Foreclosures rare in Hillsborough County's Sun City Center

SUN CITY CENTER —As an international banker, Ed Feder lived all over the world. Tokyo, London, Sydney, Frankfurt. Rome, he said, was heaven.

But when it came time to pick a retirement home, he and his wife chose Sun City Center.

"I mean if you can't be happy here," Feder, 70, said, "you're not going to make it anywhere."

The Feders are not alone.

This retirement community of about 12,000 homes has the region's lowest foreclosure rate. At 7 percent, it is far below last year's average of about 30 percent in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Sun City Center thrives because it offers a safe and clean community with amenities provided by association fees, an active social environment and conservative investors.

Despite the drag of the recession, home prices remain fairly stable, unlike in other neighborhoods around the state rampant with foreclosures, including those with run-down homes or luxury structures.

"Sun City Center is the epitome of stability," said Tim Wilmath, director of valuation for the Hillsborough property appraiser. This is not an area rife with investment properties, he said.

Most residents intend to stay.

• • •

A University of South Florida professor researching Hillsborough County foreclosures came across a large area with hardly any.

Must be a wildlife preserve, she thought.

It was Sun City Center, one of Florida's oldest retirement communities, celebrating its 50th anniversary in May.

"It's just amazing they haven't fallen prey to this," said Elizabeth Strom, USF's director of community engagement.

Florida has the second highest number of foreclosures after California, according to RealtyTrac. One in every 449 housing units in Florida is in foreclosure.

Part of Sun City Center's ability to buck the trend stems from the way it was planned.

In the 1960s, Del Webb, a former co-owner of the New York Yankees, developed this large area of grazing land in Central Florida into a dream for people 55 and older. Webb offered a different retirement life modeled after the successful Arizona community by the same name.

Located in southeast Hillsborough, it offers hospitals and grocery stores accessible by golf carts. In the various clubhouses, residents are busy with pickleball, basketball or laps in the pool, including a wheelchair ramp. There are more than 100 clubs.

Happy hour starts at 4 p.m.

Real estate agents say residents traditionally have paid in cash, allowing a home to close in a month or less. Half to nearly three-fourths of homes are bought with cash and sell for $50,000 to $400,000.

Half of the homes that Century 21 Beggins Enterprise Homes sold in 2010 were in Sun City Center. Debrah Hailey, the firm's Sun City Center office manager, said their average real estate agent sells two or three homes a year. But in their Sun City Center office, the top agent made $200,000 last year by selling 45 homes.

Most residents have established savings and fixed incomes. They don't spend more than they have, said Marge Connolly, a broker since 1978 now working for A1 Connection Realty.

"We have people with a very strong sense of responsibility," Connolly said.

Realtors say Sun City Center is one of the more active retirement areas in Florida, with most residents from the Midwest, the Northeast and Canada. The local phone book makes it easier to establish connections by listing where residents moved from.

Residents say they feel better knowing neighbors will take care of widows or widowers. There are a lot of weddings here.

The sense of community is strong.

Barbara Kanoza, originally from Pittsburgh, said she is always meeting neighbors with interesting lives, including one who was a Supreme Court justice in California before he retired.

"It's such a wealth of experience and history in this kind of town," Kanoza, 63, said.

Invitations for outings come in constantly.

The Feders join neighbors for dinner, nights out, drinks or a dip in a hot tub. Staying occupied is extremely easy, said Feder, a member of several clubs, including photography, woodworking and for owners of recreational vehicles. It's part of what makes this place so appealing, he said.

His sister visited once. Now she's a neighbor.

"You're going to have to pry me out of here," Feder said. "People are coming here because they love it."

• • •

Rudy and Joan Racine live in Kings Point, a gated subdivision in Sun City Center. He's an 81-year-old retired funeral director, and she's a 79-year-old retired executive secretary. They have been married 61 years and wanted a smaller home close to their four children and their families, and a cheaper way of living accessible by golf cart.

They downsized a year ago to a queen-sized bed in a duplex, a foreclosed property they bought for $62,000 in cash. The community is lively, and they say they are never bored.

"People don't want to just sit in a rocking chair and vegetate until they die," Joan Racine said.

They've tweaked the house for the past year. His wife pointed out the lack of storage space in the kitchen, so he knocked down a wall and built a pantry. He built a kitchen island because they love to cook. She likes light, so he installed a front door with an oval window. On the living room wall is a framed picture of a former home, a log cabin he built in Vermont. It's covered in snow.

The Racines aren't going anywhere.

Times researcher John Martin, staff writer Shelley Rossetter and information from the Associated Press and the New York Times contributed to this report. Ileana Morales can be reached at (813)226-3386 or imorales@sptimes.com.

.Fast facts

Sun City Center anniversary

A yearlong celebration kicks off at 1 p.m. today with a 50th anniversary parade through the streets of Sun City Center. It will be followed by a picnic at 2:30 p.m. on the Main Campus (north side). For 50 cents, visitors can buy a hot dog, bag of chips and a soft drink or water.

More than 50 other events are spread throughout the year, including a celebration on May 17 for founder Del Webb's birthday.

For information, visit

suncitycenter.org.

Foreclosures rare in Hillsborough County's Sun City Center 04/30/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 30, 2011 10:41pm]

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