Just a few years ago, if you built it, hundreds would come to line up wanting to buy it.
It was a housing boom like no other seen before, a bubble that popped so loudly, it almost took the nation’s entire economy with it.
One of the states hit worst by the housing crash was Florida, especially Pasco County, which saw unprecedented new home growth right before the market came to a screeching halt. Suddenly communities that once had to figure out how to build homes fast enough were now trying to figure out how to sell the homes they already had. Life switched from community developers making huge profits, to just trying to survive.
And it was clear that not everyone was going to make it through — with all eyes on Connerton.
“There were a few times when we thought the market was getting better, only to find it didn’t,” said Stewart Gibbons, an executive-turned-consultant with Connerton.
The community, which was considered one of Pasco’s crown jewel developments when it was first proposed in the 1990s, was designed to eventually bring 8,000 homes just off U.S. 41 just south of State Road 52. By the time of the crash, however, just 300 homes had been built, and there was tremendous concern by some there wouldn’t be any more. Especially when Terrabrook, Connerton’s original developer, pulled out in 2009.
“There was a lot of information out there, frankly some information that was incorrect and slanted, and naturally, when you’re a large community, people are going to focus on you,” Gibbons said. “We certainly saw the effects of that to some degree.”
However, Connerton may be emerging from dark times. The construction industry, dormant for years, has now returned. And since relaunching under a new owner last May — CoastOak Group and Hayman Woods LLC — Connerton has sold some 40 homes, and is poised to do even more before the year is out.
And Connerton is not alone. Some of Pasco’s other large communities, which suffered during the downturn, are starting to come back. And the timing couldn’t be better to see more people calling this part of the county home.
“We love the Tampa market,” said Barbara Kininmonth, sales and marketing director for Crown Community Development, which owns the WaterGrass development off Curley Road. “We love it so much that we sold out all our single-family lots at WaterGrass.”
The community, designed for just under 1,200 homes, has more than 600 in the books already. With the first phase complete, Crown now has plans to start 356 additional homes using five builders — Standard Pacific Homes, Ryland Homes, Homes by WestBay, Bakerfield Luxury Homes and Arthur Rutenberg Homes.
Sales picked up briskly once the housing market returned because WaterGrass spent the money needed to maintain common areas, and to keep it attractive for any potential buyers who wandered in.
“We develop communities across the country, and our standards never decreased,” Kininmonth said. “The level of upkeep for the community never changed. We worked to make sure lots were ready for builders, and we continued on plans for parks and other amenities, all as they were originally planned” during the boom.
The spring quarter has made many builders optimistic. Metrostudy, a company that tracks housing data across the country, said the Tampa Bay area experienced 1,838 housing starts during that time period, up nearly 48 percent from a year ago. However, actual closings are down a bit compared to the same time in 2012, off by just less than 6 percent. That may be because of the lukewarm job growth in the area.
“We’re very bullish on the whole Tampa market,” said David Caillouette, the owner’s representative for LakeShore Ranch off U.S. 41, not far from Connerton. “I would love to see job growth come back because housing is dependent on job growth.”
Last spring, 33,300 new jobs were reported in the Tampa Bay region, according to the same Metrostudy report, up nearly 3 percent. However, unemployment rates are still fluctuating between 6.9 percent and 7.2 percent. Yet, it’s a far cry from more than 9 percent unemployment, which is where Florida was a year ago.
Some of the jobs coming back are construction. In fact, the only reason why the construction industry hasn’t grown faster is because there aren’t enough skilled people in the area to fill the jobs.
And that could slow housing growth in Pasco.
“We lost an awful lot of the labor force” after the crash, said Connerton’s Gibbons, who also speaks on behalf of the Tampa Bay Builders Association. “They just wanted jobs, so many people moved on to other geographic areas like Texas, and others left the industry altogether, and probably won’t be coming back.”
Also possibly hurting some communities is the Pasco County Commission’s recent failure to pass a gas tax hike. Such money could’ve been used to maintain worn roads, like those found in communities trying to get back on their feet. Connerton, for example, built its roads several years ago, but depends on the county to maintain them.
“If you don’t maintain potholes, they only get bigger and more expensive to fix,” Gibbons said. “The tax would’ve cost people an additional $2 or $3 a month, which seemed like a fairly modest number. The county has such a strong emphasis on economic development, but it’s hard to do if the roads are bad.”
Since the housing crash of 2008, there have been several starts and stops in the market that only teased a recovery. That has resulted in a cautious approach by builders, even as Pasco’s demand for homes continue to grow.
“We don’t want a repeat of a few years ago where everyone built far more homes than people were actually able to buy,” said LakeShore Ranch’s Caillouette.
“People wanted to move to the suburbs before the economy went south, and Pasco was the next spot they were all going to. We expect we’ll be picking up right where we left off.”
Except now at a much different — and slower — pace.
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