Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

TOP STORY>>Growth ready to resume in Cabot

Leader staff writer

Home sales in the Cabot School District, which also includes Ward and Austin, are set to rebound despite the slow economy.

The attraction for new residents to Cabot is the schools, and that is not likely to change, say James Moore, a developer and builder in the Cabot area for 27 years, and Bill O’Brien, a realtor who keeps city officials abreast of the housing market in the Cabot School District.

Cabot’s population was 22,092 in 2006 when a special census was taken, but that number is now estimated at 22,500. And despite the downturn in the economy that has driven many area builders out of business, the Cabot area will continue to grow, they say.

Home construction has been declining for at least two years in Cabot. But O’Brien points to the steady sale of recently built houses in the Cabot School District as evidence that Cabot’s growth is not slowing down.

A marketing research firm has determined that the Cabot area is the third fastest-growing in the state behind Lowell in the Rogers-Springdale area and Maumelle.

In descending order, these areas followed Cabot in growth, according to the Gadberry Group, a Little Rock-based firm: Bella Vista, Conway, Bentonville, Bryant and Benton.

Records from Cabot Public Works show that 183 building permits for single-family homes were issued in 2007 compared to 113 in 2008. But at the same time the number of houses for sale in the Cabot School District fell from 590 to 460.

O’Brien says that means the inventory of homes is dropping and will need to be replenished soon.

But the homes they will build in Cabot will be larger than in past years, he said.

“I don’t know if we’re going to see as many of the beginner houses because the price of land is too high in Cabot. Those houses are being built in Ward and Austin (also in the Cabot School District),” he said.

Public Works records show that six building permits for single-family homes have been sold so far this year, but O’Brien says he believes the weather is largely responsible for that low number. There is money available in Cabot for buying homes, and he believes construction will pick up when the weather turns warmer.

“I’ve talked to a lot of builders and they say they’ll start again in the spring,” he said.

Jonathan Lupton, a planner with Metroplan, which distributes federal transportation dollars in Little Rock and the surrounding area, says data Metroplan gathers from cities and the census bureau indicate that the economy is keeping more people in Little Rock, North Little Rock and Sherwood and that household sizes all over the Metroplan area are increasing. Whether that means more adult children are living with their parents or that more people are seeking out roommates to help share the cost of maintaining a household is not known, Lupton said.

But young families, especially military families who are often several states away from their extended families, will always need houses, and Moore says those are the families who will continue to buy the houses he builds.

Most local banks have cut back on the money they lend for houses that are not pre-sold, Moore said, and that has put many builders out of business.

“The builders that are left are lucky enough to have enough money in savings to pay the interest on construction loans,” he said.

Moore’s son was one of those builders who found another way to make a living when the economy started to decline, but Moore says he will stay in the business because he must.

As the developer of Orchard Estates in Austin, Moore says he sold 30 starter homes last year, half the number of new homes sold in the Cabot School District.

He’ll keep building, he said, because he still has 45 empty lots, and if he stops building, his subdivision will die.

But he says he knows when those 45 homes are completed, he will sell them.

“As long as we’ve got a Little Rock Air Force Base, we’ll keep selling houses,” he said.