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Where in Tampa Bay is home construction booming the most? Southern Hillsborough County

For $399,000, you can buy a house more than 40 years old with less than 1,800 square feet in two of Tampa Bay's most popular neighborhoods, St. Petersburg's Snell Isle and Tampa's Davis Islands.

For $50,000 less, you can get a brand-new home with more than twice the square footage in south Hillsborough County.

Developers and builders are betting it's an easy choice for thousands of prospective buyers. No other part of the Tampa Bay area is seeing such an explosion of single-family home construction as the vast area of former groves and farm fields south of the Alafia River in Hillsborough.

"It's the No. 1 sub-market,'' says Tony Polito, regional director of research service MetroStudy. "It's a combination of available land and product prices that are less expensive than in other parts of the (overall) market.''

Last year, a total of 7,545 new homes began construction in Pinellas, Pasco, Citrus, Hernando and Hillsborough counties. A third of those homes, 2,502, were in just one area — south Hillsborough.

Get off 1-75 in Riverview, and whether you head east or west, you'll see vacant lots for sale and homes going up almost everywhere you look. Waterleaf, Royal Lakes, Village Brook, Imperial Trace, Waterset — those are just a few of the 149 subdivisions in south Hillsborough with active construction.

Not even Pasco County, where Wesley Chapel is in the midst of a boom, can compete in sheer numbers.

Bob Bernardo is among south Hillsborough's many new residents.

Bernardo, who works in financial services, lived in an apartment in the Bloomingdale area when he first moved from Boston four years ago. Tired of paying rent, he began to hunt around for a house and discovered the new Waterleaf community on Big Bend Road in Riverview.

"I loved the area and I was looking for a corner lot, potentially a pond view in back,'' he said. He also liked the fact that Lennar, one of several companies building in Waterleaf, offered its "everything included home'' with all the amenities Bernardo wanted including appliances. And with four bedrooms, it was big enough to accommodate his three grown children when they visit.

Bernardo paid $296,540 for the house and closed the day after Thanksgiving. Although he is about eight miles farther from his job than he was before, he can grab a Starbucks coffee at the big new shopping center five minutes away and quickly be on the interstate for his 30-minute commute to work.

"I leave at 6:15 and don't come back until 7 so the traffic is not an issue,'' he said. "In Boston it took me the same time to go half the distance.''

The ability and willingness of consumers like Bernardo to buy new homes is among the strongest indicators of the nation's economic health. New homes mean jobs not only in the construction industry but in the many industries and professions that support it — banking, real estate, transportation and engineering to name a few.

When new-home construction dries up, the economy suffers.

Nationally, the number of housing starts climbed steadily beginning in 2000 and hit its peak in 2005 with 1.63 million. But as land and home prices soared, housing starts dropped dramatically. By 2011, they were down to just 413,000 a year.

"I've been through multiple cycles, and it was the worst I've ever seen,'' said Greg Singleton, president of Tampa-based Metro Development Group. "Everything came to a screeching halt.''

The privately owned Metro, which began developing new-home communities in 2003, put its own projects on hold. But as other developers went out of business and land prices plunged, Metro stockpiled for the future.

"The thing that has made Metro successful,'' Singleton said, "is that when everybody else was running for the hills we saw it as a buying opportunity. Our business plan was to buy stuff, all cash, while Florida was on sale. We sat by and waited for the market to come up again.''

Among the best land-buying opportunities were in south Hillsborough, which had seen the start of a building boom but was hurt by its distance from downtown Tampa and the shortage of stores, restaurants and other urban amenities.

"When I first started roaming the area in the early 2000s, there wasn't a whole lot here,'' Singleton said.

In the past few years, though, Amazon has opened a huge distribution center and St. Joseph's Hospital began seeing patients at a new satellite in Riverview. The area is now chockablock with chain restaurants, banks, big box stores and retailers like Marshalls and Bealls. South Hillsborough has become far more attractive even to people who could afford to live closer to Tampa or St. Petersburg.

In 2007, when the market was in free fall, Metro Development bought the land at Big Bend and Balm Riverview roads for what is now its Waterleaf community. After the economy picked up in 2013, it started selling the 600-plus lots to Lennar, CalAtlantic and other major builders for homes that range from $240,000 to nearly $500,000, including the lot.

So far about 100 homebuyers are either under contract or already have moved into Waterleaf.

Like other Metro communities in south Hillsborough, Waterleaf features nature trails, shaded playgrounds, a clubhouse with a pool and ultra high-speed WiFi in every home. Metro is planning yet another community in the area that will boast one of West Florida's few Crystal Lagoons, large enough for kayaking, paddle-boarding or even sailing.

RELATED: Gigantic swimming pools called Crystal Lagoons coming to Tampa Bay

Having been through a boom, a crash and the start of a another boom, Metro has learned two lessons. One is to pay cash.

The other is "don't continue to buy as the market goes up,'' Singleton said. "We're more of an opportunistic buyer — we don't want to go to Nordstrom's and pay the full price.''

Despite all of the construction in Waterleaf and other communities in south Hillsborough, there is still a 24-month supply of vacant lots. The number of housing starts for Hillsborough overall is back to pre-recession levels but is only about 75 percent of what it was in the 1990s.

One factor holding back growth is that new homes in south Hillsborough, while affordable compared to many other parts of Tampa Bay, sold last year for an average price of $256,000. That was $76,000 more than the price of an existing bay area home.

"The reason we're building at 75 percent of normal is that we don't have that lower-end product,'' said Polito of MetroStudy. "Instead we've seen those entry-level buyers going into the apartment world.''

On the positive side, Tampa Bay has enjoyed an impressive increase in jobs since the housing crash.

"Our workforce is finally back where it was in December 2006, when we hit our previous peak,'' Polito said. "It took us nine years to get back to that level of employment but you can make the argument that every new job going forward creates a demand for housing.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate

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