That raises the question: Are Cobb's days of substantial residential growth gone forever? Is it all the recession's fault? Is there land left to build on once the economy and housing market recover? We ask a few experts what they predict Cobb will look like in five or 10 years, and what factors they see coming down the pike that may impact Cobb's future.
"I don't think that the market is going to come back with the thrust it once had. It just isn't," said Chris Burke, vice president of Government Affairs with the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association. "I can't say that it will never be robust, though, and it is improving tremendously. Interest rates are lower than they have ever been and houses are priced to sell. People are starting to buy because there's probably never going to be as good of a time in our lives to buy a house than right now. If there is, something's really wrong."
Still, Cobb will probably never get back to the days of 8,104 new housing permits issued in one year, as they were in 1999, Burke said.
But when the recession ends, Burke said there will be growth and more density. And with that comes infill housing.
Infill housing is the process of adding more homes to an existing subdivision or tearing down subdivisions to build new and denser developments on the same piece of land. This will be especially prevelant in east Cobb, where there is very little land left to develop on, Burke said.
"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if we hadn't hit this recession hiccup, infill developments would have already really taken place. Ten years ago or so, it was already happening, but just hit a stop when the recession hit. And in urban planning, structures have a renewable term of 30 years when something's going to happen, whether the structure is demolished and rebuilt or significantly altered," Burke said.
Christi Trombetti, a Cobb Planning and Zoning commissioner and real estate agent in Marietta, said she remembers hearing a few infill development cases years ago when the housing boom was emerging, and agrees with Burke that the trend will grow drastically when the economy recovers.
"I think once the available lots are absorbed, especially in east Cobb, where a lot of land isn't available, we'll turn back to looking at more infill development. And I think the trend is toward more modest-sized homes compared to what was available. I think it's a matter of people now seeing what can happen, being conservative and realizing home values can, in fact, go down, when they never thought they could," Trombetti said.
As a commissioner, Trombetti said she has seen drastic changes in the number of zoning cases the county hears now compared to the mid-2000s.
"I think we are up to like Z-37 this month as far as zoning case numbers this year, and a few years ago, it was typical to have 100 or more. There is not any rezoning going on as far as residential, and if there is, it's one or two homes in random places or a piece of property being subdivided," Trombetti said.
Another issue is the lack of financing for development, Trombetti said.
"There is also no financing for land for special development. The banks just aren't lending for that kind of thing anymore, so it makes it more difficult for new development," Trombetti said.
The demographics are changing, with the next 20 years bringing more and more senior citizens whose tastes in housing will also change.
"People are living longer, and in next 20 years, the majority of the population will be 60 or older," Burke said. "So as the population ages, when you're 60, you don't need a 10,000-square-foot house and you don't want to maintain a whole lot of yard. With that in mind too, there will be more old people than young people in the next 10 years or so because this generation is not having children like the baby boomers did. So common sense will say if they have the kind of money to have a bigger house, they will simply buy a smaller house and perhaps another smaller house in a warmer climate."
The smaller homes will also be needed for density purposes, Burke said, as more people come into Cobb and younger people find they cannot afford to live in the heart of Atlanta.
"The recession will end one day, and people will need housing options. So to meet that demand, you have to put more houses on smaller tracts of land. Whereas one houses sit on one acre in an older subdivision, more infill development will occur where those houses are torn down and four new, smaller, more eco-friendly houses are put on one acre," Burke said. "And our region definitely has room for that. Metro Atlanta still ranks as one of the lowest populations in terms of density. I'm originally from Chicago, and there, it's common to have 2,500 units to the acre. You don't find that here. So that will happen more, also, because young people tend to want to be closer to amenities, and most 25-year-olds can't afford to live in Atlantic Station. And they're more concerned with energy-efficient homes. You'll see more of those. Ten years ago, you say green building and people think of a funky house with solar panels and glass all over. Now, green building means energy-efficient materials and elements, and it's much more common."
And Cobb has plenty of amenities to offer, Burke said.
"This county boasts great schools, shopping, restaurants, the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, so you have all of those amenities, and you can also get into town pretty quickly. You have that going for you. But a good school system is a major draw. Bad schools will kill a county quicker than any recession," Burke said.
Take Clayton County, for example. Although Burke said Clayton has experienced numerous issues beyond its county school system, the county has received a major black eye over the years as the system's reputation has gotten worse and worse.
"People can't believe it when I tell them this, but Clayton's average home price is $34,000. That's it. Cobb is well, well beyond that and is ranked third for highest home price, behind Fayette in first and Forsyth in second. Cobb is still very strong in that area," Burke said.
While Cobb County and its six cities have issued 494 new housing permits so far this year, a number that almost doubles the 284 permits issued so far this time last year, Burke said the number of resale homes being bought is almost eight times as much as new homes being built. But that number is not surprising, Burke said.
"Resales have to happen for new homes to be occupied," Burke said.
Trombetti, who focuses on resales as a real estate agent in Cobb, also said the number of days on the market and resale values depend on the motivation of the seller.
"If they aren't really motivated, they don't want to sell their homes while we're in a buyer's market. But now is a very good time for someone to sell, if they can, to move up to a new home or a new part of town," Trombetti said.
In Cobb, building permits are good for a year, as long as the building is being inspected. The permit fee to build a 3,000 square foot house in Cobb is $1,164, said Lee McClead, development and inspection division manager. Cobb issued 57 new housing permits this September compared to 31 last September. By this time in 2005, Cobb had issued 5,415 permits, while 6,757 were issued for all of 2000 and 8,104 for all of 1999.