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Homes sales in Lakewood Ranch and region could insulate area from recession

Jay Heater: Side of Ranch

Pat Neal says low interest rates and new virtual strategies will lead to a strong sales year for Neal Communities.
Pat Neal says low interest rates and new virtual strategies will lead to a strong sales year for Neal Communities.
  • East County
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Every journalist has to deal with bad news.

At times, it can be exhilarating, intoxicating and inspiring. The way our neighbors react to disasters, to trauma, to adversity, often is a better story than the event itself.

I must admit, though, I've been feeling a bit worn out lately. Pandemic, political strife, racial unrest.

I need a bunny.

No, I need a dose of Pat Neal, the owner of Lakewood Ranch's Neal Communities.

Jay Heater: Side of Ranch
Jay Heater: Side of Ranch

Those who work or do business with Neal, the 71-year-old former state representative and senator, understand he can be firm. You don't build more than 10,000 homes in Florida without bumping heads and issuing demands. A major college football coach explained to me once that no successful leader got that way by being nice all the time. He said being a jerk, at times, had to be part of the game-plan.

I haven't been around Neal enough to comment on his tougher side. I usually see the eternal optimist.

And that's exactly what I needed.

So Pat, are we going to pull out of the huge, dark cloud we've flown into?

He presented me with three pages, stapled together, on the reasons our region's housing market will bounce back from our current dilemma. I looked at the various reasons for optimism. One item, though, stood above all others.

May 2019 sales at Neal Communities — 71.

May 2020 sales at Neal Communities — 107.

I did a double-take.

How could that be?

I checked with Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch. I asked for its May homes sales in its master-planned community as compared to the same month last year.

May 2019 — 138.

May 2020 — 147.

With everything that has occurred, Lakewood Ranch home sales are down, for the year, only 6% over 2019 at this point.

The tremendous growth we experience in the Lakewood Ranch area can seem like the bane of our existence. Our friends — the cows — have been forced out to greener pastures. Our roads are clogged at times. Red lights are appearing like lovebugs. Portable classrooms are a way of life at many of our schools.

That same growth, though, might just keep us insulated from a recession. With employment soaring, at least temporarily, throughout the country, some areas will take months and perhaps years to recover. Some states still shut down. When people do venture outside their homes again, will they be overly cautious about spending money?

Meanwhile, people still are buying homes here. Neal said the housing industry can lead our region out of the economic muck. He said the quick bounce-back is no lie and he is certain it will continue.

"We have historically low interest rates," Neal said. "Lower than they've been anytime since World War II. If you have a FICA score of 720 or more, you can qualify for a mortgage of less than 3%."

According to a report in May, "The average rate for a 30-year home loan dropped to an all-time low of 3.23% as jobless claims because of the coronavirus outbreak mounted."

Neal said to combine those low interest rates with bad conditions in other states. Anyone who has dreamed about living in Florida figures now is the time.

"People in New York and New Jersey are still locked in," Neal said. "They don't like it. They want out.

"I think everyone from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will end up in Florida. Maybe the people from Michigan and Illinois, too."

The final piece of the expanding puzzle has to do with Neal Communities embracing the virtual world.

Christina Sadler, an online sales concierge for Neal Communities, said her department has been in existence since 2014, but has "recently ramped up."

At the present, prospective buyers must make an appointment to tour models, but they also have the option of a virtual appointment led by a concierge like Sadler, who will do all the footwork while the interested buyers sit in the comfort of their own home. 

"We have changed our ways of communicating," Sadler said. "And people have more confidence. The automotive industry has been ahead of us (in selling online). This past week, though, we made three sales to people who never had been in the community."

Raising their virtual game with resources and money has allowed Neal to shorten the buying and shopping time of customers. "Our conversion rate (of a sale) is much higher now," he said. "It went from 3 to 4% (before the pandemic) to 7 to 8%."

People are spending time doing the research on line and they are serious when they set up an appointment.

"For young people, buying online is not a barrier at all," Neal said. "They will buy clothes from China, and if they don't like them, they will put them in a box and send them back."

You can't stuff a home into a box, but Neal is confident his buyers will be quite happy once they get here.

"We will open Windward at Lakewood Ranch in late July and it will be beautiful, beautiful, beautiful," he said.

For those uncertain about our future here in Lakewood Ranch, that's some beautiful news.


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