Seven counties in Florida ranked in the top 20 for the highest growth rate of housing units nationwide from July 2005 to July 2006, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released today.

Pinal County, Ariz., which is home to the communities of Apache Junction and Casa Grande, as examples, ranked as the fastest-growing county in the nation for new housing units, with a 16.6 percent increase in housing units during that one-year period. The total number of housing units in that county grew from 108,771 on July 1, 2005, to 126,854 on July 1, 2006, according to the report, which ranks counties that have at least 5,000 existing housing units.

These days, the Pinal County market is reeling from that nation-leading surge of construction as the real estate market has turned for the worse.

Brian Russell, broker-owner for Casa Grande-based Pinal County Properties, said a combination of factors have slowed the market, including overbuilding, a rush of real estate speculators, rising gas prices and troubles in the mortgage market. The housing market peaked about 18 months ago in Pinal County, he said.

“We had so many home builders that just overbuilt for the area, so now we’ve got a glut,” he said. Some of the planned projects that have yet to be built are now on hold, he said. “A lot of builders and developers are coming back in asking for extensions for projects,” and in some cases developers have put in roads and sewers and other improvements before they “just pull out completely.”

“We’re really being hit hard here in foreclosures,” Russell also said. “Every day we’re getting new homes on the market going through that process.” A similar story is playing out in several other markets across the country that had experienced a boom in new construction.

Casa Grande has a population of about 45,000 residents and is still growing but “not at the expected rates we were forecast to grow,” he said. During Pinal County’s real estate boom, home prices soared about 50 percent higher, Russell also said.

Homes that sold for about $99,000 in early 2004 were selling for about $159,000 by mid-2006, said L.D. Hawkins, a real estate agent for Hawkins & Associates Realty in the Pinal County community of Arizona City. Many residents in the area commute to job centers such as Phoenix or Tucson, he said.

Sumter County, Fla., ranked second on the Census Bureau list for its 13.6 percent growth rate in new housing units, followed by Kendall County, Ill., with a 9.7 percent growth rate. Other Florida counties in the top 20 for the rate of housing unit growth include Lee, Flagler, Osceola, St. Johns, St. Lucie and Walton counties. Sumter County grew by 4,881 housing units from July 1, 2005, to July 1, 2006, the Census Bureau reported, rising from 35,786 total units to 40,667 units.

Kendall County, Ill., meanwhile, grew from 28,145 total units to 30,879 during the Census reporting period.

An influx of home builders built up the area as large tracts of agricultural land opened up to development, said Paula Wilkinson, a broker associate for Kettley & Co. Realtors in the Kendall County community of Yorkville.

“We have the open space,” she said, though until the past few years the region had not seen large-scale subdivisions with hundreds of units. Formerly, she said, new homes were generally custom-built by small developers, and the largest subdivisions had perhaps a few dozen homes.

There isn’t much industry in the area, Wilkinson said, and many of the homeowners commute to downtown Chicago via train. Large lot sizes and more affordable prices have driven homeowners to the area, she said, as bean fields and cornfields gave way to new homes.

The housing market has “leveled off” since the building boom capture by the Census data, Wilkinson said, and the local MLS has reported just 96 single-family home sales in the past six months and 232 sales in the past 12 months. Builders are reducing the prices on new homes in the region by up to $30,000 as an incentive for buyers, she said.

Lee County, Fla., ranked fourth on the list for the highest U.S. rate of growth in housing units, followed by Flagler County, Fla.; Culpeper County, Va.; Pearl River County, Miss.; Rockwall County, Texas; Dallas County, Iowa; and Forsyth County, Ga.

Hurricane-ravaged St. Bernard Parish, La., and Orleans Parish, La., lost the most housing units between July 1, 2005, and July 1, 2006, the Census Bureau reported. St. Bernard Parish lost 76.2 percent of its housing stock, which declined from 27,292 units in 2005 to 6,507 units in 2006, according to the report. And Orleans Parish lost 50.4 percent of its housing stock — the total number of housing units fell from 213,137 in 2005 to 105,662 in 2006.

Plaquemines Parish in New Orleans lost 21.9 percent of its housing stock during that period, while Harrison County, Miss., lost 10.7 percent; Jefferson Parish, La., lost 4.3 percent; Jackson County, Miss., lost 3.2 percent, Hancock County, Texas, lost 1.4 percent; Newton County, Texas, lost 1.3 percent; and Orange County, Texas, lost 0.9 percent. Jasper County, Texas; Greene County, Miss.; Brantley County, Ga.; Tyler County, Texas; and Box Butte County, Neb., also experienced a decline in housing stock from July 1, 2005, to July 1, 2006.

The largest numerical increase in housing units from July 1, 2005, to July 1, 2006, was in Maricopa County, Ariz., which gained 42,980 units. That represents a 3 percent gain, for a total of 1.5 million units as of July 1, 2006, according to Census estimates. Next on the list was Harris County, Texas, with a gain of 38,814 units and a percentage gain of 2.7 percent, followed by Clark County, Nev., with a gain of 37,803 housing units and a percentage gain of 5.3 percent.

Four of the five states with the most rapid housing growth are in the West, including Nevada, with a growth rate of 4.5 percent; Arizona, at 3.5 percent; Idaho, at 3.4 percent; and Utah, at 3.1 percent. Florida had a growth rate of 3.3 percent, according to the report. Nevada’s rate of growth was about triple the national average.

Florida added the highest number of housing units among all states during the reporting period, according to Census estimates. Florida gained 273,000 housing units from July 1, 2005, to July 1, 2006, followed by Texas with 198,000, California with 181,000, Georgia with 101,000 and North Carolina with 89,000.

The United States had an estimated 126.3 million housing units as of July 1, 2006 — an increase of 1.8 million, or 1.4 percent, since July 1, 2005, according to the report. The estimates are based on Census 2000 counts and administrative records including building permits.

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