Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

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December 22, 2013

Starting to bounce back

Home builders hoping to see light at the end of the tunnel

Heath VanNatter is feeling fortunate these days, after having weathered one of the worst droughts for homebuilders in the nation’s history.

VanNatter Construction is still around, and still pulling permits. Despite a recession which saw the Indiana Home Builders Association shrink from 7,200 members to around 3,000, the firms that survived are seeing more business.

Right now, VanNatter, who serves as the District 38 state representative when he’s not building houses, said he has 22 houses in various stages of planning or construction in different counties.

“We’re hoping to keep a lot of people busy,” VanNatter said. “We’ve got a lot of subcontractors working, and they’re adding employees. I’ve probably paid somebody’s salary this year, just in permit fees.”

Starting at the end of 2008, Kokomo and Howard County went through a period where almost no new homes were built. There were a total of 11 permits approved for new home construction in the city between 2009 and 2011, and some of those units probably weren’t built.

Construction employment tanked. In 2006, more than 2,500 people were employed in the construction trades in Kokomo and Tipton counties. By mid-2009, that number had been cut in half, with residential housing jobs taking the brunt of the hit.

This year, there have been 26 permits issued for new home construction in Kokomo, up from 17 last year.

While that’s nowhere near the kind of activity seen in the city in 2005, just prior to the start of years of major restructurings and job losses at Kokomo’s two main employers, homebuilders are hoping it’s the start of a return to prosperity.

“I think there’s certainly a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Rick Wajda, president of the Indiana Home Builders Association.

“Is it the glory days of 2000 to 2005? No. Will we get back there? It’s hard to tell. But if we continue to have this kind of measured success, there’s some guarded optimism,” Wajda said.

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