Monday, October 8, 2001

Construction outlook optimistic

By Mary Adamski

The upbeat message from Hawaii's construction industry Friday night was that the pace of home building and buying has not faltered in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The message clearly is, Yes, Hawaii's home builders are open for business, and together with home buyers, we are going to keep the American dream alive," said Harry Saunders, president of Castle & Cooke Homes Hawaii.

He and other developers delivered positive statistics at a news conference before a banquet to kick off the annual Parade of Homes.

Craig Watase, president-elect of the Building Industry Association of Hawaii, said the assembled group "represents $100 million of construction that is going into the ground. This is not just a thumbs-up campaign. These are guys putting money down saying, 'I believe the slabs I'm pouring today are homes that will sell four months from now.'

"We can send this message to our carpenters, plumbers, electricians: When they go home tonight, they can tell their wives: 'Go ahead and buy Billy a bike for his birthday. I'm still going to be working four months from now.'"

Tom Zimmerman, Bank of Hawaii's senior vice president over residential loan origination, said: "The continued buying and continued loan applications show that folks really have faith in our long-term economy in Hawaii.

"I expected loan applications to fall off," he said. "We averaged $40 million in applications per week. In the last two weeks, we had a $45 million week and a $50 million week, so obviously the benefits of the interest rate decreases have really taken hold."

Zimmerman said he expects more applications to refinance existing loans because of the lowered rates. "From the bank's perspective, our real estate market is very strong."

Added Saunders, "Buyers are coming in the door." Castle & Cooke Homes was averaging 11 sales a week, but since interest rates were reduced in the federal government's response to the attacks, sales average 13 per week, he said.

Some 52 Castle & Cooke homes were sold last month, compared with 40 in September 2000, Saunders said. "We had the same traffic through the models, about 400 a month."

Speakers said the sale of homes could be stimulated through Gov. Ben Cayetano's proposal to revive Hula Mae funding for loans by first-time home buyers who meet medium-income criteria. Ronald Lim, the governor's special adviser on housing, said the state administration hopes to get legislative approval to get its first $60 million Hula Mae bond issue on sale by December.

Representatives of the association, which serves 500 member companies, met with the state administration Thursday, and outgoing president Randall Lau said their priorities are in line with the initiatives the governor will take to a special legislative session Oct. 22.

One key proposal is to "raise the threshold for repair and maintenance projects (on state buildings) from $100,000 to $250,000," which would get schools repaired quickly, Lau said.

"Secondly, we propose expediting the procurement process," he said.

Lau said that like all of America coping with the terrorist attacks, "We are working with a heavy heart. The key word here is, we're working."

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