Local home building: Lift high the roof beam

New Rochester homes were built in 2013 at a rate that hasn't been seen since 2008.

Contractors built 326 new single-family homes last year, which is a step up from the 299 built in 2012 and an even bigger leap from the 191 in 2011. However, it's about a third of Rochester's record-setting year in 2004, when 962 homes were built.

The amount of money being spent on construction, both for homes and commercial projects, is also up significantly. The $329.1 million in construction spending was the most since 2008.

"It's like somebody flipped the switch. The prior five years, I'd build one or two houses a year. This year, I've built five homes, and three of them are sold," said Jon Cravath of Cravath Homes in Rochester.

While the uptick is a shadow of the boom days of 2001 to 2006, some in the industry point out this gradual growth is much more stable.


Jim Gander, an owner of Rochester's Superior Mechanical, said his employees worked on a lot of homes before the recession. But many of those projects were "spec" or model homes. That means everyone that worked on them was gambling that a buyer would be found for the home when it was completed. That didn't happen often during the economic crash.

"The nice thing about it now is when a builder calls you up for a job, you know you will get your money," he said. "It's a lot healthier now because we're working on homes pre-sold to buyers that actually have the money."

One major hitch is many of the skilled workers from before the recession have left the profession and have been retrained for another type of job. Many others left Minnesota to build in the booming oil fields of North Dakota. The result is that a shortage of 300,000 construction workers is forecast for 2015.

John Eischen, executive director of Rochester Area Builders Inc., sees that looming shortage as a serious issue.

A bright sign in Rochester is the planned construction of the new $6.5 million Career Technical Education Center. The state-of-the-art facility is a collaboration of Rochester Community and Technical College, Rochester public to offer vocational training to local high school students.

"We're very excited about C-TECH," said Eischen.

Eischen knows the return of home construction in Rochester will not happen overnight.

"We're still in recovery, but we're on the right track. All signs show that recovery will continue to improve," he said. "It's not going to take off, which is good. We don't want a boom."


Recovering gradually could give the area a chance to rebuild its construction workforce.

"I've always said I'll know we're back on track when builder tells he had opportunity to build a home, and he turned it down," Eischen said. "That happened recently. A builder told me, 'I would have taken this job 10 months ago, but now, I'm too busy."

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