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Pinellas contractors building in neighboring counties

The county has little undeveloped land left, so construction consists mainly of replacement housing.

Buyers who head out to view the models in the Suncoast Parade of Homes, which opens today and is sponsored by the Contractors & Builders Association of Pinellas, should take note of this fact: Twelve of the 44 models aren't in Pinellas County.

"That's where the Pinellas market is: outside of Pinellas County," said Marvin Rose, whose Rose Residential Reports tracks new construction in the Tampa Bay area. "I'm not surprised. It's very symptomatic of the area and illustrative of the entire Pinellas market."

Those 12 models _ 27 percent of the entries _ are in Manatee County, which some refer to as "South Pinellas County" or "South Tampa Bay," or they're in west Pasco County, just over the Pinellas line, or they're in northwest Hillsborough _ because that's where the undeveloped land is now, not in Pinellas.

"So many of our builders are building in four counties now," Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee and Hillsborough, said Rod Fischer, executive officer of the builders' association. "The days of being able to go down the street to Farmer John and buy 100 acres for a development are over. You can still do that in Pasco and Manatee. Here (in Pinellas) you have to put together five parcels to do some sort of project.

"It's a little more difficult, it's not as easy, and our costs reflect that, but we're around."

Another sign of the times: The total number of entries, 44, has dropped from 81 entries just four years ago as the big subdivisions sell out, and builders move on.

"The new subdivision alternative (in Pinellas County) is all but gone," Rose said. Buyers who want to live in new projects with hundreds of homes will have to drive north, east or south. There won't be another Lansbrook or Boot Ranch or East Lake Woodlands in Pinellas County.

Builders instead are creating boutique projects on small parcels, or they are turning to multifamily, notably townhouses, or they're offering build-on-your-lot construction of a single house for buyers who have found a homesite, often by tearing down an existing home on a desirable piece of property, typically on the waterfront.

The dwindling supply of new construction has driven up prices. Rose's year-end report showed that the average price of a new home in 2000 was $259,790, an increase of 19.4 percent over the $217,547 price in 1999. (That figure was down 2.8 percent from 1998's average price of $223,850.)

The lack of large tracts of developable land meant that new single-family closings dropped in 2000 by 11 percent, to 625 from 733 in 1999, but there was a whopping 40 percent increase in multifamily closings, from 466 in 1999 to 651 in 2000.

Total new residential closings in 2000 totaled 1,644, up 3.7 percent from 1,586 the year before.

Builders regard the parade _ their annual showcase of new construction _ as a real opportunity to sell houses.

"Some of the other parades around here get a fair amount of traffic but not necessarily buyers," Fischer said. "We've always gotten buyers. Our builders do sell off the parade."

The blurring of county lines, desire for a certain kind of development, location convenient to work and, of course, price are the factors that drive home buyers these days.

At Longleaf, a neo-traditional development on State Road 54 in New Port Richey, 35 percent of the 49 lots or homes under contract have been sold to buyers from Pasco, 24 percent from Hillsborough, 33 percent from Pinellas and 4 percent each from Hernando and out of the area, said sales director Diane Woods.

Not far away, at the Palms at Parker Pointe, on Gunn Highway, "We're 100 yards into Pasco" just across the Hillsborough line, said Marty Galindo, a sales agent with M/I Homes. His buyers _ couples, young families, empty nesters, retirees _ "like the idea that it's only 105 homes, a small private community," he said.

They like the proximity to the newly opened Suncoast Parkway, which gives them ready access to Tampa and to points north, and the lower costs, taxes and insurance they find in Pasco County.

"A little more than a third commute to Pinellas," he said.

Not far away, down twisting Lutz-Lake Fern Road, lined with plant nurseries and horse farms, Avalon Building Corp. has opened a model at Eagle Crest, a 34-unit project off U.S. 41 in northwest Hillsborough, where home and lot start around $278,900. Avalon has long built in Pinellas and has built on-your-lot homes for individual buyers in Odessa and Lutz, but this is its first foray into a development in Hillsborough.

"We're not the new kid on the block as a builder, but we are the new kid on the block in terms of having a model" in Hillsborough, said sales representative Sandy Chiszar, and it's often the presence of a model that makes a builder's name a household word to real estate agents and gives potential buyers a chance to get to consider the work of a builder for a lot they've purchased.

Families from St. Petersburg are among the buyers at Longboat at Foster's Creek in Palmetto, Manatee County, according to Windward Homes sales agent Ann Craig, who said they like the easy commute across the Skyway.

At Riviera Dunes Resort and Yacht Club, a luxury project on the Manatee River in Palmetto, First Dartmouth Homes (which formerly built at the Bayou Club and at the Highlands of Innisbrook in Pinellas) says about 12 percent of its traffic comes from north of the Skyway. This project will have 440 homesites and three marinas built on an old dolomite mine with direct access to the river leading to the Gulf of Mexico.

Back in Pinellas? The choices are many, from townhouses at the beach to traditionally styled single-family homes near Crescent Lake in St. Petersburg. There's Centex's suburban-style project, Brighton Bay, with townhomes and single-family houses on a parcel on Gandy Boulevard, and lavish semi-custom homes in North Pinellas.

What will happen to the Pinellas residential-construction industry? Here's Marvin Rose's prediction: More tear-downs, at both the very high end (in such areas as Snell Isle and the Old Northeast sections of St. Petersburg) and at the very low end, with charitable groups stepping in to create moderately priced housing.

"The future from now on is in-fill and tear-downs, and, depending on your perspective that's good news or bad news," Rose said.

If you go

What: Suncoast Parade of Homes, sponsored by the Contractors & Builders Association of Pinellas.

When: Today through April 1. Models are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.

Where: In Pinellas, west Pasco and Manatee counties. Houses are marked by blue-and-white signs.

Details: A magazine with descriptions, floor plans and directions will be available at the models. It will be distributed in editions of Sunday's St. Petersburg Times in most of Pinellas and parts of west Pasco County. Copies are also available weekdays during business hours from the Contractors & Builders Association of Pinellas; call (727) 545-5536.

And also: From noon to 5 p.m. March 25 only, one remodeled home will be open for tours, at 3230 Sunset Drive N, St. Petersburg. Remodeling contractor Bob Kelzer of R-Systems Inc. has remodeled a typical ranch, adding a glass-fronted gable end and creating a family/media room, home office, storage center and enlarged garage.