Long associated with only doom and gloom, the economy became the reason for hope last week when Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry pitched a city budget that proposed a 1.5 percent increase in spending for the next fiscal year.
Citing a 40 percent increase in building permits for single-family homes, Newberry said there's "legitimate optimism" about city revenues.
It's an optimism shared by those who follow building trends around Lexington, although it appears to have not yet spread to surrounding counties. Those in the city say the rise in permits might be an indication that the housing business, whose mortgage meltdown fueled the recession, could finally be turning around.
Dewey Crowe, Lexington's director of building inspection, said single-family home permits increased to 190 in the first quarter from 135 in the same period a year ago.
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Behind that increase were companies such as Anderson Communities, Crowe said.
Owner Dennis Anderson said he's banking on interest in new floor plans that his company designed during the past several months.
"We spent our winter working on our processes, pricing and more," he said. "We knew, somewhere along the line, the market is going to turn, and we want to be dead ready."
He's still being cautious, though. He doesn't plan to build many more spec homes than the 15 the company has now. Spec homes are built with the hope that someone will buy them, as opposed to homes that are built after a person agrees to buy.
But Anderson has had customers agree to buy new homes to be built.
"Not only are people beginning to buy houses, they should be buying houses," he said, citing the federal government's $8,000 tax credit for new homeowners and lower interest rates. "I've bought 18 houses this year for my personal account to buy and fix up."
First-quarter real estate sales figures for Central Kentucky have not yet been released by the Lexington-Bluegrass Association of Realtors but are expected in the coming weeks.
People who are buying homes to be renovated are also contributing to a large rise in overall building permits, Crowe said.
Total permits, which include renovation work on homes as well as commercial properties and more, rose 20 percent in the first quarter to 3,287 from 2,744 a year ago.
"Any time sales of single-family homes have slowed in the past, we have seen an uptick in the things people are doing to existing homes," Crowe said.
The boost in construction activity hasn't spread to some surrounding counties yet.
In Woodford County, permits for single-family homes were down in the first quarter to 11 from 19 a year ago. Total building permits were up, however, from 60to 69.
In Jessamine County, officials in the separate city and county offices issued 16 permits total for single-family homes in the first quarter, down from 39 last year. Total building permits were down, too, from 76 to 51 overall.
People are still building storage buildings, finishing basements and putting up decks, but it's just not the bigger stuff, said Melissa Houp, secretary of the Nicholasville Planning Commission.
One of the few places on Friday where there was some evidence of home construction was on Bernie Trail in the Lu-Carlton subdivision on Nicholasville's west side. Kentucky Concrete employees Kenith Warren and Gerardo Zamova removed aluminum forms that had been used to build a basement for a new house.
Meanwhile, Mervin Wood operated a boom to pick up the bundled forms and load them onto a truck.
There might be hope for a rebound coming. Wood said work in the last month "has picked up a bit." In addition to the house in Nicholasville, he has worked on the site of a new addition to a Lancaster church.