SPRING HILL — In a time of inflated prices and financial security, Sterling Hill sprouted from the scraggly terrain off Elgin Boulevard in 2005.
Plotted as a 514-acre subdivision by the Devco Development Corp. of Tampa, it was the fourth-fastest growing community in the Tampa Bay area for the third quarter of that year.
Straddling both sides of Elgin, and a stone's throw from the highly touted Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, the development was intended to be an upscale, gated community.
Homes sold for $200,000 to $400,000. There are clubhouses, swimming pools and playgrounds for kids.
Made up of 10 smaller neighborhoods with names such as "Arbor Glades" and "Haverhill," stuccoed homes on winding streets in Sterling Hill end in cul-de-sacs. They are all the same soft, muted colors — peach, tan, gray and light blue.
Every home has the same mailbox, engraved with an "SH."
But like those in other newer Hernando County subdivisions, many of the homes in Sterling Hill sit empty. Or they are being rented.
The few homeowners, such as 77-year-old David Skliar, find themselves stuck in the midst of shifting dynamics. Sterling Hill hasn't turned out to be quite the paradise they expected.
Skliar says the market plummeted the day after he and his wife, Sandra, moved into their four-bedroom, three-bath ice-blue home with white trim. They came from Miami to retire here.
"That was March 28, 2006, when we moved in," the podiatrist-turned-homeowners association president said. "Not long after that, the same house (model) I own was sold by the same builder for $90,000 less than what I paid."
What's more, he and his few home-owning neighbors quickly learned that their upscale neighborhood had been mostly bought out by investors from all over the world looking to make fast money. The owners live in places like Alaska, England and India.
Two years later, as the development has grown by 30 acres, that translates to more than 300 plots that have yet to be touched by construction crews.
Owners have sought homestead exemptions for 40 percent of the subdivision's 1,059 homes, records show.
The same thing has happened at other Hernando developments, according to the county Property Appraiser's Office. At the Villages of Avalon, only 75 homes have been homesteaded. That's of 133 that have been built on the 560 available lots.
In Trillium, 225 homeowners applied for homestead exemptions. There, 318 homes have been constructed on 446 lots.
Barbara Hahn, president of the Hernando County Association of Realtors, says that it's the worst market she's seen in her 23 years of selling homes in the county.
"But we are coming out of it," she said. "Things are picking up. Houses are getting rented, and we're starting to see sales."
Skliar remains skeptical. He knows all he can do is wait to regain any of the value in his home.
"I'll have to live here for 250 years to allow the value to come back," he said, laughing.
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As the market has plummeted, so have the prices for which owners are willing to rent their empty investments.
For $950 a month, a four-bedroom, two-bath, two-car garage home with 2,000 square feet can be had on Edgemere Drive in Sterling Hill. That's half of what some homeowners would pay for a mortgage.
Just ask Realtor-turned-property manger Erik Parks.
Last year, Parks traded in his BMW sedan for a pickup. Instead of driving around well-clad clients, he now throws cans of paint, brushes, brooms and whatever else it takes to occupy a home into the back of his truck.
Based in New Port Richey, Parks has worked in Pasco and Hernando counties for four years as a real estate agent with Charles Rutenberg Realty. When the market went south, he saw an opportunity in property management for out-of-town homeowners who needed his assistance.
He helps sign tenants while keeping himself in the game. And when the market flips, he hopes to have relationships with investors and a network of renters who will need to move into a house.
His clients are a mix of investors, from California to New York, who want to hold on to their properties until the market picks up again. A year ago, builders sold these homes for at least $300,000. Now some are selling for $210,000.
The rental homes Parks shows range in price from $950 to $1,495 a month. If he finds the right renter — someone with a steady job — property owners sometimes give him permission to reduce the rent just so the house is occupied.
In Pasco, some of the new homes he shows in the Colony Lakes development are being rented for as low as $799 a month. Parks could drop the rate to $750 if he found a good, stable renter.
Most weekends, he holds open houses in Hernando. With his cell phone at the ready, he typically runs from one house to another as the calls come in.
Renters he's seen in the past year fall into two categories: people in apartments who realize that they can now afford a house at apartment prices, and people who lost their homes to foreclosure.
"As long as they've got a job and can pay rent, we're not holding their credit that important," Parks said. "Those poor people are the ones who had those adjustable rate mortgages."
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Skliar sits in his study, looking over a pair of wire-rimmed glasses at his computer. Classical music plays softly in the background. He keeps close tabs on the changes in his neighborhood, and estimates that half of the people who live in Sterling Hill are renters.
He's quick to note that the point isn't to discriminate against renters. But some facts are undeniable.
There are renters who do not take care of their yards as homeowners association rules dictate. Some blast their music way too loud. Others leave their garbage cans outside all day so they end up in the street, rolling around and irking nearby homeowners.
In one subcommunity, homeowners and renters are pitted against each other, he says. Renters live on one side of the street; homeowners on the other.
Skliar says there might as well be a line drawn down the middle of Leybourne Way in Amersham Isles. There, some homeowners can't stand that renters' children play games in the street. Traffic slows while children move out of the way.
In one case, Skliar says, a homeowner barreled through the street and almost hit one of the children. In another, a homeowner drove her car around the kids and through renters' lawns, past the rows of identical mailboxes.
Renters have all the privileges homeowners do. But when something goes wrong, it's ultimately the responsibility of the homeowner, who is most often absentee, he says.
Registered mail usually comes back. Once, the association tried to reach an owner in China by phone but hung up because of the language barrier.
Skliar lets out a big sigh. The only hope he has is that the market will turn. It's the only thing he sees changing Sterling Hill.
Until then, he plans to continue fielding complaints while he stays on as association president.
"It's like Dr. Seuss and that one about Sneetches with stars on their bellies," Skliar said. "They're both wrong, and they're both right. And I don't know how to solve the problem."