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Builders work on a home south of Ruby Road, on the east side of Interstate 19, on Thursday morning.

Home construction is still growing in Santa Cruz County in 2020, with the county issuing permits to build more than 150 new homes in the first 10 months of the year.

It’s one of the few bright spots for local business, as many industries have been hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. And, while the pandemic has reshaped homebuilding markets across the country, local builders said that the demand for houses in Santa Cruz County is largely the continuation of longer-term trends.

“Everybody is swamped with work,” said Tiburcio Bazua, whose contracting firm Bazua Builders is working on approximately 15 homes in the local area, primarily in Rio Rico. He added a moment later: “Not swamped, extremely swamped!”

In the first three months of the year, the county issued more permits than it had over the same period in 2019, but in the next three months – from April to June – things slowed down. By July, permits were up again, exceeding 2019 in three of the past four months.

Roxana Renteria, the general contractor of Casoma Construction, said the mid-year slowdown could be related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I guess everybody was a little scared to move forward, and we were even a little bit scared” about whether materials costs would rise, she said. “When everything closed down, it slowed down. But after everything opened, it’s been very busy.”

Through the month of October, the county has issued 154 building permits in 2020. That number has already surpassed the 147 that were issued in all of 2019, which was the highest number since 2008. More than 100 of those were issued for properties in Rio Rico, which has seen the most growth in recent years.

(Those figures don’t include permits in the City of Nogales or Patagonia, where fewer new homes have been built in recent years.)

In some parts of the country, there have been reports that pandemic-related restrictions are pushing city-dwellers to flee urban areas for less densely populated places. But Bazua and Renteria said they haven’t seen any influx of clients looking to relocate from big cities to Santa Cruz County.

Renteria said her customers include a lot of federal law enforcement officers, most of whom already lived in the county. Many of them are current homeowners who are trading up.

“There’s buyers that bought back when the market was really low, back in maybe 2009, ’10, ’11, and now they’re selling their homes at a really good price, they’re making a profit and they’re moving into a bigger house,” she said.

Bazua said the business has been growing steadily in recent recent years. His clients include people who were born in the local area, moved away, and now want to return.

“From the late 20s to the mid-30s” in age, he said. “They went to Tucson, they went to Phoenix… Now they’re married, they have kids, now their priority is: I want my kids to go to the Nogales school district, or Rio Rico.”

What about people trying to get out of a city after getting fed up with COVID lockdown in a cramped living space?

Bazua said he hasn’t seen that. “A lot of people do move from California, but it’s more because of the prices.”

Good deals have always been a draw for Arizona homebuyers, but Renteria said most of the homes she’s selling now are on the higher end of the local market, $180,000 and up. “I think that there is a lack of… homes that are cheaper, for people that are qualified maybe in the 140s, 150s, 160s, 170s,” she said.

In part, that’s just because the cost of building materials is heading up. The price of lumber has risen dramatically this year, which Renteria attributed in part to mills shutting down production in response to the pandemic.

Bazua also noted the spike in lumber prices and said that concrete has been in short supply. But, so far, those snags haven’t been enough to slow down the pace of new contracts.

“I stopped doing any type of visitation or taking interview or taking appointments, because right now we’re booked until next June,” he said.

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