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It's pretty clear to anyone paying attention that the Lincoln economy has been almost fully recovered from the recession for some time.

Unemployment recently hit lows that haven't been seen since the start of the millennium. The number of people employed and the number of jobs have hit all-time highs. Wage growth has been strong.

The real estate market has been another indicator of recovery. Home sales and prices have hit record levels for several years in a row. Commercial real estate has seen strong growth, with the retail vacancy rate at the end of 2017 hitting its lowest level in at least a decade.

But one area that has lagged a bit since the recession is home construction. The number of homes being built and the number being sold have not come close to their pre-recession levels.

I've been covering real estate and development for the Journal Star for 13 years. My first couple of years here, it seemed as though there was a new large subdivision approved nearly every month.

That's probably because from 2002-2005, Lincoln was undergoing a massive building boom, with more than 5,000 permits for single-family homes taken out in that four-year period.

Sales of new homes also were booming during that time, with an all-time record set in 2003 and numbers in 2004 and 2005 not far off.

However, they sank from 2008-2011. During that four-year period, builders took out only about 1,550 permits for single-family homes.

Sales of new homes did not top 500 in a year during that span, and they bottomed out at 381 — barely more than one a day — in 2011.

Conditions started improving in 2012, and sales of new homes climbed rapidly for a couple of years, growing to 509 in 2012 and 649 in 2013 before growth slowed.

In the 10-year period from 2007-2016, local builders collectively applied for about 5,200 single-family permits, only slightly more than the amount from 2002-2005.

But the tide might finally be turning.

Last year was one of the best for the local home-building and development industries in recent memory. In fact, if you go by statistics, it was the best year since the recession. Consider:

* There were 728 building permits for single-family homes issued in Lincoln last year. That was almost 10 percent more than in 2016 and the highest number since 2006. There also were 258 permits issued for townhomes, which was the second-highest number since 2007.

* Sales of new homes hit 688, the highest yearly total since 2005. While not anywhere close to 2003's record, that number is up more than 80 percent since 2011.

* The city annexed 1,295 acres last year, which is more than it annexed in the past three years combined and the highest total for a single year since 2007. Also, there were five new subdivisions either proposed or approved last year, including at least 1,150 new homes and townhomes. That doesn't include two other subdivisions — one approved in 2006 and the other proposed in 2007 — that finally submitted lot layouts proposing a combined 363 homes and townhomes.

Steve Henrichsen, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Department's development review manager, said the department doesn't have data to compare those numbers with past years.

Anecdotally, however, "I think it is accurate to say that 2017 was the biggest year since the Great Recession for new subdivisions in Lincoln," Henrichsen said in an email.

Bo Jones, owner of Tru-Built Construction and president of the Home Builders Association of Lincoln, said he, too, has noticed an increase in the number of new subdivisions.

"We're starting to see more of those bigger developments coming through," Jones said.

That's important, he said, because the larger a development is and the more lots that get developed and built on at once, the lower costs are.

And anything that can help lower costs is important.

The average price of a new home in 2017 was more than $293,000, the highest ever, and if current price trends hold, it will rise above $300,000 this year.

That's largely due to increases in lumber costs, which hit record highs this year, Jones said, as well as rising labor costs. Throw into that mix rising interest rates, which raise costs for both builders and buyers, and it certainly doesn't guarantee a continued recovery.

But things — at least from where I'm sitting — look better than they have in quite some time.

Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.


Business editor/reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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