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Upscale to snapped up: Hernando Oaks hurting
The developing subdivision once short on inventory now has the opposite problem.
By DAN DEWITT, Times Staff Writer
Published September 4, 2007
Because of the slowing market, home-building giant Lennar Corp. will no longer build homes unless it has a contract with a buyer. That will leave more lots available for four local companies that originally agreed to build in Hernando Oaks.
[Times photo: Maurice Rivenbark (2003)]
BROOKSVILLE - Candice Anderson, a homeschooling mother of five, never thought she had money for real estate speculation.
But in June, Anderson and her husband, Tracy - a manager for an air-conditioning company - got a chance to buy houses in Hernando Oaks at prices even they could afford.
The Andersons joined with two friends to purchase five houses from home-building giant Lennar Corp. The couple ended up paying $110,000 and $115,000 for two houses, each of them selling for more than $60,000 less than the market value, according to the Hernando County Property Appraiser's Office.
"These are the first two houses we've bought," said Anderson, 40, of Lutz, who is renting the houses. "I consider it a blessing from the Lord."
But such deals have been a curse to local builders, as Hernando Oaks tries to return to its original marketing plan - building custom-made, upscale homes.
The change comes as the original developer, Gulf South Developers Inc., bought out a partner, Priority Development Inc., and as Lennar, which once planned to build as many of 700 homes in Hernando Oaks, is scaling back its plans.
Because of the slowing market, the company will no longer build homes unless it has a contract with a buyer. That will leave more lots available for four local companies that originally agreed to build in Hernando Oaks.
"Now, we have the potential to buy some lots, and I'm really excited about it," said Mark Alexander, president of Alexander Custom Homes in Spring Hill, one of the original builders.
But first he and other builders must overcome daunting obstacles, including the slumping real estate market. That has made it more difficult to find financing for the clubhouse, which is still not completed four years after the opening of the golf course, said Charles Liberis, president of Gulf South.
"We're dealing with a number of lenders to get that done, but this is not the best economy," Liberis said.
Also, the county has delayed development of the 142-lot third phase of Hernando Oaks because some of the lots need more fill dirt. Finally, local builders worry that Lennar's sale of more than two dozen houses below market value has devalued Hernando Oaks, where some builders are trying to sell homes for more than $400,000.
"Lennar was brought in with much fanfare and hasn't done a whole lot, other than building a lot of spec homes and dumping them on the market," said Chris Glover, chief operating officer of Palmwood Builders. "It hurts the whole community."
Before Southern Hills Plantation Club or Hickory Hill, it was Hernando Oaks that pioneered the idea of selling luxury homes in Hernando County.
In 2003, after a much-delayed start, the Panhandle development group led by Liberis announced it was ready to sell houses for between $150,000 and $400,000 at a time when the median home price in the county was $108,000.
By then, Hernando Oaks had brought in the Tampa-based utility TECO to help pay for improvements in the project. Two years later, with sales slower than expected, TECO sold its interest to Priority Developers, also of Tampa.
Priority courted Lennar to build more houses - then and in the future - as it planned to more than double the size of the 975-lot subdivision. The problem, Liberis said at the time, was that local builders had been unable to keep up with demand.
"There's no inventory," he said in February 2005.
Less than two years later, Lennar had the opposite problem.
It has sold 56 homes in Hernando Oaks since January 2006, according to the property appraiser's records. Almost all of the 35 sales in 2007 have been below market value, according to the appraiser's office. Four, including the houses the Andersons bought, were $50,000 or more below market price.
That irked not only other builders but also some residents, who had signed contracts designed to limit speculation - forbidding them either to rent their houses or to resell them within a year.
Andee Clancy's four-bedroom house is on the same street as the Andersons' and is valued the same as the home the Andersons bought for $115,000. She and her husband, John, paid $207,000 for their Lennar home in April and were forbidden to rent it for two years.
Though Andee Clancy has no problems with her neighbors - mostly renters in investment homes - she worries they will devalue her neighborhood.
"My understanding was that we could not rent the place out. But as you can see, this whole neighborhood is rentals," she said.
Mark Metheny, president of Lennar's Tampa division, said the company reserves the right to sell some homes to investors who do not face rental and resale restrictions. Others buyers know this, he said, because it is written into their sales contracts.
With sluggish sales throughout the state, Lennar has also sold houses in Sterling Hill and other nearby subdivisions for below-market prices, as have other home builders, Metheny wrote in an e-mailed response to questions.
"Price reductions result in reduced profits, or sometimes losses, for Lennar, and we make reductions only when required by market conditions," he wrote.
Lennar will build some additional homes in Hernando Oaks, though it does not know how many. To prevent those from competing directly with larger, more luxurious houses built by custom builders, Hernando Oaks will be separated into neighborhoods that offer distinct lot sizes and housing styles, Liberis said.
He has also scaled back expansion plans for Hernando Oaks, where 277 houses have been completed since 2003, according to county records. He will eventually add more lots but is not sure how many.
"A lot of that is up in the air and for a lot of reasons, including the economy," Liberis said.