The moving boxes in Kelly Lear’s new living room on Salt Lake City’s east bench contain a healthy share of optimism.
She and husband Jonathan lived in his parents’ house in The Avenues for nearly three years as the extended family waited for real estate markets to firm up enough for that home to sell. Now the couple and three kids are unpacking in their latest dream: a 6,000-plus square foot ground-up remodel of a home in southeast Salt Lake’s Country Club neighborhood.
"This just kind of fit," Kelly Lear said of the home Tuesday as she juggled toddlers, new furniture and workmen circulating in her still-to-be landscaped front yard.
Zions Bank, which helped finance the project, chose the home as a backdrop for announcing a significant upswing in consumer attitudes in March, with Utahns’ confidence in the economy reaching its highest level since the Great Recession.
The regional bank’s Utah Consumer Attitude Index rose 2.4 points to 99.2 from February to March, the fifth consecutive month of gains. The survey-based index is a full 20 points above where it was at this same time in 2013.
In a news release, Scott Anderson, president and CEO of Zions, said the bank expected the economic recovery to continue.
Confidence in business conditions drove much of the index’s rise, which Zions officials attributed to the state’s relatively low unemployment numbers, a rebounding housing market and an improved economic outlook.
Forty-one percent of state residents feel conditions are good and another 51 percent believe they are normal, while only 8 percent think conditions are bad, the survey found. The share of respondents believing conditions are good rose 12 points over the last 12 months and another four points from February to March.
"That confidence helps stimulate demand," said Randy Shumway, CEO of The Cicero Group, which conducted the Zions Bank survey. "As people like that things are getting better, they’re more willing to spend."
The Lear home was emblematic in many ways.
The builder on the project, Northstar Builders in Salt Lake City, is currently working on 17 such projects across the city, up from only a handful annually just a few years ago, Northstar project superintendent Taylor Mulcock said.
"It’s been booming," said Mulcock, who noted the company has expanded its workforce in the last 18 months.
Like the Lears, families across Salt Lake County are driving a surge in bank loans for custom home building and upgrades in upscale neighborhoods such as The Avenues, Federal Heights, Harvard-Yale and Holladay, said Jeremy Lowry, senior vice president of mortgage and construction lending at Zions Bank.
"You’re seeing a lot of pent-up demand," Lowry said.
Other Zions Bank indices, measuring present and future confidence in business and employment conditions, also rose in March, although residents are more cautious about the outlook six months from now than today. While the index of current confidence went up 5.8 points, confidence in economic conditions in six months was up only marginally, at 0.1 points.
Portions of the bank survey also point to consumer concern over rising prices in the next year, with 80 percent predicting hikes in the cost of consumer goods and 85 percent saying gasoline prices will go up.
But in all of the bank’s indexes released Tuesday, Utahns remain markedly more upbeat than the rest of the country, with confidence numbers for the state residents leading similar U.S. measures by between 15.6 and 18.9 points, depending on the metric.
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