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Expert says growth here leads state
Forsyth tops for new home permits
Frank Norton Jr. spoke to a joint meeting of the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club of Lanier-Forsyth. - photo by Jim Dean

At a glance

Counties issued the following new home permits in 2010:
• Forsyth -- 1,200
• Gwinnett -- 1,100
• Fulton -- 800
• Cobb -- 780
• Cherokee -- 500
• Hall -- 150

Source: Frank Norton Jr.

Those who believe Forsyth County has been weathering the economic downturn received some confirmation from a local real estate expert during a presentation Tuesday morning.

"[Forsyth] is stronger than any other county in this state," said Frank Norton Jr. "The growth engine may be puttering, but it's still moving."

Addressing a joint meeting of the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club of Lanier-Forsyth, Norton said some 1,200 new home permits were issued during 2010 in Forsyth, the most in north Georgia.

He said the next closest county for new home permits was neighboring Gwinnett, at 1,100, while Cobb had 780 and neighboring Cherokee 500. To the east, Hall County issued just 150 new home permits.

"The boom is here," said Norton, adding that it likely will remain in Forsyth for several years. "Until Gwinnett recovers, Forsyth will lead the area [in new home permits]."

Norton, president of the Gainesville-based Norton Agency real estate and insurance firm, authors Native Intelligence, an annual economic forecast that provides data on a range of topics, including housing and job markets.

Each year, he shares his findings during the local chamber's Economic Outlook Breakfast.

While the housing market remains steady in Forsyth, Norton said there has been a shift in the types of homes people are buying.

"A house is a house again," Norton said. "Someone in the 2000s said a house is an ATM and I could go to Hawaii on it. But now, we're back to a house just being a house."

In the early to mid-2000s, Norton said Forsyth County saw many sales of "bigger McMansions," but that's since shifted to "providing upscale, basic housing."

As example, Norton pointed to properties on Lake Lanier.

While there is just a seven-month supply of homes on the lake priced below $500,000, Norton said there is a 10-year supply of homes prices above $1 million.

Last year's average home price in Forsyth was $265,000, compared to $462,000 in northern Fulton County.

"There's a better quality of life and lower taxes here ... people are coming here and you all are the mecca," Norton said.

While things are good in Forsyth, Norton did remind the audience that things would probably never return to the level of a few years ago.

"You need to put the word 'recovery' out of your vocabulary," he said. "Recovery means to go back to the way things were, and we're never going to be exactly like we were in '05, '06 and '07."

Rather, Norton told the audience of more than 200, they should think "evolve."

"Business is not going to recover, it's going to evolve," he said. "We're in the early stages of evolution of metro Atlanta, north Georgia and Forsyth County."

Among those evolutions will be larger shifts to a cash market, he said.

"When buying a house now, you have to have cash, you have to have a down payment," he said. "That's kind of a novel thing for people who bought homes over the past 10 years or so."

He noted that cash will continue to become more important as American society "pays down credit card bills and increases savings."

Those two actions will continue to have a negative impact on sales tax collections for several years, he predicted. As such, he said governments will have to refocus their thinking into two categories: "the must haves" and the "would like to haves."

"What are the must haves? That will be the struggle for all government leaders over the next five years," Norton said. "All governments -- whether it's city, county, school boards or the state -- will have to become penny pinchers." 

No matter the challenges, Norton said Forsyth is poised to be one of one the state's top counties for many years to come.

"Y'all are different," he said. "You're leading metro Atlanta in housing growth. You will lead in retail growth and you can lead in business growth."

Tuesday morning's breakfast was the first time Phil Eve had heard Norton speak.

"I was delighted and not surprised that Forsyth County is the hottest county in the state," Eve said. "I've been in Forsyth for 23 years and seen it come a long way. I'm happy [Norton predicted] a great future for 2011.

"It's absolutely the hottest county in the state and a great place to live."