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He built the houses, now he sells them

In the 1980s and early 1990s, when builders worried nobody would invest in three bedrooms and two baths in the cow country beyond Tampa, Bay Village Builders gambled on Land O'Lakes.

The bet paid off. If you live in Lake Padgett Estates, Carpenters's Run, Willow Bend, Lake Padgett Estates East and the Preserve at Lake Thomas, you might live in one of the 1,000 Bay Village homes.

"We were just a good, solid home builder. Because we were a family business, we hated repairs. Plus we lived where we worked. Customers always knew where we were," Bay Village founder Bob Kelly said.

But the company's success as one of the few locally owned mass-market builders sowed the seeds of its own demise. So good were sales that it wasn't long before national home builders _ U.S. Home, Ryland, Pulte, Lennar _ wanted a piece of the action.

After 13 years of fiddling with floors, roofs and foundations, Kelly accepted the inevitable and began a second career in 1996 as a real estate agent. He now resells some of the same 1,000 homes he built.

His wife, Liz, who spent many of the Bay Village years raising the couple's three children, is the top salesperson on the Kellys' 20-person team. They run their Preferred Properties GMAC Real Estate franchise from a renovated 80-year-old house on U.S. 41 near County Line Road.

"As a builder we were getting suffocated by the big national builders," Kelly said from his pre-World-War II office with glossy wooden floors. "With real estate, you're right up there with the rest of them."

The Kelly family dipped into Florida development in the 1970s, when they moved to the Tampa Bay area from Cleveland. His father, Bob Sr., a swaggering 300-pounder nicknamed "Big Red," built much of the Pebble Creek neighborhood in New Tampa.

Still in his early 20s in the early 1980s, Bob Kelly Jr. struck out on his own. It began when a friend asked him to help build a house in the Lake Padgett area of Land O'Lakes. Kelly promptly got lost trying to find his friend's lot but was struck by the cheap land. Lots cost $4,000 to $5,000. Bay Village Builders was born.

"I started pecking them off one at a time," Kelly said of the lots on which he began building with his father and younger brother, John.

From 1983 to 1996, the family put up hundreds of homes, mostly in Lake Padgett Estates East and Lake Padgett Estates neighborhoods. Bay Village would borrow floor plans from big-volume builders such as Pulte and redesign them for its own use, Kelly said.

The Kellys weathered the real estate slump of late 1980s and early 1990s. It was one of the first builders in the Willow Bend neighborhood south of State Road 54. But with the growth of the Pasco housing industry in the 1990s, the company's position eroded.

"At first developers were begging for builders. Nobody wanted to build houses here. But when times got better, here come the national companies," Kelly said.

Big home builders could cut better deals, buying lots in bulk for lower prices from developers. Subcontractors became thin on the ground. Like a giant vacuum, the big chains sucked up the best plumbers, roofers and electricians.

Bob Kelly left the company in 1996. His father and brother lingered in the business. Bob Sr. died of cancer in 1999. John Kelly died two years ago of a heart attack at the age of 41, leaving 5 children.

Meanwhile, Liz Kelly broke out of her motherhood routine and aced what amounted to an apprenticeship with ERA Dennis Realty. She left as one of the company's top sellers.

"The new construction has been very good for the resale market," said Liz Kelly, who along with her husband drives a solid but not too flashy 8-year-old Lincoln Continental.

The couple promotes themselves as a pair, mailing "Bob and Liz" ads to area homes. With 150 properties sold in the past year, the company places about third in local sales, after Dennis and Prudential Tropical Realty.

Bob Kelly has kept one finger in custom home construction. His Gold Medallion Homes is a builder in Silver Oaks, a traditional-style neighborhood in Zephyrhills.

"I'm the only one left," Kelly said, recalling his early days with his father and brother. "I'm like the Lone Ranger."

_ James Thorner covers growth and development. He can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4613. His e-mail address is thornersptimes.com.

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