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Sarasota's Neal Communities joins builder battle for Hillsborough's new-home market

One of southwest Florida's biggest home builders is driving its first stakes into Hillsborough County, setting the stage for a million-dollar battle among builders in Tampa Bay's resurgent new-home market.

Neal Communities, a privately held builder based in Sarasota, is now acquiring land and doing its homework on potentially five new communities across Hillsborough, president of building Mike Storey said.

Neal is already a dominant force just south of the Sunshine Skyway. Over the past year, the Lakewood Ranch-based builder built 24 to 29 percent of all new homes in Sarasota and Manatee counties, data from construction researcher Metrostudy show.

But Neal's northward expansion will find the builder shifting gears from its bread and butter — empty nesters and retirees — to families lured to move by the Tampa area's recent surges in job growth, Storey said.

"We've maximized our footprint in Manatee and Sarasota … and we definitely want to diversify our brand into more of a family type of buyer," he said. "This is our home market, and we'll continue to be the strong player here. But if we want to expand the company, we'll have to expand that footprint."

With communities from Bradenton to Englewood, the builder expanded last year into Naples and Fort Myers and is expected to build its 10,000th home this year. Founded in 1970, Neal had 101 employees and posted $142 million in revenue in 2012, the same year Builder magazine named it America's Best Builder.

Though business slowed, Neal survived a recession that knocked out half of Florida's 2,500 home builders to become one of the fastest-growing builders in the state. Neal plans to unveil a dozen new neighborhoods this year and expects to double in size over the next five years.

"Our solid financial position allows us to continue to produce inventory, while others in the market cannot," Storey said in a statement.

Neal sold 826 new homes last year, 35 percent more than in 2012.

But to compete in Hillsborough County, where two of every three new Tampa Bay homes were built last year, Neal will be up against established national builders like D.R. Horton and Lennar, as well as sizable newcomers like Mattamy Homes, Canada's largest home builder.

Storey said his company is up to the challenge.

"We don't feel like we're a small player coming into a big market," he said. "It's a market that through the talent we have on the team (we) know very, very well."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8252.

Sarasota's Neal Communities joins builder battle for Hillsborough's new-home market 01/06/14 [Last modified: Monday, January 6, 2014 8:00pm]

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