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Models draw more than browsers

Sellers at the Parade of Homes this year see more urbanites interested in and capable of buying a home in Hernando County.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001


SPRING HILL -- What happens when it hits a tree, Richard Blundell was asked.

"It hits it and bounces off," Blundell told two women as a young girl in a stroller asked, "What's that? What's that? What's that?"

Drawing their curiosity was a small, yellow, robotic lawn mower cruising across the grass in jerky stops and starts.

"You put it out, press the green button and go in the house," Blundell told them.

Blundell explained the battery-powered gadget this weekend from his stool in front of the Millennium Home at the annual Hernando County Parade of Homes taking place at Pristine Place, off Spring Hill Drive. The parade is sponsored by the Hernando County Builders Association.

He had plenty of viewers as a steady stream of foot traffic made its way past him into one of the parade's most expensive, high-tech displays to date. Home builders this year say the increased interest that they are seeing from young, professional couples from Tampa spells a readiness in Hernando County for pricier homes with more expensive toys.

Blundell, who owns Robotic Mowers of Spring Hill and is the Tampa Bay distributor for Friendly Robotics, was no small part of the show. But his toy costs only $800, he said.

"I've been sitting out here in hot sun since 10 this morning answering the same questions," said Blundell, gulping down some water at about 2 p.m. Saturday, the first day of the two-week event. "How many countertops can you see? People want something entertaining."

Inside the Millennium Home, young and older couples alike, some in shorts, some in sundresses, walked with heads tilted or turning side to side like periscopes through the four bedrooms and three bathrooms, including one with a heart-shaped tub.

Some knocked on the countertops; others opened and closed glass doors that led to a sculpted waterfall that was surrounded by stone and spilled into a swimming pool.

Built by Palmwood Builders, the parade's major attraction costs $413,839, which includes the lot.

But the high ceilings and earth-toned cultured stone weren't the only things marveling visitors.

"Linus, turn off the kitchen lights," Michael Mazzuco whispered into a big, black microphone, as visitors stopped to watch. The lights dimmed and went out. "I have turned off the kitchen lights," replied a disembodied but husky, robotic, male voice. After all the lights in the house were turned off, Mazzuco said, "Thank you." Silence. "Thank you," he said again. "You're welcome," the voice replied.

As a Spring Hill-based franchise owner for Linus Alarm Corp., Mazzuco wired the Millennium Home with a voice-activated computer system that controls entertainment, lights, the security system and the appliances. This is the first Parade of Homes in which he has installed the system. He said he is in the process of outfitting one home in Hernando Beach with the system.

To prove its skill, Mazzuco asked Linus to read him the news. Within seconds, Linus was reporting back on President Bush's meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair as well as the status of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The system adds $25,000 to the price of a home, Mazzuco said.

While he has been working 15 years with the company handling security systems, Mazzuco said that he only started working with home automation programs about a year ago. He thinks Hernando County is ready for them.

"I thought it was a great opportunity, especially with the (Suncoast Parkway) and new money coming into the area," he said.

Linda Blackstone, sales representative for Palmwood Builders, leaned against a wall in the Millennium Home and took a breath. The steady traffic left her too busy to count how many visitors she'd had by mid afternoon or where they had come from.

But she believed the turnout was about 50 percent higher than the first day of the parade last year. The 19 model homes by 13 builders are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday through March 11.

Before the parade, though, Blackstone said, about half of the inquiries she has received over the last six months have come from residents in the Tampa area. Usually, she said, the pack at the parade is made up of residents from Northern states.

"This is becoming more of a bedroom community," she said. "It's not simply a retirement community anymore."

John Douglas, broker associate with Scott Nicoletti Homes, agreed. On Saturday, he witnessed a younger crowd from Tampa, more serious about buying than just obtaining home-decorating tips, as visitors have done in the past.

"We are getting people coming up with more money to spend," Douglas said.

That is because the dollar goes farther in Hernando, said Henry Nelson, who surveyed the Millennium Home with his wife, Evelyn, and their three children, one of whom ran through the mirror-plated closets.

The family moved a year ago from St. Petersburg to Spring Hill, where Henry Nelson transplanted his electronics business. The lower cost of living, including housing, drew them. And now the Suncoast Parkway means they can visit family near Tampa without a problem.

The two built a home in Spring Hill a year ago but were so impressed by what they were seeing on Saturday that they were considering building another one.

Particularly impressive was a two-story model with 3,200 square feet and a price tag of $160,000, he said.

"You couldn't touch that house in St. Pete for less than $300,000," Nelson said.

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