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Work, wait and equity can just happen

Published February 16, 2004

TAMPA - Bruce Van Wert shakes his head when he contemplates what has been happening up and down his street in Seminole Heights.

Last March, a man bought a faded 1925 bungalow near the corner for $108,000, spent 10 months restoring it, then sold it in January for $180,000.

On the other end of the block, a rehabbed house sold in September for the sixth time in a dozen years, this time to a Pinellas couple for $160,000. Its price tag 12 years ago: $37,800.

"It's gotten crazy, I'll tell you," said Van Wert, a contractor who with his wife paid $54,000 for their two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow nine years ago. "I wouldn't pay $160,000 to live here."

Twenty-three homes, most built in the 1920s, make up the oak-shaded 1000 block of East Powhatan Avenue in this historically designated neighborhood five minutes north of downtown. Sixteen have sold in the past five years, with seven selling at least twice.

The flurry of transactions reflects what is taking place in several of Tampa's oldest working-class neighborhoods. After languishing for years from neglect, crime and nearby commercial decay, home prices have taken off.

In Hillsborough County, the median home price climbed a robust 31 percent in the past five years, a St. Petersburg Times analysis found. In the Van Werts' part of Seminole Heights, it shot up 54 percent.

The cost
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Use the interactive maps located on the pages linked below show the rates at which prices have risen in neighborhoods throughout the 5-county Tampa Bay area:
Pinellas County
Citrus County
Hernando County
Pasco County
Hillsborough County

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Real houses, real prices

So, what does a median price house look like? It depends on the neighborhood. To view representative homes from south Pinellas County, see our photo gallery.

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Barely a decade earlier, a home here typically cost about $60,000. Then, many residents were elderly holdovers from the World War II era.

Their departure ushered in waves of bargain hunters who these days pay as much as $150 a square foot. They have had to rip out old nob-and-tube wiring to comply with today's electrical codes and learn to live with small closets. They have fought prostitution and drug dealing that occasionally spill from surrounding main roads into their alleys.

In this neighborhood that was cleaved by Interstate 275 in the 1960s, the hum of traffic wafts over front porch conversations like Muzak. Fine dining options are few; used-car dealers are plentiful.

But they keep coming, in a pattern repeated in neighborhoods from Riverside Heights to Wellswood to the area near Lowry Park Zoo, where median prices have climbed at least 47 percent. In the oldest part of Seminole Heights near Hillsborough High School, sales prices have jumped 78 percent.

"We're getting young professionals who work downtown, don't want that long drive and they can't afford South Tampa," said Van Wert's wife, Kathy Lea Van Wert, a Realtor. "But they want that feel."

They come for the canopies of grandaddy oaks that line the streets, including some that are original brick. They come because they shun the suburbs and perceptions of cookie-cutter homes, hours wasted in traffic and garage-door openers that shut people away from their neighbors.

"We had some children over from our church and one of the little girls said, "This is like my Nana's house,' " said Leah Alderman, who gave up a home in Bloomingdale and a carpool on Interstate 4 for a house on Powhatan last year. "It's like a real neighborhood. It's not just a collection of streets."

* * *

In a sunny yellow bungalow a few doors down from the Van Werts, Jeff and Coleen Kremer, a dog, four cats, two birds and an assortment of saltwater fish are still settling in.

The Kremers decided to downsize after 10 years in a house in Pinellas. They wanted a place close to their jobs at the Lowry Park Zoo that could accommodate their "pet children," as they call them, and a neighborhood that felt like a neighborhood.

Last year, they fell in love with the corner house with the big porch but flinched at the $170,000 price. They negotiated down to $160,000, still anxious about whether the neighborhood's prices would continue to climb.

But with low interest rates, they are paying less than in Pinellas and have enough left to plan a native Florida landscape to go with their traditional Florida home.

Recent history may give them reason to be optimistic. The prior owners of their house paid $126,000 two years earlier; two years before that, it sold for $106,500.

And there's this. Mark Schaffer, a landscaper who lives down the street from the Kremers, used to live in the house next door to them. He bought it for $47,000 in 1992, then unloaded it seven years later for $123,000.

The stinger is that it has sold twice since then, most recently in 2002 - for $175,000.

"I could kick myself," Schaffer said, "for not holding on to it."

* * *

Across from Schaffer's current home on Powhatan, Mark and Stephanie Pezzo are working away. They moved in 18 months ago not knowing all it would take to keep up an old house.

"We really have no idea what we're doing," he said, laughing.

He's an an assistant psychology professor at USF St. Petersburg. She's a medical school student at USF in Tampa. They wanted a home between campuses that didn't look like flat, palm-tree Florida.

"We started in South Tampa . . .," he said, "but I didn't realize the prices were . . ."

". . . were insane," she finished.

One day they ventured off the highway and found what they were looking for on Powhatan.

There was one hurdle: convincing their real estate agent to show it to them. Unfamiliar with the neighborhood but wary of its reputation for crime, the agent brought along her husband.

The Pezzos plunked down $155,500 in 2002 for a house they could have gotten four years earlier for $93,500. They share some of the Kremers' price anxiety, worrying whether they paid too much too late in the neighborhood's upswing.

But they're generally happy with their decision, though Seminole Heights living has its quirks.

Crime tends to dominate chats with neighbors, who complain about the nearby former tourist motels that attract prostitutes. It's probably the No. 2 theme at Wednesday night potluck dinners, behind rising home values.

Active neighborhood groups organize patrols to chase away hookers on Nebraska Avenue. A recent Neighborhood Watch newsletter warned of thieves digging up tropical plants from people's yards.

And there are the dogs. Everybody seems to have them, and they bark with every rustle of leaves.

"People told us, "You'll get used to it,' " Mark Pezzo said. "But I thought I was going to kill myself when we first moved in."

Veteran Powhatan resident Elizabeth Blanco, who calls the neighborhood newcomers "yup pups," says things have gotten better. She became a Neighborhood Watch force in 1998 after she paid $70,000 to buy the house she had been renting.

She worked with neighbors and the city to clean up the alley behind her back yard, making it inviting for a stroll and less concealed for criminals. She practiced what she preached in securing entries to her property.

"We've still got a ways to go," she said. "But in terms of when I first came here, it has been dramatic."

* * *

From afar, Reid Evans saw opportunity.

He had been living in his own older home in nearby Riverside Heights when he was laid off from his telecommunications job. With few options, he went into business for himself. Using skills he learned working on his own house, he purchased a sad-looking bungalow on Powhatan for $108,000 last March and went to work.

Evans scraped and painted, replaced and refinished, polishing the old gem to its former glory. Neighbors rejoiced as Evans restored the house "the right way." They're still celebrating.

He sold the two-bedroom, one-bath home in January after 10 months of work for $180,000, more than $150 a square foot.

The neighbors on Powhatan got their highest comparable price yet for appraisers to use the next time one of them sells.

The bargain fixer-uppers may soon become tougher to find here. But Evans is encouraged about his new profession.

"I think I'm going to stick with what I'm doing," he said.

Times researchers Cathy Wos and John Martin, and staff writer Matthew Waite contributed to this report.

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