APOLLO BEACH — Diana and Michael Hernandez both work in Tampa, but wanted to live away from the city.
They house-hunted for about three months, first considering existing homes in places like FishHawk and Panther Trace before learning about Waterset, a master-planned community that began building its first phase in 2012.
Michael proposed to Diana on the lot before construction began.
Now, as Diana, 28, and Michael, 30, prepare for the arrival of their first child, the SouthShore area prepares for a new housing boom fueled by couples like the Hernandezes.
With four bedrooms, three baths, an office and a bonus room, they have a larger home than their previous house in Wimauma, but more than size mattered to them.
"We were in the market to buy a house and moved from an area that didn't have a neighborhood," Diana Hernandez said. "We wanted our child to grow up in a home with a safe environment, with parks close by."
Family amenities and a rebounding economy places the SouthShore area in a prime position to be the housing growth leader in Tampa Bay. A recent report from Metrostudy, a national housing data and consulting firm that maintains an extensive database on residential construction in the U.S. housing market, shows that 2013 was an up year for new homes in the Tampa Bay area. Housing starts increased by 27.2 percent compared with the number of starts in 2012, accounting for 6,513 single-family homes in Tampa Bay.
The SouthShore area is enjoying the largest local uptick with residents and businesses flocking to fill out some of the last remaining undeveloped land in Hillsborough County.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, SouthShore's population grew to 142,178 between 2000 and 2010, an increase of nearly 150 percent. Rick Harcrow, senior vice president, southeast division manager for Newland, which is developing Waterset, said SouthShore is the fastest growing spot in the entire Tampa Metropolitan Statistical Area because all the basic fundamentals are trending in the right way such as low unemployment and mortgage interest rates less than 5 percent.
"There are a lot of things that are happening in the area to support rooftops going up," said Harcrow with a nod toward Big Bend Road commercial activity, the development of SouthShore Corporate Park and the pending arrival of Amazon in Ruskin.
"As far as we see into the period of 2017-2018, we think we are in a good, positive market. There is nothing out there that would lead us to say this is where it stops."
In addition to Waterset, the widening of U.S. 301 allowed neighborhoods such as Valencia Lakes and Belmont to take shape within the last couple years, while KB Home officially opened its new Mirabella subdivision in south Riverview earlier this year.
Jennifer Doerfel, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association, said she has seen a rise in her Hillsborough County members' activities the past two years because of pent-up demand. She said people are now returning to a market where they feel more confident and the SouthShore commuters traveling to the city for work "can get more home for your buck in southern Hillsborough and people raising a family don't want to live in a condo."
Other players in the game such as banks, investors and mortgage companies also are harvesting the fertile housing grounds, said Emily Lara, a branch manager for Prospect Mortgage in Riverview who has worked in the industry for 12 years. She said it's a bit of a gold rush to get established as quickly as possible because the research shows a positive upswing in new homes and new mortgages for the area.
"There are lots and lots of new mortgage companies I never heard of before," Lara said. "They come from the North, like Chicago. There are different businesses like little, small, tiny nobody banks moving down and starting up and recruiting like crazy. I've never seen anything like it before."
Alex McLeod, vice president of operations for Newland, said a lot has changed since Newland finished developing FishHawk, an isolated community, and purchased the Waterset property in 2003 with a long-term vision of delivering what he calls a "there, there" for a neighborhood slated for 4,000 single-family homes.
"Our hope as developers is for slow and steady growth," he said. "We really have an opportunity to deliver a better place and give the SouthShore area a sense of place."
As Waterset begins its second phase of 500 more homes with plans for at least 600 more beginning in 2015, Diana Hernandez is looking forward to the forthcoming amenities such as a trail system, park, town center and traffic pipeline.
"I have lived in the area since I was 4," Hernandez said. "We had nothing at that time. It's definitely our dream home."
Doerfel added that a job center coming to the SouthShore area also helps make housing starts more viable in the area, but noted the area's inherent advantages remain a plus..
"Tampa Bay will always have its attributes like the weather," she said. "It will be a desirable area for the foreseeable future. The question is, 'Can we keep housing affordable so folks can thrive in the community?' "
Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]