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Construction through the roof: Hawaii Island leading the state in new homes

  • Construction of a new building is seen on Alahou St. in Kailua-Kona. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • A new home is being built in Kailua View Estates. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • New building unit permits approved per year from 2016 to 2020 (West Hawaii Today analysis/U.S. Census data)

The Big Island is booming and home builders throughout the island are struggling to keep up with the demand.

“If you’re asking me if construction is going wild, I’d say yes,” said Greg Putman, owner of Greg Putman Construction in Kona.

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Clint Carlson, owner of Carlson Homes Inc. in Hilo, said recent activity is as hectic as it’s ever been during his 25-plus years in business.

“It’s definitely a good time. We’re busy,” Carlson said.”We’re turning away more work than we’re accepting right now.”

That’s despite otherwise gloomy statistics surrounding employment, wages and tourism that have yet to fully recover from business closures and cutbacks during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Construction activity in Hawaii’s four counties has yet to return to the heyday of 2018, but last year was nowhere near the doom and gloom expected by the most negative forecasters after the entire nation experienced a virtual lockdown during what many hope was the worst of the pandemic.

Data from both the federal and state governments show Hawaii Island has weathered the storm better than the other three counties. Hawaii County, for example, showed a 16.6% drop in the number of private housing units — a single-family home, a condo unit or apartment — in terms of approved permits between 2018 and 2020, according to the annual survey of building permits released Monday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The numbers provide a general indication of the amount of new housing stock that may have been added to the housing inventory. Since not all permits become actual housing starts and starts lag the permit stage of construction, these numbers do not represent total new construction, but should provide a general indicator on construction activity and the local real estate market, the Census Bureau said.

Hawaii County’s 16.6% drop compares to a 32.7% drop on Oahu, a 60.1% drop on Kauai and a 37.2% drop in Maui County.

Hawaii County’s building boom continued into 2021, with 85 new units permitted in January, 34 in February, 37 in March and 15 in April, according to data kept by the county Department of Public Works.

When looking at total private-sector permit activity, including remodeling, electrical and plumbing permits and the like, Hawaii Island far outshone the others during the last quarter of 2020, the state Department of Research &Economic Analysis said in its most recent report.

Building permits during that quarter increased for Hawaii County, while decreasing for all other counties in the state.

In the fourth quarter of 2020, private building permits decreased $112.6 million or 20.2 percent in Honolulu, decreased $15.9 million or 49 percent in Kauai (only residential available), decreased $11.7 million or 8.8 percent in Maui County, but increased $74.8 million or 57.4 percent in Hawaii County compared to the same quarter of the previous year, the report stated.

Putman said most of his latest business is coming from the mainland.

He said prices for homes and materials sat stagnant for a decade, but that’s rapidly changing.

“It’s all driven by the mainland hordes all trying to retire early or move here and work from home,” he said.

Carlson is seeing a more traditional home buyer on the east side. His customers are more likely to be kama‘aina and returning kama‘aina than newcomers.

A typical new home buyer is “someone who’s grown up here, has been away, maybe has retired and now the priority is, they want to come back,” he said.

Putman thinks the early days of the pandemic, about this time last year, had people rethinking their priorities.

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“A year ago, it was kind of quiet. Then late spring of last year, the phone started ringing like crazy. The construction industry never had a lull; we had a scare,” he said. “Construction just took off from there. Everybody just wanted to get away from where they were.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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