By Ken de la Bastide and Megan Graham
Tribune staff writers
After a stint of hard years, Howard County home builders said they are starting to see the housing market turn for the better.
“It’s going much better than it did a couple years ago,” said Mike Ullery, current president of the Howard County Home Builders Association and owner of Craftsman Home Builds and Remodeling LLC. “Business for everyone is up from the low point two years ago.”
Lower interest rates, driven-down property values and increased financial stability are starting to encourage potential builders who held off in past years. Ullery said housing permits are at least three times what they were last year.
“There always was pent-up demand for remodeling and new homes,” he said. “In our area, job security was a big issue. People weren’t sure that they’d have the same job down the road and were hesitant to get into a big project.”
The number of new home building permits in the city of Kokomo has doubled so far this year. Last year there were six new housing starts and through Sept. 22 there have been 12 issued by the Kokomo/Howard County Plan Commission.
For Howard County in 2011 there were 28 housing starts and in 2012 eight new houses under construction with a value of $2.5 million.
The total number of permits issued in Kokomo through the end of June increased by 14 to 190 and for Howard County showed a decrease of three to 68.
“The economy is getting a little better in Kokomo,” Greg Sheline, plan director, said. “There are several businesses investing in new signs.
“Things have been slow the past few years,” he said. “We’re showing some improvement; it’s increasing around here.”
Sheline said the increased permit activity is a good indicator.
“The new home site permits shows people are starting to spend,” he said.
Jeb Conrad, executive director of the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance, said there are a lot of signs of economic recovery in the region.
“There are applications for new retail operations, housing starts and businesses wanting to locate at Inventrek,” he said. “The success of Chrysler is a positive for the region.”
Heath VanNatter, who is a member of the Indiana House of Representatives for District 38 and owner of VanNatter Construction in Kokomo, said optimism across the state is high. He said the market is still tough, but he is currently building four houses in Kokomo.
Ullery also said people seeking the latest advancements in green technology, energy conservation and insulation want to build new homes instead of buy an older one.
“We’ve had so few new homes built in the last five years that if you’re in the market for a newer home but not necessarily a brand-new home, there’s very little to chose from that’s not five years old or older.”
Chris Monroe, owner of Monroe Custom Homes, pointed out that it’s difficult for new houses to compete with existing homes right now.
“I’ve lost a couple houses this year because people have found houses that are new and existing,” he said. “The prices of existing homes are so depressed that people can buy basically the same house but for 70 percent of the cost of building.”
But with those existing homes selling, Ullery said people are feeling more confident that if they build a new house, they’ll be able to sell their old one.
The builders mentioned the necessity of their business to branch out from just residential building to renovations and commercial building in the past few years. Many builders who didn’t make that transition did not survive the lean years.
“I’ve seen builders who built houses here close down or be forced to close down because of the past three to four years,” Monroe said. “But I myself and I think a lot of others, we’ve expanded our operations from new houses only into more renovations, remodeling, both residentially and commercially. I have focused a lot of my attention to commercial work to mix in with my residential.”
VanNatter believes more homes being built can only mean good things for Howard County.
“I’m keeping a lot of people working,” he said. “A lot of subcontractors that go into building a house. Then, people need to go out and buy furniture. It gives a community a lot of business.”
Though VanNatter said the housing market is improving, he believes it still has a long way to go.
“It’s better than the last couple years,” he said. “But we’re still nowhere near where we should be or where we were before.”