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Housing on the rebound locally

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By Norm Wagy
Special to the Chronicle

It’s been a long, hard slog since the housing bubble burst in 2007. But maybe, just maybe, there are signs the local market is improving.

Sweetwater Homes of Citrus Chief Executive Officer Steve Ponticos is encouraged interest in construction seems to have picked up in recent weeks.

“The day after the election, our phones started to ring,” he said. “We’ve contracted two new homes and are hearing from people who have had projects on hold who appear ready to take them off the shelf. I don’t know why. It seems people have decided to get on with their lives.”

If so, it would be welcome news.

Sweetwater, which was averaging about 80 homes a year since its inception,  with more than 100 a year during the boom, dropped to 11 new jobs in 2008. Ponticos expects the number to reach 18 for 2012.

Steve’s wife, Nancy Ponticos, a broker with ERA Key 1 Realty, reported the inventory of resale homes in Sugarmill Woods is down significantly. About 160 homes were for sale at the beginning of December, compared to 300 Sugarmill homes 18 months ago when the market was crowded.

“We are seeing more cash buyers in the past few weeks, as well as stronger buyers with more down payments than we have seen in a number of years,” she said. “Sellers that need and want to sell are able to as long as they are realistic with the buyer’s market. Buyers want to take advantage of low prices and low interest rates. This is creating the activity we need to move forward.”

Nancy Ponticos is optimistic prices are becoming more stable. She added buyers are realizing the value and quality of resale homes in Sugarmill Woods remains high.

Kevin Cunningham, the broker-owner of Re/Max Realty One in Lecanto, also reported an increase in activity since the election. 

He analyzes the attitude of people as, “The election is behind us now. Time to move on.”

Home sales in Sugarmill Woods in October were 16, with an average price of $150,925. In November, 24 homes were sold at an average of $136,942.

Cunningham reported through October, 2,217 units were sold in Citrus County this year compared to 2,031 in 2011. The average price in the county increased from $96,900 in 2011 to $101,471 this year. Sixty-one percent of the transactions were cash sales, primarily from retirees who sold their northern homes.

Foreclosures accounted for 510 sales this year with 170 distressed short sales recorded. The sales include single-family homes, condos and mobile homes.

Randy Clark, the incoming president of the Citrus County Builders Association, reported the building trades have experienced “dismal numbers” for the past seven years.

In 2005, at the height of the real estate boom, 3,500 homes were built in Citrus County — many on speculation. This year’s construction is expected to reach 140, purchased by homeowners, not speculators.

Clark expects to see some improvement in the next few months as the snowbirds return to the area. 

“We are approaching our best time of the year,” but, he added, construction in Citrus County depends largely on retirees moving here. “Until they sell their homes up north, they can’t build their retirement homes down here.”

Clark, who owns Clark Construction in Crystal River, is encouraged local government officials are aware of the importance of construction to the county and are working to make the county more inviting to home buyers.

Steve Ponticos added new code restrictions have enhanced construction in the county. Houses are structurally more sound and far more energy efficient. 

“The houses we are building now are much different than the ones we were building only a few years ago,” he said. “That is a big plus for today’s buyers.”

Reports of improved real estate sales around the state and the country are a sign conditions will improve in Citrus County.

“We are usually the last ones to feel the effects of a downturn and we are always the last to recover,” Ponticos said.

He believes “pent-up demand” is about to intensify as the baby boomer generation begins reaching retirement age. He expects slow growth in local construction in 2013 with the likelihood of a “return to normal” by 2014.