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'The Dirt Dog' digs in to broker Tampa Bay area land deals

Bill Eshenbaugh, president of Eshenbaugh Land Co., is one of Tampa Bay’s leading land brokers — the folks who sell orange groves to developers and housing lots to builders. He is shown here at work taking phone calls in his office at Rocky Point in Tampa.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

Bill Eshenbaugh, president of Eshenbaugh Land Co., is one of Tampa Bay’s leading land brokers — the folks who sell orange groves to developers and housing lots to builders. He is shown here at work taking phone calls in his office at Rocky Point in Tampa.

The decor in the sixth-floor office overlooking the whipping waves at Tampa's Rocky Point seems to have taken a wrong turn at Santa Fe.

You find yourself in a Frederic Remington fantasy of Stetson hats, American Indian weavings, cowhide pillows and leather cowboy holsters.

Then you confront the wooden sign over what could be a saloon door: "Beware the Dog." You've entered the realm of Tampa Bay land broker Bill Eshenbaugh, "The Dirt Dog."

For close to 25 years, Eshenbaugh, 67, has been brokering land deals for clients that include farmers selling to developers and developers selling to builders. The real estate crash has added a new wrinkle: banks unloading land they've repossessed from failed developers.

Eshenbaugh, who was born in Butler County, Pa., and grew up in the country with a love of horses, made a name for himself in the early 1990s when he worked for the federal government's Resolution Trust Corp. The RTC disposed of assets from the Savings and Loan crash.

Now that the market is producing a rerun of those unhappy days, Eshenbaugh's in the catbird seat again. The Times talked to him last week.

How does the current banking and real estate meltdown compare to the Savings and Loan debacle?

This is a big one compared to that one. The Savings and Loan crisis was a problem mostly in the Sun Belt states. You didn't have many failures in Maine, for example. This one is global. The RTC was a lifeboat. This is the Titanic.

How deeply has the Tampa Bay land market crashed since the peak in 2005?

The best way to calculate that is to take that inflated price and multiply by 0.2. Distressed property is collecting about a fifth of what it did. You look at the Georgetown property off Gandy Boulevard in South Tampa. The developer paid $125 million and put in another $25 million. The site resold last year for $30 million.

But why did values get so high in the first place?

Builders couldn't satisfy demand of buyers gone wild. So they ramped up. The publicly traded national builders had another problem. They were the victims of quarterly earnings syndrome. They had to keep driving up their stock price. The market created this cadre of inexperienced land people — I call them the 8:30 crowd, as in they won't work past 8:30 p.m. It changed from being a market controlled by entrepreneurial people to salaried, bonus people. The old developers like Don Buck and Glenn Cross, they'd fight you all day over $50,000. But the 8:30 crowd wanted to be home by 8:30 at night. So they overbid and paid too much.

When did you realize the crazy land appreciation would end?

We were selling a building in June of 2005 and a secretary in the building told us: "My boyfriend and I bought a third model home from a builder." Not long after that, we had a similar discussion with a paralegal at a law firm. She was buying three investment condos. What came to my mind was that old guy with the gray beard standing on the corner: The end is near. In August of 2005, Tampa builder Bob Suarez canceled a land purchase I was brokering. He was the first builder to bail. Turns out he was smart. The amateurs have been toasted.

Which land will appreciate the best when the real estate recovery arrives?

You've got to be in a good location — we call it "the box." Generally, the top of the box is State Road 54 and the Suncoast Parkway in Pasco County. The tide is coming in for that land. The market's not collapsing anymore. But you've got to have your pricing right. You've got to have a righteous price.

You like to talk about the $1 billion in cash waiting on the sidelines to invest in Florida land. What sort of "righteous price" will get these investors to bite?

If the land's a finished home site, the price has to give the builder opportunity to deliver a house that Tampa workers can afford. That could be $109,000, $119,000, maybe $129,000. That means $20,000 to $30,000 is a righteous price for a finished lot. It got ridiculous a few years ago. Some builders were paying $75,000 for lots they'd put a $400,000 home on. You've got to be able to buy raw land for $5,000 per lot. Retail is a different story. It has a long way to recovery. Buyers want to pay a third of what we're asking for retail land.

How did you get the name "The Dirt Dog"?

I once went out to list a property. One of the partners was worried that my work for the RTC would stigmatize the property. The other partner said, "An old dirt dog like you shouldn't have any problem." I said to myself: "I like that name. Let's just get rid of that 'old' part." I did a search online and found Dirt Dog was taken by a motorcycle club in upstate New York. So I added "The" to the name. No one had that. The name Eshenbaugh isn't easy for people in Florida. So "The Dirt Dog" works better.

'The Dirt Dog' digs in to broker Tampa Bay area land deals 01/31/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 1, 2010 7:18am]
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