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Lehigh’s real estate on comeback trail

September 12, 2012
By MEL TOADVINE ( , Lehigh Acres Citizen

Fred Elliott, the owner of Coldwell Bankers Preferred Properties and Homestead Land & Title Co., says real estate properties in Lehigh are on their way up, buy maybe not as fast as they once were.

"Today our average sales price for a home in Lehigh is $81,000, a 21 percent increase over last summer, but still much more affordable than most of areas of Florida and even the U.S.," he said.

Elliott was speaking before a group of members of the Greater Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce.

Article Photos

Fred Elliott

He offered an insight into the real estate market in Lehigh before the boom, during the high times, and when the financial bubble burst in 2008 and where he believes the real estate market is today.

"So where are we headed? Here is the good news. All the homes built in the last 10 years are still here. All the commercial projects and industrial buildings are still here as well. We have been left a future inventory," he said.

"Before the boom it was hard to find commercial storefronts to rent. It was difficult to find warehouse space or affordable homes. Now you have choices," he said.

Elliott, who was born in Chicago and moved to Southwest Florida in 1970 said both his parents sold real estate and that it must have come natural for him to consider the same type of work.

He said his first real estate class was in 1979, while he was still a student in school. He received his license in 1982, the same year that he graduated from high school.

He said he remembered that he started selling lots in Lehigh and Cape Coral.

He said he moved into a brand new home in Lehigh in September of 1984 and paid $27,000 - "and now it's worth $29,000," he laughed, referring how property values had gone down when the bust hit Lehigh.

He made his transition to selling residential real estate in Lehigh in 1991 and joined Coldwell Banker as a salesperson and in the late 1990s became a sales manager and the early 2000s, he became a partner.

"On January 31, 2006 was the official start of the market crash. I marked that date by becoming the owner of the company," he laughed.

Then he spoke about history of Lehigh in relationship to real estate by noting that the area was "first started" by the late Lee Ratner who didn't want to be in the real estate business at all.

"He wanted to lose money with a write-off on his taxes by raising cattle. A couple of his friends encouraged him to plat out some of the land he owned and see if anyone would buy it and from the 50s to the 70s, the Lehigh Corp. built almost every home in the area. They also built all the commercial properties and golf courses here and they helped maintain the town and kept it clean.

"After all, they had more than 120,000 lots to sell," he said.

In the late 70s and early 80s, other builders and real estate companies began moving in on the corporation's territory, he said.

In the 1980s, homes were being built in Lehigh by Jim Walters, Oyster Bay and Partridge Homes and others and later, it was Lee Harbor Homes and Rutenburg with homes being built in the 80s and early 1900s.

"The biggest builder since the corporation was First Home Builders in the early 2000s. They and Adams Homes as well as many others built homes during the boom.

He said everyone remembers that it used to be said that the real estate market is the safest investment you can make. It will always hold its value, people said.

"They used to say get a lot while you are young. The reality was the value had a slow and steady increase with modest appreciation. It was a safe investment.

"But then comes Sept. 11, 2001, the worst terrorist attack on this nation's soil. The stock market dropped 14 percent in one week after the attacks and people made a decision to look for more stable alternatives to stocks.

"Buy real estate. It never goes down in value. Banks got pressured to lend money. It was supposed to help stimulate the economy and it seemed that mortgages were given out as long as you passed mirror test - no money - no problem," he said.

"It was cheap easy mortgage money. There were as many homes built between 2003 and 2007 as there were in the previous 40 years combined. The prices were driven by demand.

"An artificial investor drove demand. The average lot price before the boom was $3,500 and for homes, it was $75,000. At the peak of the boom, prices had gone to $50,000 for lots and an average of $270,000 for homes."

Elliott remembers his firm closing on one resale home in Lehigh for $540,000. Then one day, he said the euphoria wore off. People realized that the payments of a $300,000 loan are more than they could rent the property for.

He told the group that foreclosures started at a record pace in Lehigh as they did in other areas of Florida and the nation.

"It was boom and then the bubble burst.

"The bust prices of 2010 bottomed out at $1500 for lots and $50,000 for newer homes and $20,000 for older ones ... that was two years ago," Elliott said.

But today two-thirds of the resale homes are in arm's length conventional sales. Short sales make up 17 percent and foreclosures are at about 17 percent.

Elliott said in his opinion there is no such thing as the next wave of foreclosures.

"They may still be out there but they will not flood the market like they did a few years ago," he said.

In Lehigh, today the average sales price for a home is $81,000, a 21 percent increase over July of 2011.

"But still much more affordable than most other areas of Florida and even the entire country.

"So where are we headed?

"Here is the good news. We have been left a future inventory. Before the boom it was hard to find commercial storefronts to rent. It was difficult to find warehouse space or affordable homes. Now you have choices.

"Soon the builders will be back and we will be cursing the dump trucks again, but don't look for prizes to skyrocket again soon.

"People have a pretty good short term memory. We are seeing outside money coming in, which is a good sign and as long as lending is not too restrictive, we will continue to see modest appreciation.

"The Commerce Department just reported that the sale of new homes has increased 25 percent over last year and the future looks bright and opportunity is very much out there," Elliott said.

Many at Coldwell Banker survived the hard times and he showed a photo of several of the agents some years ago and noted that some were still there.

"There's Jean Sims - she has spent 30 years with the company," he said.

With a population now at more than 87,000 people with more people moving to Florida, Elliott sees a brighter future for the local real estate business. And he believes Lehigh is set to begin growing again.



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