PLAINVILLE — Home builder Johnny Carrier savors the nail gun's staccato tap-tap as two workers finish piecing together two-by-fours at Samuel's Crossing near the Plainville-Farmington line.
Carpenters hoist up the wall frame for the colonial, one of four houses that Carrier's company is building in the development, all in various stages of construction.
Carrier, watching from behind a stack of framing studs, sees promise this spring in the pace of building. But he wonders if it will last, considering what happened last year.
"It was good out of the gate until April, when it died," Carrier says. "Is it going to continue this year, or are we going to have the same cycle?"
Carrier and other developers in the Hartford area are hopeful but wary, even with the state as a whole coming off its best year in new home construction in five years. The number of housing permits — single-family houses, apartment units and condominiums — jumped by 16 percent last year, compared with 2012.
But most of the increase last year was in Fairfield County, and an analysis of data by The Courant shows that only Fairfield County has returned to the robust residential building levels that the state enjoyed prior to start of the housing downturn in 2007.Interactive Graphics: A Slow Recovery In Housing Permits, Except In Fairfield County
The strong showing on the state's Gold Coast last year was dominated by apartments, not single-family houses.
Statewide, overall home construction started out strong this year, but has lost some momentum this spring.
Carrier — whose family-owned home building company, By Carrier Inc., focuses on houses and condominiums — said he expects that his part of the residential construction market will keep making gains, albeit slowly.
"Connecticut will gradually rise to pre-recession levels," Carrier says. "It might take three, four, maybe five years to get there."
Slow To Rebound
Statewide, in 2011, new home construction fell to a low not seen in decades, 2,837 units. Towns and cities issued an encouraging 5,424 housing permits last year. The levels, however, are still below the 9,000 to 10,000 units considered to be a healthy construction market.
Nationally, builder confidence for new, single-family houses cooled in May, with house construction stuck at levels that were half of what would be considered normal.
"Housing is responding much slower than we ever expected," said Ronald F. Van Winkle, an economist and town manager of West Hartford. "We expected housing to provide the bounce. This recovery, there has been no bounce at all."
Home construction is considered a key indicator of recovery after a recession. Demand for new homes rises with buyer confidence in the job market, especially for securing a new job if one is lost. Rising demand creates construction jobs and can ripple out into manufacturing, boosting the need for everything from windows and refrigerators to lawn mowers.
Connecticut's home sale market had gains in the past two years, but an abrupt rise in mortgage rates tempered enthusiasm. The borrowing rates are still historically low, but the swiftness of the jump in rates took potential buyers by surprise.
In Connecticut, slow growth in both employment and population is holding down construction.
"We don't have the population growth because we don't have the job growth," said Chris Nelson, a partner at Landworks Development in Farmington. "People are still a little hesitant to buy."
But Nelson said he was starting to see at least some of the anxiety over buying starting to ease.
Landworks has taken over a former 55-and-over development in Simsbury, aiming to complete the second half of the project's 180 single-family houses. The development began a decade ago, but sales slowed in the housing downturn. Landworks asked the town to lift the age restriction, which Nelson said will broaden the pool of potential buyers.