New construction springing up on South Brunswick Islands

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By Sarah Sue Ingram, Beacon Correspondent

After years of slow growth following the peak of the recession, beach-house construction on the South Brunswick Islands is booming.

Holden Beach has 27 houses under construction, Ocean Isle Beach has 26 and Sunset Beach has 24 under construction or having received certificates of occupancy in the past year.

Among the houses being built on Holden Beach is one with 16 bedrooms and 16 baths. It’s at 1355 Ocean Boulevard West and encompasses 7,949 square feet of heated space.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I have been responsible for inspecting over 8,000 new residential dwellings,” said Holden Beach building inspector Tim Owens. “That’s the biggest one I’ve ever been responsible for.”

It is the biggest beach house ever built on Holden Beach.

T.J. Holland and Chris Woolum were among 30 workers working on the house one day last week.

“You can get lost in it,” Woolum said with a grin.

Holland said, “We framed it, sided it and decked it. I’ve worked on big houses on Bald Head, but this is definitely big.”

“That is larger than the Holden Beach Hotel (popular in the early 1930s),” said Alan Holden, mayor of Holden Beach. “My grandfather, Luther Strange Holden, would have gotten a good chuckle out of that.”

The mega-beach house also has a swimming pool on its oceanfront side. In fact, 19 of the houses now being built on Holden Beach have a swimming pool, said Pam Powell of the Holden Beach inspections department.

At Ocean Isle Beach, 22 new homes are being built on the island and four on the mainland.

“It’s picked up in the last year,” said Larry Cook, Ocean Isle Beach building inspector. “In  2011 we permitted eight beach houses on the island, and it’s jumped to 22 now.

“The construction industry was hurt bad (during the recession). A lot of people in the county survive off the construction industry—sheetrock people, plumbers, framers, painters, landscapers, electricians, roofers.”

The construction is a godsend in Brunswick County where January’s official unemployment rate was an abysmal 12.2 percent.

Beach-house building in 2013 is a move in the right direction.

“The peak was in 2003, when we permitted 88 houses just on the beach and 20 on the mainland,” Cook said.

Ocean Isle Beach permitted 79 new houses on the island in 2004 and 73 more in 2005 before the bottom started falling out in 2006. The town permitted only 14 new homes on the island in both 2007 and 2008 and just eight new homes in 2009.

Three of the homes being built on Sunset Beach are in the upscale North Shore development.

The most new homes built on Holden Beach in one year since Owens has been building inspector was 35, Owens said, and the island may do better than that this year.

“Plus, these houses are twice as big as normal houses—square footage-wise,” he said.

He attributes the increase in construction to low interest rates and people who had been holding on to their money are now willing to spend it.

“We’ve got roughly a thousand lots left (to build on in Holden Beach),” Owens said.

A new house at 308 Ocean Boulevard West encompasses 4,125 square feet—and that’s on one lot. The house also has a swimming pool and a hot tub.

Swimming pools are the latest rage, even for houses by the ocean.

“It gives them a competitive edge with the rentals,” Owens said.

Not just owners of new homes are adding swimming pools.

“We’ve had 40 existing homes add pools this year, as many as five this week,” Owens said.

Cindy Nelson of the Sunset Beach inspections department thinks swimming pools have become a popular addition because, “You’ve got the pool close to your house, you can bring food out there, and bathrooms are available. You have the best amenities. I think it’s good for re-sale value, too.”

Rich Cerrato, mayor of Sunset Beach, said, “It’s a wonderful thing that people are finding Sunset Beach and the South Brunswick Islands an attractive place to live.”

But he cautioned America is still in the middle of a recession.

“The real unemployment rate in Brunswick County is near 16 percent,” Cerrato said. “We need a lot more (new construction than that). People are not retiring as they hoped they would. People are staying in the workplace a lot longer due to their own financial insecurities and just the high cost of living (including the recently announced insurance hikes).

“It’s a step in the right direction, but I’m still not overly optimistic that there will be a turnaround in the very near future. Based on what I’m reading in The Wall Street Journal and other financial publications, we’re still between five and 10 years away. It’s my understanding that at Sunset Beach we have almost 300 properties for sale, including land…When you’re out of work, you can’t buy a home or a second home. These are difficult times, and hopefully government will quit thinking of ways of increasing revenues and start decreasing revenues…I’m hoping, but it’s going to take time.”

Debbie Smith, mayor of Ocean Isle Beach, said, “It is nice to see the construction industry pick up. It’s certainly vital to the economy of Brunswick County. I’m hoping we continue with increased construction and that will forebear well for permanent homes in the communities off of the beach.”

She said the uptick affects more than just the construction industry, including local hardware, carpet, appliance and paint stores.

Holden was also optimistic about the new numbers.

“It’s very exciting to see the improved activity in construction and sales in Holden Beach,” he said. “The activity is across the whole island, not just in one section such as oceanfront. The houses are small and large, so there are no limits to the type of construction.

“If the activity in construction and sales will continue to improve the next six months as it has in the last four months, we’ll be in good times again.”