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Virginia's Loudoun County, one of the Washington, D.C. area's bedroom neighbors, was the fastest growing county in the country between April 2000 and July 2003, according to the latest tabulation from the Census Bureau.

But half the nation's 10 fastest-growing counties during the 39-month period were located in Georgia. Chattahoochee, Forsyth, Henry, Newton and Paulding all had with growth rates above 20 percent.

All five are located within commuting distance of Atlanta, which has led the nation in new-home construction for the last 13 consecutive years, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

During Atlanta's reign as the hottest housing market in the country, total annual building permits in Greater Atlanta have ranged from a low of 24,684 in 1991 at the start of the reign, to a high of 66,550 in 2002.

"It has been a long run," commented David Smith, president of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association. "Overall, housing demand has remained strong and the market has been vibrant."

In all, the Peach State was home to 20 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the country, according to the Census Bureau. Next, but not even close, were Texas with 12 counties and Florida with 9.

Loudoun County west of the Nation's Capital in Northern Virginia experienced a 30.7 percent population increase during the survey period.

Chattahoochee was second with 29.9 percent gain, followed by Douglas, Col., outside of Denver, with a 27.1 percent jump; Rockwall, Tex., near Dallas with a 26.8 percent increase; and Forsyth, Ga., with a 25.8 percent gain.

The next 5 were Henry, Ga., (25.7 percent); Flagler, Fla., just north of Daytona Beach, (24.8 percent); Newton, Ga. (22.8 percent); Paulding, Ga. (22.7 percent) and Kendall, Ill. in the Chicago area (22 percent).

Despite the big jumps elsewhere, Los Angeles, Calif., is still the most populous county in the nation, with 9.9 million residents. It also gained the most residents with an increase of 352,000 over the 39-month period.

Other counties that ranked in the top 10 in both categories -- total population and numerical increase -- include Maricopa (Phoenix), Ariz.; Harris (Houston), Texas; San Diego, Calif.; and Orange, Calif.

Of the 100 fastest-growing counties, 60 were located in the South, 20 in the West and 18 in the Midwest. Only two were in the Northeast.

Of the 100 most populous counties, 32 were located in the South, 27 in the Northeast, 25 in the West and 16 in the Midwest.

Interestingly, 20 states did not have any counties that made the list of the 100 most populous and 21 did not have any counties among the 100 fastest-growing.

But California alone had 15, the most counties among the 100 most populous, while New York had 9, Texas had 8 and Florida had 7.

Last year, though, the greater Atlanta area recorded 53,750 single-family housing permits to lead the nation for the 13th year in a row, the NAHB says. But the market for new houses is changing.

"The market for higher end homes has fluctuated during the last two years, though it has been gaining strength in recent months," Smith, who also is president of Hedgewood Development Corp., reported. "The first-time buyer and first-time move-up markets have not slowed since 1991."

Rounding out the top 5 housing markets for single-family construction in 2003 were the metropolitan areas of Phoenix-Mesa with 46,590 starts, Riverside-San Bernardino with 35,730, Houston with 33,970 and Washington, D.C. with 30,760.

Fifteen years ago the Houston area was ranked 32nd in the country with 6,788 single-family permits. Last year, it was the fourth hottest market.

"Houston is hot, and that is not just the weather," said Mike Karm, president of the Greater Houston Builders Association and of Larus Builders, Inc. "New home starts have broken records and pumped billions of dollars into the local economy over the past few years."

A total of 1.444 million single-family permits were issued nationwide last year, according to the Commerce Department. And the top 20 most active metropolitan areas accounted for 33 percent, or 480,330, of the total.

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