one of Southwest Florida's largest employment sectors and generating revenue for a series of related businesses.
"People are feeling better about the economy and expectations are higher, which is very important for the Sarasota area, where many of these are second or seasonal homes," said Gary Jackson, an economist at Florida Gulf Coast University. "As the overall housing market improves, with rising prices and fewer distressed sales, you can now build houses at reasonably competitive prices again."
Builders in unincorporated Sarasota and Manatee counties pulled 756 single-family home permits from January through March, a 5 percent increase from the previous quarter and a 13 percent jump from those same three months in 2013, according to county data.
Building permits measure homes expected to begin construction within 30 to 90 days. They are considered the most accurate gauge of future activity.
Based on the first three months of the year, permit activity is on pace to surpass 2013, which was the best year for home construction in Southwest Florida since the recession took hold in late 2007.
The quarter was capped off by a robust March, which is typically one of the busiest months for Southwest Florida's housing industry.
Builders in Sarasota County pulled 141 single-family permits last month, an 81 percent increase from February and a 76 percent rise from a year ago. It was also the community's best single-month performance since the onset of the downturn.
In Manatee County, the 177 permits pulled in March were 23 percent more than the previous month and 19 percent higher than in March 2013, records show.
Jobs added, too
The sector's sustained recovery, which began in 2012, has added jobs to an industry that dumped about 60 percent of its labor force when the recession struck.
During the past year, the construction industry has added 39,200 new jobs across Florida, including 1,000 new positions in Sarasota and Manatee counties, a 6.3 percent gain, according to the Labor Department.
The uptick also has benefited housing-related businesses, like furniture retailers and home-improvement stores. Lawyers, title agencies and engineering firms also are seeing more work as the industry's recovery takes hold.
Although peak season typically concludes in late April, those in the industry predict that home building will continue strongly through the remainder of the year, despite rising material and land costs.
"The builder confidence for our area is extremely high -- higher than it has ever been," said Alan Anderson, executive vice president for the Manatee Sarasota Building Industry Association.
"When you look at the entire housing market, there's still some pockets with some issues," Anderson said, "but we have definitely turned the corner. I think you will continue to see our market grow at this clip."
Nationwide, the pace of new construction was mixed.
New homes in March reached a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 990,000, based on permits. That was a 2.4 percent dip from a revised February figure, but 11.2 percent above a March 2013 estimate, according to data released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
U.S. builders broke ground in March on homes at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 946,000, 2.8 percent above the previous month -- though new home starts declined 5.9 percent over the year.
Economists attribute the national decline to northern snowstorms that have shut down construction sites and kept buyers home bound and unable to view models or listings.
"Shaking off the winter blues, consumers seem to be moving ahead with the purchase of new homes with more confidence," said Brad Hunter, chief economist for research firm Metro-study. "Demand is improving, particularly in the move-up segment of the market, but mortgage financing is still an issue."