Washington area home builders took out fewer building permits in the first four months of this year than at any time since 1982, providing new evidence of a sharp slowdown in the housing market here, an industry expert said this week.

"The housing recession has already started," said Robert Sheehan, a management and economic consultant whose firm reported a 32.6 percent plunge in permits for single-family and apartment dwellings in April compared with the same month last year. The number of permits issued for new single-family homes during April dropped 33 percent, compared with April 1989, while the January-to-April total declined 16.7 percent, compared with the same period last year.

"I think we will feel {the recession} for three years. All markets, office and housing, will take a little snooze," Sheehan said. "Residential construction ... is being buffeted by several major factors," including rising mortgage interest rates, a slowdown in the Washington area economy and the federal government's delay in publishing guidelines for handicapped accessibility that are expected to have a major impact on apartment construction.

He predicted another 10 percent to 15 percent decline in the number of housing permits before the pace of housing construction levels off. Although the new permits are at their lowest point in eight years, area builders are expected to start construction here on about 28,000 housing units this year compared with about 20,000 in 1982, Sheehan said.

Montgomery and Fairfax counties, where construction has boomed for years, experienced sharp drops of 61 percent and 57.3 percent, respectively, in new permits issued in April this year compared with April 1989, according to Sheehan's report, which was based on Department of Commerce statistics.

For years, builders in Montgomery County have been building large, expensive homes, but now sales of such homes are languishing. Richard Ferrara, the county's housing and community development director, said, "Anything under $150,000 is selling well and anything over $250,000 is selling poorly." Builders should start putting up lower-priced housing, "with maybe one Jacuzzi instead of two ... . It's time to sort of pull in."

Montgomery's median income is about $54,000, meaning that half the residents earn more and and half earn less. At least half the county population cannot afford most of the homes that are for sale and "many of us are wondering who is buying these $900,000 town houses," Ferrara said. "Maybe there are more drug dealers than we thought."

The pace of home construction here and nationally could be pushed down even more by the squeeze on construction financing attributed to stricter rules on the size of loans financial institutions can make to one borrower, according to some builders.

"If it weren't for {the loan squeeze} everyone would be able to deal more easily with the slowdown," said Susan Matlick, executive director of the Suburban Maryland Building Industry Association. This week, however, the Bush administration was reviewing a plan to ease these restrictions.

One measure of the market slowdown is that the supply of unsold homes is large enough to last for several months, according to several builders and analysts.

"There was a certain amount of overbuilding" in 1988 and 1989 caused when demand dropped after builders were too far along in projects to halt construction, said Roger W. Snyder, chief executive of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association. He said numerous builders are holding several months' supply of unsold homes, probably as large as the inventory of unsold homes during the real estate slowdown in the early 1980s.

Snyder said he believes sales will pick up "as the summer wears on," and that mortgage interest rates may edge down. With the large supply of homes on the market now, "the deals {for buying new homes} are too good to pass up."

The exception in the metropolitan area decline is Prince George's County, where builders got 509 building permits in April, compared with 200 a year ago. In the first four months of the year, Prince George's issued 1,574 permits, compared with 1,162 a year ago.

"I would suspect this is because on a relative scale, housing in Prince George's County is still a real value," said Lynda Given, the county's housing and community development director. "Some builders are finding land is so expensive in other jurisdictions. They are looking here because of more affordable land."

In addition, she said, Prince George's is "right in the middle of the Baltimore-Washington corridor," giving county residents easy access to jobs in either city.

The housing market has softened in most nearby Maryland jurisdictions, with "the real slowness in sales in the expensive" housing, said Matlick. "That's why we've seen more sales in Prince George's," where prices are lower.

Matlick said builders would be able to deal with the slower market more easily if they did not also have to cope with the construction loan crunch.

The permit declines in April from a year earlier in other jurisdictions amounted to 35.5 percent in Calvert County, 65 percent in Charles County, 32.5 percent in Loudoun County, 43 percent in Prince William County and 57 percent in Stafford County. Frederick County builders had 8.3 percent more permits in April than they did in April 1989.

In Arlington, new permits dropped from six a year ago in April to one in April 1990, and in Alexandria, 10 permits were issued in April 1989 and none in April this year, according to the report.

"Our feeling is that a drop in building permits is more positive than negative" because the inventory of unsold homes throughout the area needs to be reduced, said Lisa Benjamin, marketing director for the Milton Co. The company expects to sell nearly 400 houses this year, about 30 fewer than in 1989, but is projecting more than 500 sales next year with the opening of two new condominium projects, she said.

Most companies are "building as the contracts come in," said Gary Garczynski, chairman of Long Signature Homes. His company expects to build about 300 homes this year, the same level as 1989, but far below the 500 houses they erected two years ago.

"The go-go years were not realistic, but neither were the last two years," he said.