Home Builders

BuilderFest brought out the buyers

Staff Writer
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Judging by the nearly perfect weather, the knowledgeable and articulate speakers in the panel discussions, the variety of exhibitors, home builders and the standing-room-only crowd, the Herald-Tribune’s first BuilderFest was a success.

Held Feb. 11 in the plaza beneath the company’s building at 1741 Main St., the event brought together home builders, remodelers, developers and other vendors with consumers in an educational forum.

“Builderfest was terrific,” said Duane Clayton, owner of Custom Homes by Clayton, who bought a display table. “The people who came to BuilderFest were people who are looking to build. So we had some really qualified people who wanted to talk about their plans.

“It offered everything. You had home builders, remodelers, Realtors, bankers, green builders — everything that anybody would be interested in. You had top-notch people there.”

One of them, real estate broker Michael Saunders, participated in a panel discussion that focused on the outlook for the local market in 2017. The panelists agreed that it will be another solid year for sales and prices after a 2016 that was “flat, flat, flat,” Saunders said.

“There was a lot of a lot of uncertainty,” she added. “You had Brexit and Canada’s exchange rates. Our international buyers on the Florida West Coast are not Latin Americans, they’re Canadians and Brits.

“Then there was the election uncertainty.”

Interest rates were stable, so people thought that they had more time to make a purchase decision before rates rose, Saunders noted. “And there was more inventory, so people thought they had more time and there was some complacency.”

Panelist Pat Neal, owner of Neal Communities, was upbeat about the market outlook for 2017.

“There are 324 million Americans, and 78 million of them are baby boomers,” he said. “One sixth of all baby boomers live some part of their retirement in Florida. This year, it will be about 410,000 new people, and about 190,000 new households. But, in Florida, we only bought 76,000 new building permits last year.

“So the long-term demographic trend is that we are going to build more houses in the next few years. Our trend in Florida is solid, because the sun is shining, we have low taxes and people want to be here.”

But Saunders tamped down the exuberance with a dose of reality.

“The biggest impact, long-term, for our market area is the lack of workforce, affordable housing,” said Saunders, who was joined on the panel by Neal, appraiser Don Saba and Building Industry Association executive Jon Mast.

“With all the new homes, Pat needs the workers to build them, and then they want the services, the medical care. And we lag in terms of affordable housing and workforce housing so that all these new, in-migration homeowners can get the services they want. This is the No. 1 priority for Sarasota County.”

Neal does provide some of the needed housing. The 1,129 homes that Neal Communities sold in 2016 (up from 986 in 2015) ranged in price from $178,000 to $2.3 million, the latter built by his luxury Neal Signature Homes division.

“We like the marvelous middle. That would be $200,000 to $450,000,” Neal said, noting that builders are able to change their business plan to meet changes in demand.

“While Michael said things were soft in 2016, we changed our plan and sold a lot of homes in the last quarter. It happens that the first quarter of 2017 is much different. Our plan was to sell 91 homes in January, and we sold 118. So we are well ahead of plan so far in 2017.”

Saba, who specializes in appraising luxury homes in Sarasota’s West of the Trail area, from Mound Street to Oyster Bay, and on the barrier islands, said some submarkets performed better than others in 2016.

“Overall, things stabilized,” Saba said. “But when you look at the West of the Trail market, appreciation was still taking place. Now it is stable and steady in terms of demand for buildable sites.

“On the barrier islands, you stopped seeing appreciation on some of those sites in the middle of 2015. The demand for larger estate sites dried up. There are so many submarkets within our market that different trends are taking place.

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