Sonoma County home construction rose in 2011 to its highest level in three years, but the pace of building still trails far below historic levels.
Builders took out permits for 585 new houses, apartments and condominiums in the county last year, according to the Construction Industry Research Board, an industry-funded research center in Burbank.
That was better than the 470 permits issued in 2010, but still far less than the average of 2,000 homes built annually during the two decades before the housing crisis hit in 2007.
During the past four years, the county’s contractors have built a total of just 2,076 new homes.
“We’ve bottomed out and are starting back up,” said Keith Woods, chief executive officer at North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group.
Even so, Woods doesn’t expect a quick turnaround for the construction industry. “This will be a long, slow crawl out of the hole,” he said.
Home construction remains sluggish around the state and nation. The National Association of Home Builders expects that 2011 will rank as the worst year on record for new single-family home construction.
For California, preliminary numbers suggest single-family construction did hit a new record low of just 21,400 houses last year. The research board reported it was the first time in 25 years where the number of new apartment and condo units — 25,600 of them — outnumbered new houses.
Foreclosures and other distressed homes are still selling for less than the cost of building new ones, builders said.
In southeast Santa Rosa, Taylor Mountain Homes is constructing six new houses in a subdivision off Kawana Springs Road near the Sonoma Academy high school. A 3-bedroom, 2-bath house there starts at $369,000.
“It’s still really tough out there,” said Aaron Matz, Taylor Mountain’s president.
Most of the new houses now for sale are in subdivisions that were lost in foreclosure or similar distressed sales by one builder and picked up by another at a substantial discount, Matz said. That discount makes it possible to build out the developments and sell the homes at a profit.
“Once those dry up, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a very slow year for construction,” Matz said.

— Robert Digitale