First-time buyers driving new home sales

Shawn Merritt liked the idea of a newly built home. No repairs. Less hassle. Better energy efficiency.

And, as he found out, the price is right, too.

Merritt, 24, paid $165,000 for a 2,384 square foot home in Brookfield Estates in Wesley Chapel. His family moved in two weeks ago.

"It feels like a dream," he said. "It's the first home I've ever bought. It was the right time to buy."

Thousands of new home buyers in the United States would agree.

Many first-time buyers are passing on the traditional "starter" homes — older, smaller, sometimes dated. Instead, they are buying new, helped by rock-bottom interest rates and major prices cuts from the go-go years of the real estate boom.

The trend helped boost demand for new homes in the United States more than forecast in April, adding momentum to the long-struggling housing market. Nationwide, new home purchases in April rose 3.3 percent above March and nearly 10 percent above April 2011, the U.S. Commerce Department reported Wednesday.

In Tampa Bay, housing and mortgage experts say new home sales are being driven by people like Merritt in their 20s and early 30s, and baby boomers once again flocking to Florida for retirement after a significant slowdown brought on by the Great Recession. New home starts jumped nearly 27 percent in the first quarter in the bay area.

Another boost to the new home market: Buyers who lost homes in the first foreclosure wave four or five years ago are looking to buy again after mending their credit ratings and renting for several years.

Builders are counting on a steady flow of first-time buyers, especially people born after 1980, experts say.

"We expect to see a big demand moving forward," said Tony Polito of Tampa's Metrostudy, a national company that tracks the construction industry. "We expect first-time buyers to be a growing portion of the market."

Polito expects Florida to gain more than 250,000 new residents in 2013. Over the next 15 to 18 years, as the majority of the baby boomers retire, the state should capture many more home buyers from northern states looking to relocate to a sunny climate.

Builders are ready and have started stockpiling land for future housing communities.

To survive the Great Recession, many builders designed smaller, lower-priced houses to attract a bigger pool of buyers. The hottest price category for new homes in Tampa Bay is between $160,000 and $230,000.

Although starts are up, builders are still much more cautious than during the boom, which peaked in 2006. Instead of building hundreds of homes at a time and then finding buyers, more often now they want buyers lined up before pouring concrete.

Rami Zohar of Adobe Homes re-entered the building sector late last year after working in land development for the past decade. He sold his first house this spring without marketing the property in Lutz.

He plans to build nine homes on 21 acres in Odessa, priced at more than $400,000. The timing, he said, is right to start pounding nails into lumber.

"I just started cranking back up," Zohar said. "I think home building presents greater opportunities than selling land. There is more upside in this side of the business."

Nationally, purchases of new homes jumped in three of four U.S. regions last month. The South was the only area to post a decline.

In the past few years, young people have shared houses with roommates or lived with parents as the economy and housing market improved.

Alan Lucas, a senior loan officer at BB&T in Tampa, said many older parents — who pride themselves in home ownership — are urging their adult children to buy now as the economy and housing market appear to be improving, and interest rates remain at historic lows.

Deals are being made, he added.

Merritt, who stocks products for Pepsi in hospitals, married his wife, Ashley, in December. They wanted a new house to raise their 15-month-old daughter.

They bought from KB Homes in Wesley Chapel. The couple picked an already built new home and added granite countertops to the kitchen and bathrooms. He described the financing process as smooth.

"Not everything was perfect," Merritt said. "We hit a couple speed bumps, but we got the house. This feels good."

Andy Wood of American Mortgage Services in Tampa said half of his business is first-time buyers and another 20 percent are former distressed property owners.

Wood expects even more first-time buyers to hunt for new houses in the next year.

"Homes are now more affordable in Tampa Bay," he said. "A $225,000 house today would have cost almost $400,000 during the boom days."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

First-time buyers driving new home sales 05/23/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 11:46pm]

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