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The (Somewhat) Changed Face of South Hillsborough
By Mitch Traphagen
Aug 2, 2007, 23:30

A sign of the times? Two years ago, many homes were selling as fast as they went on the market - today, developers are competing for customers. Jeff Fruth Photo
– Four years ago, in July of 2003, the Observer News concluded a three-part series entitled The Changing Face of South Hillsborough.  At that time, a real estate boom that had begun a year or so previously in other parts of the country was just beginning to reach this quiet corner of paradise.  The series told of what was happening and offered insight in to what would come. 

Now, with the perfect vision of hindsight, did we really understand what was to come - and did things turn out as planned?

In July of 2003, the price of gas hovered around $1.50, although industry watchers warned that it would approach $1.60 the next month (it did).  The U.S. was four months into what was then called Operation Iraqi Freedom – and a few weeks prior the president had announced, “Mission accomplished.”  It was two months into hurricane season but at that time the word Katrina was just a girl’s name.  No one talked much about property taxes; Florida was, after all, considered a tax haven.  A few people grumbled about homeowners insurance but for the most part, it was simply one of the costs of living in paradise.  People camped out in the parking lot at Mira Bay for a first shot at town homes that had not yet been built – and were rewarded with an almost immediate appreciation in the tens of thousands of dollars.  Few properties on the market ever even reached the stage of having a for sale sign in the yard – it seemed that as soon as a new listing came in, there were multiple offers – sometimes above the asking price.  All across the area, people were concerned that South Hillsborough was going to become “another Brandon.”

The story four years ago mentioned the area was “on the verge of arriving.”  John Tipton of Dickman Realty was able to put years of rumors to rest by correctly predicting the arrival of a Home Depot store – he even stated exactly where it was to be built – although in the end, I decided against reporting that.  Newspaper stories told of plans for new shopping centers and waves of new people moving into the area.

Over the next few years, houses went up like never before.  In among the flurry of construction, schools were built in seemingly record time and everyone dreamed and talked about the coming wave of stores and restaurants.  It was thought that downtown Ruskin would emerge at State Road 674 and I- 75 and downtown Apollo Beach would rise from the earth near Mira Bay.

And, almost ironically, through the building hysteria it was a handful of realtors who kept their perspective.  Along with Tipton, Craig Beggins of Beggins Century 21 remarked that nothing was going to appear overnight – that retailers would want to see real people moving in before building stores.  And that, of course, is exactly what happened.  The new downtowns of Ruskin and Apollo Beach have yet to emerge but a whole flurry of shopping has been built along the U.S. 301 corridor – which had an early lead in the wave of development.  In addition to the Home Depot, there is now also a Lowe’s Home Improvement Center, two new Super Wal-Marts and a near flood of new restaurants and other smaller shops.

In the beginning, no one was much worried the wave would someday crest.  The development that had arrived was seen as long overdue – for years prior people had talked about it and heard rumors and suddenly it was here.  “A rising tide raises all ships,” said Beggins in describing what was happening.

And, along with ships, real estate prices rose dramatically.  The mantra quickly became one of buy now or risk losing out forever.

And then one day it all seemed to stop.

A few years ago this sign would have almost been unthinkable in South Hillsborough as many homes sold long before the for sale signs could appear in yards - not to mention, homes prices were on a fast rise into the stratosphere. Today, however, things have slowed and prices have dropped. Which, of course, will cause people to notice - and perhaps cause a new wave of change to begin. Mitch Traphagen Photo
In 2004, Florida made national news as one hurricane after another battered the state.  The real estate market, however, shrugged it all off with barely a pause.  The news, it appeared, had been nothing more than advertising for the state.  If anything, it showed the resilience and strength of the state government and the people.

In July of 2004, according to the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors, the average South Hillsborough home was on the market for 86 days and had an average selling price of $226,572.  By July of 2005, the average home spent 57 days on the market and sold for $326,988.  Despite four hurricanes hitting the state, the average home price increased by $100,000 – and they were selling more quickly.

The next month, August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina passed over South Florida causing moderate damage – but nothing the state couldn’t handle.  Property insurance was becoming an issue but the state was stepping up in providing what it saw as the only solution through Citizen’s Property Insurance Corporation.

And then Katrina hit New Orleans.  For four long days it seemed as though the entire nation stopped in stunned silence as the most powerful nation on earth appeared helpless to protect her own people.  Gasoline prices rose precipitously and an increasing number of Americans grew weary with the war in Iraq.  It looked as though the wave crested and uncertainly had filled the void.

But in South Hillsborough, the wave was still passing through.  By July of 2006, home prices had dropped slightly to an average of $314,703 but they were selling faster than ever, spending only 50 days on the market.  The bigger statistics, however, were telling.   For all of area served by the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors, residential home sales for the month had fallen to 1,331 – down from 2,283 the year before.

At the beginning of 2007, frequent news reports cited Florida, along with California, as being the poster child for the housing bubble gone bust.  In a frank moment, the CEO of one of the largest homebuilders in the U.S. told analysts at a financial conference that, “2007 is going to suck.”  Another CEO blamed the problems on a “decline in consumer confidence in housing.”  It seemed as though problems compounded against other problems as homebuilders were left with cancelled orders and speculators were left holding properties they couldn’t afford.  

Suddenly, the market was flooded with homes for sale and the signs became fixtures on many residential streets.  By June of this year, the average selling price for a South Hillsborough home had fallen to just over $245,000 and, despite the decrease, was now spending an average of 113 days on the market.  In the wake of years of increasing property values along with the lingering specter of Katrina, property taxes and insurance are now issues of great importance to virtually everyone in the state.  One area realtor recently talked about having buyers qualified to buy homes only to have them pushed over the limit by taxes and insurance.  With the estimates for both added into the equation, the mortgages would be denied.

But is this the end of the story?  Has the bottom dropped out on South Hillsborough?  While a quick reading of the latest headlines would suggest as much, there is considerable evidence to the contrary – evidence that can be seen by simply driving around the area.  

And yet another sign of the times - one builder advertises the meltdown in south county home prices. Mitch Traphagen Photo
Rather than suffering the repercussions of a burst bubble, the new lull in activity is, perhaps, a much-needed breather for South Hillsborough.  Over the past few months, the homes owned by speculators have slowly been absorbed by the families still moving into the area and everywhere you look older neighborhoods and buildings passed over in the wave of development are coming back to life – if only sometimes with new paint.  New homes are still being built and older homes are being sold but the slowdown is allowing everyone the ability to collectively catch their breath and settle into what has become home for thousands of new residents.  

In the end, Craig Beggins was correct – the rising tide did indeed raise all ships in South Hillsborough.  Today, there are more opportunities than ever in this area – particularly in terms of jobs, education and even shopping.  And now that the wave has passed, it is time, once again, to enjoy the fruits of paradise – even with the emergence of never-before-seen traffic backups along the roads and freeway exit ramps – and the environmental challenges created by the new development.  The pace has become quieter and the oft-promised peace of living in South Hillsborough has again settled in.

It is particularly important to enjoy it now because almost certainly a new wave will someday roll over the area and the activity and hysteria will begin anew.  In 2008, the first wave of baby boomers, flush with pension plans and retirement accounts, will begin retiring – and they will certainly notice the quiet pace and peaceful existence that can be had in this area.  They will notice because the tide has indeed risen and the area is even more attractive than it was before the previous wave.

And, like it’s predecessor, that wave, too, shall crest after the retirement funds begin to dry up.  And once again peace and quiet will become the mainstays of living in paradise.  Shortly after that, other people will notice…

Story links to the 2003 series, The Changing Face of South Hillsborough:

Part One:  Welcome to Southshore

Part Two:  Meet the Neighbors

Part Three:  It's a Bird!  It's a Plane!  It's a Home Depot!

© Copyright 2006 by The Observer News Publications and M&M Printing