Building in the heat, as home building heats up

In this Wednesday, June 20, 2012, photo, a worker stands in the early-morning sunlight on a home construction project in Newtown, Pa., Wednesday, June 20, 2012. U.S. builders broke ground on the most new homes and apartments in nearly four years last month, the latest evidence of a slow housing recovery. The Commerce Department said Wednesday that housing starts rose 6.9 percent in June from May to a seasonally adjusted. annual rate of 760,000. That's the highest since October 2008. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
In this Wednesday, June 20, 2012, photo, a worker stands in the early-morning sunlight on a home construction project in Newtown, Pa., Wednesday, June 20, 2012. U.S. builders broke ground on the most new homes and apartments in nearly four years last month, the latest evidence of a slow housing recovery. The Commerce Department said Wednesday that housing starts rose 6.9 percent in June from May to a seasonally adjusted. annual rate of 760,000. That's the highest since October 2008. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Posted: July 20, 2012

Painter Bob Nicoletto descended a ladder from the top of the two-story foyer he'd been caulking and grabbed a bottle of water from Mike Bocchino. "I'm done," he announced, making a "cut" sign across his neck.

Bocchino, construction superintendent for South Jersey builder Bruce Paparone's four-house development on Nine Acre Road in Cherry Hill, understood perfectly. It was 102 degrees outside, and Nicoletto and several other subcontractors had been at it since 7 a.m. Enough was enough.

Still, the fact that a 3,600-square-foot house was being customized for a buyer willing to pay a starting price of $600,000 had been sufficient to get everyone working on yet another scorching day.

Although no one has declared an end to the housing downturn, the Census Bureau on Wednesday announced a small victory: Housing starts nationally rose 6.9 percent in June over May's levels, with building permits for single-family homes up 0.6 percent.

"The missing link, the housing market, is slowly coming back, and that is one reason we can hope that growth is not as weak as we believed," said Joel L. Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Bucks County.

Housing starts climbed to a four-year high, while single-family-home permits hit the highest level in two years.

Overall, however, permits — which many economists consider the key numbers in the monthly Census Bureau reports — fell 3.7 percent in June from May.

What brought those numbers down were permits for multifamily housing, which have been a tower of strength in recent months as prospective buyers, especially first-timers, rent while they wait for order to emerge from the chaos of falling prices and an uncertain economy.

There was a sharp drop in permits in the South, which helped bring the numbers down 10.9 percent from May.

Economist Patrick Newport, of IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass., said the drop in permits was probably payback for a spike in May. Excluding the South, permits were up slightly in June, he said.

Naroff said a lot of permits have already been acquired, so construction should remain firm. What continues to tie down the market, he said, are the aftereffects of six years of home-price declines.

"The extraordinarily low mortgage rates, which are still dropping, should help, though not as much as we like," he said. "People still need down payments, and with equity down and prices only beginning to rise, it will be quite a while before a strong market becomes a reality."

At his Cherry Hill construction site, Bocchino agreed, noting that "the traditional 100-home job sites" common before the housing bubble burst have not yet returned. "Still," he said, "we have three houses under construction at Ryan's Cove [in Deptford] and this one, and that's good."

Newport noted the annualized number of home-construction starts, 760,000, was up from 535,000 in June 2011.

"The difference in these two numbers clearly shows that the housing market is back on track," he said. "But the low level also shows that we have far to go. If conditions were normal, the economy would need to put up at least 1.5 million units a year to meet demand. We are not expecting 1.5 million gains until 2015."

Broiling heat or not, if builders have a contractual deadline to complete a house, subcontractors will work as long as they can, said Nicoletto, owner of Painting Through Design in Sicklerville, as he took a long swig of water.

They take breaks and drink plenty of fluids, as tiling subcontractor Dave Earnshaw, of All Pro Tile and Marble in Atco, did as he prepared to resume tiling a second-floor bathtub surround.

"It's not comfortable," Earnshaw said, applying adhesive to the back of a 12-inch-by-12-inch tile.

"Attic work is out, of course, but we try to do everything we can," Bocchino said.

"We know where to draw the line."

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or@alheavens at Twitter.

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