Construction workers nimbly move across a partly built roof. The golden wood frame of the two-story home they assembled stands stark against the day's clear blue sky. Down the street, past several "SOLD" signs posted on empty lots at the Ayersworth subdivision, another crew works on the concrete foundations of more new homes. Signs stuck in the grass advertise that the stucco abodes can be purchased from "$109,900." And $499 is all it will take to move into a new one.
It's no secret that the housing market crash halted development in east Hillsborough County. But signs of life are stirring in some local subdivisions like Ayersworth, thanks to lower home prices, tax credits for first-time buyers and affordable loans, industry insiders said.
"My sales increased by about 20 percent last year," said George Shea, an east Hillsborough real estate agent based in FishHawk Ranch. "It's all about what people can afford a month. The USDA offers 100 percent financing for those in rural communities, and FHA loan (rates) are low.
"But the bottom line is that prices are down and sales are up. People want to take advantage of what they can now."
What's happening in eastern Hillsborough mirrors a trend across the Tampa Bay. Numbers recently released from the Florida Realtors group show that the bay area housing market improved by 21 percent in 2009, with more than 28,000 home sales.
That's the best year for Florida real estate sales since 2006.
While the $8,000 first-time home buyer tax credit, which has been extended through April, propped up sagging sales, developers and builders also stopped to listen to potential buyers.
In the Bay Breeze neighborhood of the MiraBay subdivision in Apollo Beach, that meant offering more affordable single-family homes around $200,000, said Vaike O'Grady, marketing director for the development.
"We talked with the builders, and they were ready to come in with a new product," O'Grady said. "We're eager for the spring 2010 selling season."
The foundations of four model homes in Bay Breeze went in last week. Both Cardel and K. Hovnanian homes have also committed to building two inventory homes each.
"We haven't seen that for a while in this market," she said. "Builders have been hesitant to put in homes without buyers. We're feeling that things are different and are hearing that from our Realtors."
The bottom line
But the movement toward less expensive, smaller homes has left sales sluggish for those priced at $700,000 or more at MiraBay, O'Grady said.
And though sales did increase last year in local developments, the short sales and foreclosures that made up some of those numbers can't be ignored, said Shea, the FishHawk agent.
Another reality is the thousands of vacant homes still saturating the market.
"But I think it's smart for builders to put up new homes," Shea said. "People don't necessarily want to wait four months for a short sale that might not go through."
Shea attributes movement in the local housing market to the affordability of homes. He thinks the market has hit bottom and anticipates a drop in sales once the tax credit ends in April.
Others see this post-boom period in the housing market as things settling back to "normal."
"Normal is not having people in tents waiting outside to get a house," said Ole Peitersen, sales manager for Highland Homes at Ayersworth. "Now I actually have time to spend with people. Before, I was so busy I didn't have the time of day for them."
In the meantime, real estate agents will also have to continue to deal with unstable home prices, Shea said. For example, after weeks of research on a home, he listed it at $379,000. After showing potential buyers the home, he was blindsided when the same model home in the same subdivision was listed by a bank for $285,000.
"What stinks about that is that it resets the bar," he said. "Appraisers are being really conservative, and the banks want to get rid of the properties.
"It's a great deal for someone, but it knocks everything else down."
If the price of new homes didn't fall, many people like Miguel Ortega wouldn't have been able to go from renter to owner.
The 31-year-old and his wife bought their home in Ayersworth last year. The price and location are what made the couple decide to purchase their first home.
Ortega stood outside his three-bedroom, two-bath house on a recent afternoon, looking around his partly built neighborhood. The prices are definitely what have attracted buyers to this peaceful place, he said.
"We paid $130,000 for our home last March," he said. "Now they're offering the same home for $120,000. You can't beat that."
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2454.