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At Brooksville's Cascades, a glimmer of housing hope

Beverly and Hank Johnson hope things at the development they live in, Cascades at Southern Hills on the edge of Brooksville, are looking up after the bankrupt tract was bought by investors.

MAURICE RIVENBARK | Times (2007)

Beverly and Hank Johnson hope things at the development they live in, Cascades at Southern Hills on the edge of Brooksville, are looking up after the bankrupt tract was bought by investors.

The gates work now, a plus for a gated community.

The new developer is mowing vacant lots, has flattened out the piles of sand and will soon give the streets a final layer of paving.

There have even been sightings of what had come to seem like an extinct species: new neighbors.

Yes, Cascades at Southern Hills — a 925-home subdivision east of U.S. 41 on the southern edge of Brooksville — appears to be back from the dead.

Despite some hopeful signs, it is probably too early to say the real estate market in Hernando County has come with it. Even so, the revival of the Cascades is worth celebrating just because of what it meant for the housing industry when its original developer, Levitt and Sons, went down.

Levitt was to postwar home builders what Chevrolet was to carmakers, universally known and seemingly rock solid. When the company offered one of the early buyers in the Cascades, Hank and Beverly Johnson, a chance to bail out of their contract in mid 2007, the Johnsons declined, thinking: "It's Levitt. What's going to go wrong?"

Just about everything, it turned out.

The company filed for bankruptcy in November of that year after selling a mere 26 houses in the Cascades. The Johnsons feared their $267,000 home would be worthless without a developer to maintain common areas and build a community center.

Yes, the gates were left wide open, and the value of their home plunged, and community center remains unbuilt. But things never got quite as bad as the Johnsons had feared.

They were offered bargain-price memberships at the opulent clubhouse at neighboring Southern Hills Plantation, and the bank that inherited the subdivision during bankruptcy kept the grounds looking fairly respectable.

And then, on Aug. 1, things got better.

A group of investors led by John Greer, a builder from Tampa, bought the subdivision, including 23 models and inventory homes, two of them partially built.

Since the company put the first homes up for sale six weeks later, eight have been purchased, and two of the buyers have moved in.

"We see a light at the end of the tunnel, hopefully,'' Hank Johnson said.

Before anyone celebrates the end of the real estate collapse, consider the prices for these homes and that Greer's company, Cashp LLC, paid for the property.

Greer emphasized that it comes with a heavy financial burden, including a $3.2 million bill for community development district fees owed to a bonding company, and a pending property tax bill of $271,000.

But that bill just reflects the appraised value of the property, $12.9 million.

Cashp's purchase price? A stunningly low $2.2 million.

One of the houses sold, a furnished model, went for $150,500, about half what Levitt had asked.

Countywide, the median price of houses sold in October dropped $10,000 to $104,000, compared with October 2008, according to the Hernando County Association of Realtors.

But in those same months, the number of home sales climbed to 219 from 163 the previous year. And prices in recent months have held steady or even climbed, said Ed Carr, the association's executive vice president. The median sales prices for September, for example, was $100,000.

"I believe wholeheartedly we're seeing a stabilization or even increases,'' Carr said.

The real estate company selling Cashp houses raised prices 5 percent on Nov. 1, and Greer, looking forward to the time when the rest of the inventory will be sold, is negotiating with two builders to start working in the Cascades.

Rooting for the success of one developer doesn't excuse the industry's mad grab during the boom. It doesn't excuse the city of Brooksville for giving away future impact fees and approving road plans that helped developers — especially Levitt — more than the public.

It doesn't mean the city or the county need to approve new developments anytime soon.

But vacant houses being bought up and prices, maybe, starting to climb?

That's good for all of us who own property or businesses, or who just like it when local government has enough money to function. Call it light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully.

At Brooksville's Cascades, a glimmer of housing hope 12/03/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 3, 2009 8:47pm]
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