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Southern exposure


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  • | 7:46 a.m. September 13, 2013
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Pat Neal moves swiftly.

Consider this: By the first of the year, Lakewood Ranch-based Neal Communities will be building homes in six locations throughout the two-county region.

The man spearheading this rapid expansion for Neal is Michael Greenberg, a veteran of Florida homebuilding who joined the company only a year ago. As senior vice president at WCI Communities for eight years, Greenberg oversaw the construction of thousands of homes. Throughout his 35-year career with WCI, Toll Brothers and Avatar Properties, Greenberg has been involved in the acquisition, construction and sales of more than 25,000 homes worth more than $10 billion.

Now as vice president of building, Greenberg says he plans to grow Neal's operations to the point where he's building and selling 400 to 500 homes a year in Lee and Collier counties. “We control almost 1,000 lots,” Greenberg says.

Greenberg is just getting started. “There's still plenty of opportunities down here,” he says. “Florida is still a destination.”

Greenberg says he's scouting for more land along some of the most active corridors in the area. These include Immokalee Road and County Road 951 in Collier County and along Bonita Beach Road, Corkscrew Road, Palm Beach Boulevard and Daniels Parkway in Lee County. “We haven't looked in Charlotte County,” he says.

“Estero is hot,” says Greenberg. The South Lee County area got a boost recently when Hertz announced plans to relocate its global corporate headquarters there from New Jersey and build a new campus for hundreds of employees over the next two years.

So far, Greenberg has found opportunities buying projects stalled by the recession. For example, Neal took over Villa Palmeras and rezoned it to account for new flood maps and to accommodate 110 duplexes. “We reengineered the whole project,” Greenberg says. “We're good land planners.”
Since it opened June 6, Villa Palmeras has sold 24 homes that cost just more than $200,000. “I've had five price increases since then,” Greenberg says.

One of the big selling points for Villa Palmeras is that annual maintenance fees cost about $2,000, significantly less than many neighboring communities, Greenberg says. Although it doesn't have a golf course or other costly amenities, Villa Palmeras has a resort pool, a covered picnic area and a nature boardwalk. It's what Greenberg calls an “amenity light” gated community.

Buyers don't seem to mind because the Estero area now has two regional malls and many golf courses, among other draws. “Outside the gate there's a volume of lifestyle choices,” Greenberg says.

In addition to seasonal residents, customers include locals who are now able to sell their homes. Some of them are downsizing to a smaller home and feel more confident about the job market, Greenberg says.

Still, there are challenges ahead. For one thing, land prices have surged as the real estate recovery takes hold. “There's more competition for land down here than in Sarasota,” Greenberg says, noting some land prices have returned to levels seen in 2005 and 2006. “To some degree, they've escalated out of control.”

Greenberg says Neal has considered buying agricultural land, but he says he hasn't seen any good deals yet. The challenge with so-called “raw land” is that permits and other government approvals take years and can be costly. So far, all the land Neal has purchased has been partially entitled or improved.

While Neal is privately held, Greenberg says publicly traded builders don't necessarily have an advantage when it comes to bidding for land. “We all have hurdle rates that are pretty much the same,” he says.

The other challenge now is that builders are having trouble finding talent as the market recovers. Greenberg has a staff of 10 people now and plans to double that.

“A lot of the A players left town” searching for jobs during the recession, Greenberg says. “We are having trouble finding quality construction managers.”

 

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