Home sales and prices are slumping, mortgage rates and foreclosures are rising, consumer confidence is plummeting. But this morning the Tampa Bay Builders Association opens its spring Parade of Homes, an annual two-week showcase of new construction.
Parade organizers are putting their best face on the situation. "The housing market, in terms of the parade, hasn't changed over the last three years," said developer Peggy Templeton, president of the builders association. "Builders are still very optimistic about the parade, about their ability to sell and about what's on the market."
The parade starts at the end of a week of challenging economic news. A key indicator of consumer confidence plunged and inflation soared. On Wednesday the government announced new-home sales dropped 2.8 percent from December to January, the worst rate in 13 years, and the median price of a new home fell 4.3 percent.
In the Tampa Bay area, new-home closings were down by about half in the fourth quarter of 2007 compared with the same period in 2006.
Even mortgage rates, which should have fallen thanks to the Fed's recent interest rate cuts, contrarily rose to above 6 percent on fears of inflation.
Despite the grim numbers, buyers are buying, Templeton said, "though it's nothing compared to the cadence we experienced in the last few years, but the market isn't dead."
The first step in recovery is what the trade refers to as "increased traffic," i.e., getting people to walk through a model. That's what events like parades of homes are designed to do. Then the trick is to turn lookers into buyers.
Locally, housing starts were down nearly 59 percent last year, and they were essentially flat nationally in January. That's actually good news: It means builders are working through their backlog, rather than building more homes they can't sell. But it does nothing good for employment.
Templeton said she thought buyers may be sitting on the fence because they hear conflicting information. One news report says the market has hit the bottom and it's time to buy. Another says the worst is yet to come. "So they stop and stay put and wait until they get a clear answer," she said. "But building new is not going to get any less expensive, and the time to get something permitted and ready makes things more expensive."
And some buyers, confused by a barrage of incentives builders dangle before them — discounts, options, upgrades, free this and that — decide to do nothing.
The TBBA parade — with entries in Pasco, Pinellas, Hernando and Hillsborough counties — is showing 132 models. That's down from 168 last year and 156 in 2006, but it's up from 115 models in 2005, the last of the glory years.
The houses range from a $135,000 model by Jim Walter Homes (the company just announced it's looking to get out of the housing business) to a luxury estate by Windstar Homes for $4.875-million.
A magazine with images, maps and directions to the homes is distributed today in some editions of the Times in Pinellas and West Pasco and is also available at the models. Models are open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday through March 16. Details are also available at www.tampabayparadeofhomes.com.
Here are some of the homes builders hope will persuade potential buyers to do their bit to turn the housing market around.
Judy Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8446.
THE HOUSE: Cellini model by Homes by John C. Fowke, in the Garden District at FishHawk Ranch in southern Hillsborough. It's the showcase home of the Parade of Homes sponsored by the Tampa Bay Builders Association.
THE DETAILS: Three bedrooms, 3 1/2 baths in 3,446 square feet; two-car garage; Tuscan courtyard style; green components including energy-efficient appliances, recyclable carpets, insulated windows. Detached cabana, Juliet balcony over the living room, two-story cast-stone fireplace in living room.
THE PRICE: $1.26-million including furnishings and homesite.
THE HOUSE: The Bella Vista model by Avalon Building Corp., in the Lakes of Outlaw Ridge (named after a motorcycle gang) off Ehren Cutoff in Land O'Lakes; homesites of an acre or more on a 40-acre ski lake.
THE DETAILS: Four bedrooms plus den in 4,100 square feet. Builder Ralph Zuckerman had a wish list: great views, lots of windows, three poolside lanais, courtyards (the house has two: one a family entry, one a private solarium off the master dressing area); kitchen window over the sink (like the one in his grandmother's 100-year-old farmhouse); master bedroom a getaway oasis; big, bright utility room; well-placed stairs close to utility room and family room; private den.
THE PRICE: Base price, $449,900. As shown, including furnishings, upgrades and homesite, $999,900.
THE HOUSE: Colmar model by Siebel Falls Homes at Alsace, 19-home community on Hale Road, Land O'Lakes.
THE DETAILS: Three bedrooms, den, two full baths, two half baths in 2,645 square feet; two-car and one-car garages. Green construction: precast panel walls, spray-foam insulation on attic roof sheathing, "cool" roof shingles, photovoltaic roof panels, solar hot water, Energy Star appliances, water-saving plumbing fixtures, cistern, rain sensors in lawn, carpets made from corn or recycled pop bottles. "Green" community with semipermeable roadways, native landscaping.
THE PRICE: $600,000 for home and homesite.
THE HOUSE: Belleair model by Just Gorgeous Homes, 284 Belleair Drive NE (Snell Isle), St. Petersburg.
THE DETAILS: Five bedrooms, five full baths, media room in 4,200 square feet; three-car garage. Home, built on an infill site, overlooks the Vinoy golf course. Three-car garage, circular driveway, barrel-tile roof. Impact windows, spray-foam insulation, structured wiring.
THE PRICE: $1.7-million for home and homesite.