Randy Thibaut's passion for real estate started early on his grandfather's farm.
Thibaut, the CEO of Land Solutions in Fort Myers, says his grandfather made more money buying and selling farms in Ohio than milking his own cows. “That wore off on me,” he says. “Both sides of my family were farmers.”
The family eventually got out of farming, and Thibaut moved to Florida, where he worked for real estate developers and homebuilders in the Southwest Florida region. He was division president with Beazer Homes before launching Land Solutions in 2000.
Today, Florida farms are hot commodities again.
Investors, land developers, homebuilders and agriculture companies are scouting the interior of the state again as the economy recovers and population growth resumes. “That's where the growth has to head,” Thibaut says.
Land Solutions recently launched an agriculture division with the help of Senior Broker William Rollins Jr., a third-generation Floridian and former Pasco County citrus farmer. “The future opportunities are going to be in the B and C locations,” says Thibaut.
From the seller side, the transfer of farms to the next generation is fueling some of that trend. In some cases, Florida ranch families are deciding that the next generation isn't interested in farming and they'd rather sell now that buyers are back.
Large agriculture companies are among the buyers. For example, Fort Myers-based agribusiness giant Alico recently announced the acquisition of three citrus growers with thousands of acres for $363 million. These acquisitions will make Alico the largest citrus producer in the U.S., according to the company.
But agriculture companies aren't the only ones buying farmland. Institutional investors like pension funds see opportunity for both income and safety of principal over the long term, Thibaut says.
Looking out, there are fewer land opportunities in Florida's coastal areas, and that scarcity is making new housing more costly. Developing residential communities further inland is one way to make Florida more affordable for people with modest means. “In a lot of cases, we've priced them out” of coastal areas, says Thibaut.
One significant residential development has already proven the fact that housing can be successful in remote areas of Florida. The Villages, a retirement community near Ocala, is the best-selling master-planned community in the country with 2,601 sales in 2014, according a national ranking by John Burns Real Estate Consulting.
There are still more opportunities with the proposed creation of inland ports, vast industrial complexes in places like Clewiston where goods arriving at Florida ports such as Miami can be shipped through the center of the state traveling northward. A road dubbed the “Heartland Expressway” that would parallel Interstate 75 and Interstate 95 through the center of the state could help fuel those commercial projects if it's built.
“We have an abundance of land,” Thibaut says. “You have to think long term.”
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