County builders hope the twofold increase in residential building permit applications in the fourth quarter of 1991 over the same period in 1990 is a sign the economy is starting to recover.
But other 1991 indicators show a less optimistic outlook, with residential applications down 49 percent from 1990 overall.
"Housing usually leads the economy out of a recession," said Jeffrey B. Powers, president of the Carroll chapter of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.
"We will have a better '92, but how much better is the question," said Powers of Powers Construction Co. in Westminster. The market probably will improve slowly, he said.
Numbers compiled by the county Bureau of Permits and Inspections show thatin the fourth quarter of 1991, builders applied for 163 residential permits as compared with 81 in the same period the year before.
Builders applied for 701 residential building permits in 1991, down from 1,372 in 1990.
Last year's total is the lowest since 1983, the earliest year for which county numbers were available.
Builders applied for 154 such permits in the first quarter of 1991 and 192 permits in each of the second and third quarters.
Applications dropped 15 percent from the third quarter of 1991 to the fourth.
It will bea long time before county builders reach the boom levels of the 1980s, Powers said.
In 1985, for example, builders applied for 1,723 residential building permits, a high since 1983.
Powers, who buildshomes in the $130,000 to $210,000 range in South Carroll, said he hopes for a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in sales this year.
Gregory S. Dorsey, who also builds homes in South Carroll, said the recession hit his company hardest in December 1990, with last year bringing steady improvement.
Sam Rothblum of Daybreak Estates, developer of Robert's Mill Run in Taneytown, said 1991 was an up-and-down year. One month he would sell three houses, he said; the next would bring weekends when no one even looked at model homes.
Rothblum lowered starting prices for a three-bedroom house from $112,000 to $99,000 and said he expects sales to pick up in the middle of this year.
Denise A. Hayes, president of the Carroll County Association of Realtors, said homes under $150,000 are selling better in the county than those priced higher.
Visits from prospective buyers have "really picked up since the beginning of January," she said.
Lower interest rates should encourage potential buyers to sign a contract, builders and Realtors said.
"There are alternatives you just wouldn't believe. There's no reason a person shouldn't have a house if he wants one," said Sylvia D. Gorman, a broker at O'Conor, Piper & Flynn Realtors.
A family could buy a three-bedroom house in Westminster for lessthan they could rent one now, she said.
M. Lynn Rill, vice president for residential real estate loans at Carroll County Bank and Trust, said more people have come to the bank recently to refinance theirhomes than to take out mortgages on new homes.
"We have rates we haven't seen this low in upward of 20 years," he said.
The averageinterest rate on 30-year fixed mortgages in Carroll averaged about 8.2 percent last week.