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Newton on fastest list again
County still growing, but housing taking a downturn

COVINGTON - Newton County was one of the fastest growing counties in the nation from 2000 to 2007, based on the increase in residential housing units, according to data released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau. But the local housing market has slowed drastically in the past year, according to sources with the county's planning and development department and the local homebuilder's association.

The Census Bureau ranks Newton County as the 11th fastest growing county in the nation from 2000 to 2007 based on the increase in the number of housing units.

In April 2000, the county had 23,033 housing units. That had increased to 36,964 by July 2007, an increase of 60.5 percent, or 13,931 units.

From July 2006 to July 2007, Newton County was ranked 50th in the nation in housing unit growth, with a growth rate of 4.5 percent or 1,580 units.

It was in late summer 2007, a time period not covered by the Census data, that the market begin to take a downturn, according to Bob Goucher, president of the Newton County Home Builders Association.

"The growth has pretty much come to a screeching halt in Newton County," Goucher said.

Information provided by the Newton County Planning and Development Department shows that in fiscal year 2008, running from July 1, 2007, to June 30, 2008, the county issued 359 new residential building permits. In fiscal year 2007, 1,147 permits were issued, more than three times the 2008 numbers. And in fiscal year 2006, 1,887 new residential permits were issued, four times as many permits as in fiscal year 2008.

"About a year ago, we started falling off pretty heavy," Goucher said. "I think it really started with the mortgage industry debacle."

Increasing gasoline and energy costs added to the problem, he said.

Newton County Planning and Development Director Marian Eisenberg said the local housing market downturn seems to be reflective of what's happening on the national level.

"It's pretty devastating. We're having a lot of problems with foreclosures in developments that then go back to the bank. When code enforcement tries to enforce something like yard maintenance or erosion control, it's hard to find who owns the property. The foreclosure could take 90 days and there's no one to go to (in order) to get compliance," Eisenberg said.

There are a number of abandoned developments in the county, she said: Some are partially complete with a few houses built, some have permits for houses that were never started, others have partially built roads.

"There's an awful lot of builders, large and small, that have gone under ... those that haven't are hanging on the best they can," Goucher said.

Economic and growth projections for the Atlanta area are very positive, Goucher said, but he predicted things will get worse before they get better.

"Houses are going to get more expensive," he said. "The interest rate's going up. If you want to buy, now's the time to do it. It costs more to build now than it did six months ago and there's less competition."

Nancy Johnson with Keller Williams Realty in Conyers, who has been selling homes in Newton County for more than 30 years, is optimistic about the future, and even about the current market. Resales are being marketed without a problem, she said.

"The market is still good. It's taking a change in direction and people are beginning to have to put some investment in what they're buying instead of walking away with cash in their hand. Some of these programs allowed people that didn't have any investment to buy a home, so they had no commitment to stay in their houses ... It's going to be a significant economic turnaround for our country if we just don't give stuff away as much," she said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.

SideBar: At a glance

Number of new residential building permits issued in Newton County:

· Fiscal Year 2008: 359

· Fiscal Year 2007: 1,147

· Fiscal Year 2006: 1,887