A Galt developer says his decision to build the first home in the small town in three years is an expression of faith that the lean years of the housing crisis are finally over and that the struggling city's fortunes are also turning around.
Mike Guttridge, a builder who started in the 1960s, said he recently took out the first new home permit in Galt since 2009 because he believes the region's moribund housing market is on the mend.
Construction of the 1,800-square-foot model home at his family's Creekside development started Thursday, with Guttridge and his nephew wetting the packed earth to prepare it for trenching.
Guttridge, 73, said he built the last new house in Galt back in 2009. He's been in the business for 45 years, built hundreds of homes, mainly in nearby Elk Grove, and lived through several of the state's boom-and-bust housing cycles.
"There's always an up, and there's always a down to it," he said.
Today, Guttridge sees the signs of a recovery, including tight supply and increasing demand, and wants to be positioned to take advantage of the turnaround when it picks up speed maybe by the spring, he said.
"It's going to be a slow process," he said.
In some ways, the situation in Galt about 28 miles south of downtown Sacramento is a microcosm of the Sacramento region's housing woes and hopes.
Home builders in suburban areas such as Roseville, Folsom and Elk Grove are cautiously but optimistically starting to build more homes after a virtual standstill in recent years. The ultra-low inventory of resale homes at a time of maximum affordability is pushing buyers toward new construction, they say.
The building of even a single home is a hopeful sign for Galt, which has struggled through the downturn.
The city of about 24,000 in southern Sacramento County had its own housing boom in the last decade. It grew by hundreds of homes and several thousand residents as it sprawled along both sides of Highway 99. Residents commuted to jobs in Sacramento and Stockton.
Then came the collapse of the housing bubble and a deep recession that started in 2007. Construction stopped, and foreclosures pockmarked the newer neighborhoods. Galt's quaint, historic downtown, which had received major upgrades through redevelopment funding, is now plagued with vacant storefronts.
In August, Galt's unemployment rate stood at 17.4 percent, compared with 10.7 percent for Sacramento County as a whole. Since 2008, 14 percent of single-family homes in Galt have been repossessed by lenders, according to U.S. census data and Foreclosures.com.
Even the city's landmark Galt Market, a multi-ethnic bazaar of fresh produce and flea-market fare, has suffered. The weekly event is one of the city's major tax revenue sources.
Wilson Muela, an immigrant from Ecuador who lives in North Highlands, said he has been selling socks, T-shirts and underwear at the market for the past six years. He spoke to his customers Wednesday in a mix of English, Spanish and Hindi, thanking them for their business.
In years past, he said, customers would arrive as he was setting up on Monday and would frequent his stand well past the market's closing time on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.
Now, he said, he tends to close up early for lack of business. "It's kind of quiet," he said.
Nearby, Dave Downing, a cutlery vendor, said he's also experienced a drop in trade but feels things are starting to pick up.
"I think it's turning in the right direction," Downing said. "Not by leaps and bounds, but the needle is moving in the right direction."
Mike Guttridge thinks the housing situation is also changing for the better. It's helped that the city recently slashed developer fees by about $10,000 per house, he said.
Guttridge is betting homebuyers in Galt will want smaller homes than during the boom, and he's pricing them in the $250,000 range. There are 36 lots still vacant in the 38-lot subdivision that is tucked away in a quiet setting along Dry Creek.
Two larger model homes were built in the waning days of the housing boom. They remain unsold. The rest of the properties are just dirt and weeds.
In recent weeks, however, potential buyers have been coming to the model homes and talking to Guttridge's sister, Sally Guttridge O'Hara, about their options. They're seeking to take advantage of low prices and record-low interest rates, she said.
"It's happened all of a sudden" she said.
They include buyers such as Gary and Chris Duane, a semiretired couple who are looking to downsize from the 3-acre ranchette with a cherry orchard that they own outside of Galt.
Baby boomers downsizing are expected to make up a big part of the next housing wave.
The Duanes said their rural property requires a lot of work. Gary Duane, a clockmaker, said he's ready to move to a smaller, low-maintenance suburban home and be done with his rural chores.
That's why they are seriously considering buying a nearly 1,800-square-foot home built by the Guttridge family's Emerald Park Co., which they said has a good reputation among locals for quality homes.
They want to stay in Galt, which they like for its small-town atmosphere. But, said Gary Duane, "I don't want to weed-eat anymore."