This is the third day of a series of stories in a Daily News 8-day Special Report: "In Recovery?" looking at whether the economy is rebounding in Southwest Florida.
NAPLES — When the housing market crashed in 2007, it took Greg Ulrich's job down with it.
Ulrich, then-manager of quality control for home building giant Centex, was one of 150 employees the company laid off in one fell swoop. Five years later, he is optimistic about the future.
"I see a big recovery," said Ulrich, president of KGT Remodeling, a kitchen and bath remodeling firm he started before the recession hit and became his main focus as construction jobs with other companies dried up.
A strong start to 2012 has construction industry leaders hopeful that a housing market recovery is getting rolling in Southwest Florida, but the commercial market is lagging behind, developers and builders say.
In 2011, a promising start had the industry talking, too, but the rest of the year didn't live up to the first quarter, said Kathleen Curatolo, executive director of the Collier Building Industry Association.
"Caution is the name of the game," she said.
In the first quarter of 2012, Collier County government issued 297 permits for new home construction, the busiest first quarter at the county permit counter since the numbers bottomed out in 2009. The county issued about 670 residential permits that entire year.
The 2012 numbers so far are building on a 10 percent increase in residential permits between 2010 and 2011, according to county figures.
"I'm not going to say great, but things are better," Curatolo said.
Curatolo cites CBIA's annual Parade of Homes, which featured twice as many builders this year and more home models than last year.
Permits for new commercial construction in Collier County aren't seeing the same uptick, according to county figures. From 105 permits pulled in 2005, the numbers have fallen off to 27 in 2011.
"Commercial is still a bit touch-and-go," said Norm Gentry, principal and vice president with DeAngelis Diamond Construction. "Mild improvement but not gangbusters, that's for sure."
Gentry said his company is fortunate to be building some of the most significant commercial projects in years, from the new offices at Ave Maria for medical manufacturer Arthrex to the Inn on Fifth expansion on Fifth Avenue South in Naples.
Apartment builders and assisted living facilities are starting to ask about pricing, but the big question mark hanging over commercial projects still is financing and "pretty high" vacancy rates for retail and office space, Gentry said.
Beyond the permit figures, other measures point to a housing rebound. The number of new water meter installations in Collier County's water and sewer district went from 395 in 2008 to 786 in 2011, according to county figures.
In the first quarter of this year, Collier County issued 267 single-family home permits and two multi-family permits. That’s the busiest the county’s permit counter has been since the numbers bottomed out in 2009. The county only issued about 670 residential permits that entire year.
"It was slower than we thought, but we really do think we've passed bottom," said Ed Weber, regional president for Florida for Toll Bros.
Toll Bros. in Southwest Florida is on a roll, Weber said, with sales improving week to week since November 2011. The first quarter of 2012 was 25 percent ahead of the first quarter 2011; that followed an 8 percent improvement comparing the first quarters of 2011 and 2010.
Toll Bros. is seeing a quicker recovery on the east coast and around Orlando, compared to Southwest Florida, because of the diversity of the company's inventory in those markets, Weber said.
Toll Bros. has focused on the $300,000 to $800,000 market in Southwest Florida, but lower-priced homes are selling better, he said.
Buyers in that price range are looking for second homes, a purchase that doesn't require that they sell another home somewhere else before they buy here, Weber said.
A fuller recovery will require that another piece of the puzzle fall into place: jobs. More people are out of work now than they were before the crash, which is keeping even buyers with jobs skittish, according to unemployment figures.
"That's hurting us still," Weber said. "Jobs are still needed."
Stock Development has seen an upswing in another market: new homes that sell for $1 million or more, said Claudine Leger-Wetzel, vice president of sales and marketing.
The company sold about 10 homes in Collier County in that price range in the first quarter of 2011, and sold 25 homes in that price range, mostly in Collier, in 2012, she said.
She said contracts, overall, are up 56 percent and revenue is up 63 percent. The company's 65 contracts in March in Collier, Lee and Charlotte counties made it the best March in five or six years, she said.
Foot traffic is about the same in Stock's sales centers, but the number of visitors who returned to buy was up 250 percent in the first quarter from 2011 to 2012.
Stock began building again this season in Mediterra and Quail West and has bought 48 lots in Fiddler's Creek, betting that the market rebound is here to stay, she said.
"There's a lot more excitement in the air," Leger-Wetzel said.
They can feel it at Luxury Home Solutions, based in Fort Myers with plans to open a Naples location. The company has focused on high-end remodeling but is starting to get calls from Realtors with clients who want to build new homes in Grey Oaks and TwinEagles, owner Chris Hall said.
"It's still a very desirable location for people because of the weather and the beach," Hall said. "Naples drives the market. I think we're very fortunate to have Naples."
Lee County issued 116 single-family permits in the first quarter. That was up nearly 47 percent from 79 in the same months a year ago, according to the county’s Department of Community Development.
While much of the housing rebound is happening first in existing communities, developers are preparing to launch some of the first new projects in years.WCI Communities is opening another phase at The Colony in Pelican Landing, although with multi-family condominiums not high-rises, a market that hasn't come back enough yet, senior vice president Doug Schwartz said. Toll Bros. is building model homes in its new community, Bonita Lakes along Imperial Parkway near Bonita Springs.
"There's a lot of action going on," said Weber, the Toll Bros. regional president.
Buyers are champing at the bit. When GL Homes opened its new North Naples community, Riverstone, in January, it sold 100 homes between $350,0000 and $800,000 in 90 days, said Patty Campbell, Florida west coast division president. She said the company wasn't expecting as busy a tourist season as they had.
"It seems to be hanging on right now," Campbell said. "We're cautiously optimistic this will continue through 2012. It started out with a bang that's for sure."
While the signs are pointing in the right direction, it's too soon to say whether the recovery has arrived in Southwest Florida, said Schwartz, with WCI Communities. A market cool-down may be on the way as the summer heats up, he said.
"We in South Florida may be feeling like we're in the doldrums again," Schwartz said.
Ulrich, the former Centex manager-turned-remodeler, is a microcosm of the big picture that has played out as the housing market stumbled and now is picking itself up.
Remodeling work at older condominiums along the beach in Naples kept him going through the recession. "That held its own," he said.
Now his business' first quarter is up 30 percent to 40 percent compared to 2011's first quarter. "This year is going strong," Ulrich said.
A good start in 2011 didn't last; 2011 ended up down 25 percent compared to 2010.
He and others in the construction industry are rooting for a different outcome in 2012.
This is part of an 8-day Daily News series, "In Recovery?" about whether Southwest Florida's economy is rebounding. Tomorrow: Employment.