Boom went bust in 2001

Mirroring the national recession, building activity on Bainbridge Island dropped sharply in 2001 from the previous year.

Only 166 permits were issued for single-family homes last year, a 22 percent drop from the 213 issued in 2000 and the lowest level since 1996.

“No question about it, there has been a precipitous drop in the amount of single-family work,” said architect Sean Parker, who said his office had eight to 10 single-family jobs in 2000, but only two or three in 2001.

The dropoff was blamed on the general softening of the economy more than the September terrorist attacks.

“Projects that evaporated after 9-11 were on the fence before that, and it just solidified a decision not to go,” said island contractor Rick Blumenthal. “We started seeing things soften in the spring when gas prices rose, which seemed to get people thinking about the economy.”

Jim Woehr, who builds “spec” homes in the $500,000 to $650,000 range, is lying low for the time being until the market improves. He built two homes last year, sold one, and is waiting until he sees signs of an economic upturn before he gets busy again.

“What I look at is job-creation in Seattle,” he said. “Most of our market on Bainbridge is for executive-level people moving into the area, and if people are not being transferred in, we don’t have buyers.

“Right now, I suspect Seattle job-creation is negative.”

It was the second straight year that single-family permits dropped on Bainbridge. Those permits rose from 165 in 1996 to a peak of 222 in 1999, then eased to 213 in 2000 before last year’s big drop.

It’s not a case of people remodeling rather than building new homes. Permits for additions and alterations also dropped last year, falling to 83 from the 97 issued in 2000. Those permits also peaked in 1999.

Total permits of all types dropped to 480 in 2001, a level last seen in 1995, when 482 permits were issued. Permit activity peaked in 1999, when 697 were issued.

Planning activity, which precedes building, also slackened in 2001. Total permits for subdivisions and site-plan reviews, required for commercial projects, dropped to 29 last year from 36 in 2000 and 41 in the peak year of 1999.

The diminished level of activity does have benefits for consumers. Workers are more generally available, which means faster responses, better quality and stable or even lower prices, observers say.

“I’m looking to hire people,” Blumenthal said, “and I’m probably getting five times as many applications now as I used to.”

Applications are coming from lead-level people who have been laid off by other builders, Blumenthal said.

“With more people to choose from, the quality of the work crews is going up,” he said.

And prices are going down, sometimes dramatically, Parker said.

“Last year, we were costing high-end jobs at $200 to $250 per square foot, but the bids were coming back at $350 to $400 per foot,” he said. “It was ridiculous.”

The inflation was driven, he said, by a handful of buyers in the Seattle area for whom price didn’t matter.

Parker said there is a lot less of what he calls “funny money” in the market today, and he applauds the difference.

“I’d much rather be doing homes for real people,” he said, “and the costing we’re getting now is much more reasonable.”

The present environment, Parker said, is more sustainable than the overheated markets of the late 1990s.

“This doesn’t feel recessionist, but more like we’re back to normal,” he said. “The contractors are hungry but not overly so, and people are busy but not frantic.”

Blumenthal describes the present economic situation as “a serious correction,” but from what he calls “a real inflated” situation. And he urges those who are able to take advantage of it.

“For people who have the resources, now is a good time to build,” he said.

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