"Another thing that has impressed us is the quality of people that we were referred to outside of the company. These were of the highest caliber of people. Living in a Keystone neighborhood has made for a most pleasurable retirement."

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Aiken County leads pace in new-home construction

Knock, knock, Aiken County.

Homebuyers are banging on the door.

New-home construction in the area's third-largest county outpaced that of its two larger neighbors, Richmond and Columbia counties, during 2005.

Aiken County issued 1,232 residential building permits last year, an 18.6 percent increase from last year. During the past six years, the number of permits issued has doubled.

"We keep thinking it's going to drop off, and it never does," said Earnie Knight, the building official for Aiken County Planning and Development.

Columbia County, which during the past several years has had the most construction activity, still had the most home-building permits issued in 2005, with 1,421, an increase of 4.5 percent from the previous year.

Grovetown, a growing municipality in Columbia County, issues its own building permits. Officials said the city issued 336 single-family home permits in 2005 but could not provide data from previous years.

Richmond County, the market's most populous county, experienced an 18.8 percent decline in new-home permits at 652, down from 803 in 2004.

Developers credit Aiken County's success largely to quality-of-life improvements.

"It's becoming a more attractive city to live in," said Rhonda Oellerich, the vice president of sales for Augusta-based Keystone Homes, one of the market's three largest homebuilders.

In the past several years, Aiken has seen an influx of retail and restaurants.

"You don't have to go to Augusta to shop anymore," Ms. Oellerich said.

Keystone Homes, which started building in Aiken County in 2000, has dramatically increased its work in that market. Last year, two-thirds of the company's work occurred there, Ms. Oellerich said.

Evans-based Bill Beazley Homes Inc., another leading builder, also has increased its development in Aiken County. Construction director Stephen Beazley credits a lot of that to the burgeoning retirement base.

Fears of hurricanes have driven a lot of senior citizens to look farther inland, he said.

At least half the homes the company builds in Aiken County are for retirees, something he considers "unusual," Mr. Beazley said.

Recent statistics from the South Carolina Association of Realtors further confirms Aiken County's housing boom. The organization recently reported that the market experienced the largest percentage increase in home sales for the state of South Carolina in 2005.

According to the report, Aiken County home sales were up 49.6 percent over 2004.

Developers remain enthusiastic about Columbia County as well.

Mark Herbert, the president of Evans-based Herbert Homes, said the school system, retail and even the "user-friendly" political climate is helping growth in the county.

"We think the market is still strong and we're looking at things moving ahead even more," Mr. Herbert said. "There's a tremendous amount of people moving into the area."

Grovetown can't be discounted either, Mr. Beazley said. Construction is thriving and is helping to boost Columbia County's new construction numbers.

Richmond County's permits decline last year marks the first drop after five years of steady growth, and permits issued last year are four times what they were in 2000.

"Every time you turn your head, you see more homes coming out of south Augusta," Ms. Oellerich said. "Richmond County does have a lot of land that's still untapped."

Though many developers, including Mr. Beazley, project a positive 2006, he warns it's likely to slow down.

"A slowdown may still be a really good market for housing," Mr. Beazley said. "It just means slower than it was last year."

He estimates that home prices are likely to rise this year.

"Interest rates are going up some. Short-term interest rates are going up. It's going to cost more to buy a house. (Building) costs are skyrocketing," he said. As a result, some potential buyers might choose to reinvest in home improvements instead.

Even so, the Augusta area's housing industry isn't likely to buckle or experience a "bubble" as in higher-priced markets such as Las Vegas and San Diego.

"Augusta has a real stable economy," Mr. Beazley said. "We're never really going crazy, and we're never going that horrible."

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