Lee County Real Estate Enters the Moderation Era

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Both foreclosures and new-home permits were little changed in February in Lee County as the real estate economy settled into something approaching normal after the wild swings of the past decade.

Contractors in the county pulled 213 single-family home permits in the month, up only slightly from 209 in January, the county’s municipalities reported Monday.

Meanwhile, lenders in the county filed 223 mortgage foreclosure lawsuits, about the same as the 216 in January,, according to statistics released Monday by the Southwest Florida Real Estate Investors Association.

There’s little chance foreclosures will rebound to the levels they reached six years ago when investors and home buyers were abandoning their mortgages, said Jeff Tumbarello, director of the association and owner/broker of North Fort Myers-based Steelbridge Realty.

At present, he said, “Over 60 percent of the home sales are cash. At some point there’s just not enough leverage to do it.”

Bob Knight, vice president and co-owner of Cape Coral-based Paul Homes, said the month’s steady numbers showed there was relatively strong demand three months ago when those home buyers were signing the deals that led to February’s permits.

Now, he said, further growth will depend in part on getting enough qualified tradesmen back in the market to support the “nice normal pace of 400” homes per month that the county sees in a healthy housing market.

That hasn’t happened yet, Knight said, because the plumbers and electricians who were working during the boom by and large have either gone on to new occupations or left the area entirely.

Now the construction jobs here are back but some of those workers are reluctant to get back into the business – still wary of another crash.

Even so, Knight said, the industry is starting to ramp up as demand grows: Some developers are building “on spec” (without a specific buyer committed. “Quite a few are rolling out right now and they’re being absorbed.”

Tumbarello said that normal market forces are starting to reassert themselves after years when foreclosures and a huge inventory of unsold homes created atypical conditions.

“Right now you’re looking at a rational market that’s driven by supply and demand, buyers and sellers,” he said.

Another wild wave of construction likely won’t happen now, Tumbarello said, because in most areas the price of existing homes still isn’t as high as the cost of replacing a typical home with new construction.