Real Estate News for North Pinellas County

Archive for November, 2009

The first Thanksgiving: A FLORIDA event?

I’m from New England, a place rich in history and tradition.  The Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, Thanksgiving – all early American historical icons that New Englanders takes great pride in.

thanksgiving beachNow, however, I live in Pinellas County, Florida, a place rich in sunshine but a little light in the history department. Florida is a great place to live, but it simply doesn’t offer the rich past of the Northeast.

Heck, the state wasn’t even sold by the Spanish to the U.S. until 1819; Florida didn’t become a state until 1849. Many of the people considered to be the pioneers of Pinellas County didn’t live in these parts until the early part of the 20th Century.

So imagine my shock when I learned that the first Thanksgiving wasn’t the one held in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, but was an altogether different celebration held in St. Augustine, Fla. about 55 years earlier.

The first Thanksgiving a Florida event? Who would have ever dreamed?

Nonetheless, that’s what Michael Gannon and several other Florida historians claim.

According to those accounts, a Spanish explorer, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, landed in what was to become St. Augustine on Sept. 8, 1565, and immediately decided to put together a Mass of Thanksgiving. He even decided to invite some of the local Timucua Indians, much as the Pilgrims allegedly did 56 years later.

There’s no record of what everyone had to eat on that day in St. Augustine, but one good bet is Cocido, a Spanish stew of beans, chicken and cabbage which is popular to this day.

Also, there’s a bit of controversy as to whether this Mass actually qualifies as a Thanksgiving event.

That’s okay – I’m told the people who run the Plimoth Plantation, the historic facility in Plymouth that commemorates the Pilgrims’ home, are going a little light on the “first-thanksgiving-in-the-new-world” claim these days, giving that honor up to the Indian tribes who populated the area long before the Pilgrims ever arrived.

Nonetheless, I like the idea that Florida has a claim to the first Thanksgiving. I’ll be sharing this story with the friends and relatives who join us for dinner on Thanksgiving Day. And I may even try my hand at Cocido if I can find a good recipe.

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Got your eye on a new Palm Harbor home? Don’t drag your feet.

I just sold a house to a couple who had been working with me since last November.  That’s right, it took them a full year to find the house they wanted to buy.

Were these people unusually picky, or were their requirements so specific that the right house simply wasn’t available for a really long time?  I would say “no” to both counts; I think they just wanted to be very careful in what they considered a very volatile market.  They wanted to make sure they didn’t pay too much in case the real estate market continued to free-fall, and they wanted to be sure they didn’t end up with a house that was going to cost a lot to upgrade.

This couple looked very actively during the past year, and they actually made offers on several houses. But if the negotiations on those houses began to bog down, or if the sellers didn’t act like they wanted to significantly drop their prices (and do so quickly), these people would back away.

I think their attitude was exactly the opposite of buyer attitudes two or three years ago, when buyers thought they had to act very swiftly in order to get the home they wanted. Now, caution rules the day for buyers, along with low-ball offers. I don’t think the low offers come so much from a desire to play hardball as from a fear of paying too much in a market where prices may have a way to go before hitting bottom.

The point of all this is the new first-time homebuyer tax credit, which the Congress just recently passed. This new tax credit offers an $8,000 tax credit to first-time homebuyers, and a credit of $6,500 to repeat buyers. That credit for repeat buyers MIGHT entice some move-up buyers to come back into the market, which has mostly been dominated by first-time buyers.

The original tax credit, which was launched last spring and which was to run only through the end of November, made home ownership possible for many first-time buyers. This new version continues to offer that, while also offering a tidy tax credit to people who are NOT first-timers.

But here’s the bad part (and the reason why I started out by talking about those buyers who took a full year to find a home they wanted to buy); this new tax credit is authorized only through April – buyers have to have a binding contract in place by April 30, 2010.

If you think your home search may take a number of months, you’d better get started now. April will be here before you know it.

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Environmentally-friendly Sweetbay Market opens in Tarpon Springs

SweetBay's new LEED-certified supermarket in Tarpon Springs

SweetBay's new LEED-certified supermarket in Tarpon Springs

Sweetbay Supermarkets has opened a new store in Tarpon Springs, on South Pinellas Ave. (Alt. 19) just a short distance south of the Tarpon Springs downtown area.

What makes this more than just a grocery store opening is that this store is LEED-certified, meaning it is environmentally and energy sensitive in a number of different ways. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a designation of the U.S. Green Building Council, and the LEED designation makes note of the store’s energy efficiency and sustainable development practices.
veterans day 022We saw all sorts of different examples of those sustainable practices during our visit on Saturday, everything from special reserved parking spots for energy-efficient cars (and car pool cars) to reusable shopping bags.

Some of the features we did NOT see were the store’s low-flow toilets and plumbing fixtures, the use of reclaimed water for toilets,  and free air for people who ride their bikes to the store.

The store also offers all kinds of special food displays, as well. One thing that really caught our eye was a major display in the produce section devoted solely to all kinds of fresh peppers. We saw peppers we had never seen before, and we were very taken by the eye appeal of so many of the displays.

veterans day 017Here’s how SweetBay describes the mission of its new market (as printed on a sign inside the store): “We thought why not create a store that is as committed to the planet as much as it is to delivering freshness to the people, a store that is environmentally-friendly and committed to conserving energy and water. A store that wastes less and recycles more, a store that puts planet, people and product first. So we did.”

If you get a chance, you should take a tour of the new SweetBay store. It may offer some insights into the way grocery stores will look in the future.

Rodie’s — a great breakfast in Tarpon Springs

There was time not too many years back when one of our favorite breakfast stops was a place called Rodie’s, in Tapron Springs.

Rodie's Restaurant in Tarpon Springs

Rodie's Restaurant in Tarpon Springs

Rodie’s was a small hole-in-the-wall diner kind of place on Alt. 19 just south of the Tarpon Springs downtown area.  It was a place very much favored by the locals, and the Rodie’s folks put out a very good breakfast for a very fair price.

Rodie’s did so well that they acquired a piece of land across the street from the original restaurant and built a new place — much fancier, much bigger, and a lot more upscale, at least in appearance.  They still are only open for breakfast and lunch — they close at 3 p.m.

They may have lost a little bit of the charm they offered when they were in the older, smaller place across the street. But they still really pack the place on weekend mornings, a testament to their excellent food and fair prices.

Rodie’s offers some very good burgers and sandwiches, but breakfast is when I like to go there. Besides the good assortment of pancake dishes and omelettes, they also offer some southern favorites and some Greek-inspired dishes, everything from biscuits and sausage gravy to gyro rollups and Greek salads.

Rodie’s is right next door to the brand-new Sweetbay supermarket on South Pinellas Avenue (Alt. 19).  I’m going to post something about that Sweetbay a little later on.

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Most toxic city? Hint: It’s not Tampa Bay

What’s the most toxic city in America? That is, the city with the worst environmental problems, judged on the basis of dirty air, unclean water and the rate of environmental hazards?

Atlanta skyline

Atlanta skyline

You may have thought Los Angeles with all of its smog, or you may have thought of a place like Chicago, with its reputation as an industrial center.

However, you would have been wrong on both counts, and on a number of other counts, as well.  Because, according to Forbes Magazine, the most toxic city in the U.S. is… Atlanta!

Yeah, I’m surprised, too.  We spent a very nice weekend in Atlanta a year or two ago, and I never had the sense that the city was unusually unclean or polluted. But according to Forbes, Atlanta is not only the most toxic city in the country, it has zoomed up to the Number One spot from Number 28 just a year before.

The next question from me is, so where does Tampa Bay rank on the Forbes list?

Tampa Bay is quite a ways down the list, at Number 16 (tied with the Miami area and St. Louis.) That’s not exactly great on a list with 40 positions, but it’s not terrible, either. Accortding to Forbes, Tampa Bay releases about 4 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment every year, a mere pittance compared to Atlanta’s 41 million pounds.

So what community occupies the final spot on Forbes’ 40-spot list?  According to the magazine, it’s Las Vegas.

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22nd Annual Veterans Day observances at Curlew Memory Gardens in Palm Harbor

veterans day 363For the 22nd straight year, Curlew Hills Memory Gardens in Palm Harbor hosted a Veterans Day service .

The program began at around 9:30 a.m. A piper played the bagpipes, a choir from St. Alfred’s Episcopal Church sang to the accompaniment of a keyboard player, and an honor guard presented the colors. There was a threat of rain during the early morning hours, but the sun came out just in time for the service.

Remarks were delivered by Gunnery Sergeant Nathaniel Garcia, a Marine stationed at U.S. Central Command in Tampa.  The ceremony was concluded with taps played by Ron Ashley of the Marine Corps League’s Morris F. Dixon Chapter #54.

A contigent from the Palm Harbor Fire department was also on hand for the ceremonies.

veterans day 357The event was open to the public.

A number of other ceremonies and remembrances were held throughout the Tampa Bay area, as well.  perhaps the largest was at Bay Pines, the Veterans Administration facility in mid-county. A year ago, my husband wrote about the Memorial Day ceremonies at Bay Pines and about finding the grave of an old friend. You can find that post elsewhere on this blog.

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Finding, buying and fixing up the perfect Pinellas County home

(A couple of weeks ago I posted a story by my friend, Stephanie Henningsen, who described her plans for buying (and renovating) her first home, using financing provided through the neighborhood Assistance Program of America. In this installment, Steph talks about the process of finding the right house, buying it and beginning the remodeling process.)


I completed all the steps that NACA requested – I had a set amount in my bank account, my credit report had been checked (all was well), and I supplied them with several months of pay stubs and bank statements.

steph house outside SMALLNow came the fun part – looking for my house.

Over the course of a few weeks, I drove around various neighborhoods to look for just the right place, within the right budget. NACA had agreed to loan me only about 80 percent of what I could afford for a home to make sure I didn’t suffer from payment shock, which could cause me to fall behind on the mortgage.

The trick was to find a house low enough in price so I would have enough money left in my mortgage package to fix it up.

One day I stopped at an old purple house that looked deserted. I happened to see one of the neighbors outside and began asking questions about it. He told me that the lady who lived in it had died and that her daughter now owned the place. However, he was unable to tell me the woman’s name or exactly where she lived.

So I went to the Web site of the Pinellas County Property Appraisers’ Office and typed in the address. After getting the owner’s name from the site, I called the office, got his phone number, and learned that the house was for sale (it turns out he was a home investor who had only purchased the house five months earlier). Within days I had a meeting with his agent to view the house.

Once inside the house, I fell in love. It had high ceilings, wood floors, a fireplace – everything I wanted in a home. The best part was that the price of the home was low enough so that I could afford the remodeling of it as well.

During this process, NACA provided me with a Realtor, who helped me with the home buying process, as well as helped me find the contractor who fixed up the house.

I closed on the house in June. In August, the remodeling process began, with my contractor adding an upstairs bathroom, rewiring the electrical system (it still had the knob and tube wiring from the 20s), adding central heat and air, completely remodeling the kitchen, and painting the home inside and out.

By December I moved into my newly remodeled home.

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New homeowner tax credit may mean tax windfall for builders

Last week, the Congress extended the first time homeowner tax credit. But what wasn’t so obvious about that legislation is that it provides some really big tax breaks for home building companies.

Big builders like Lennar and Pulte could end up with hundreds of millions of dollars in refunds from the U.S. Treasury on taxes they paid as far back as five years, according to the Wall Street Journal. Those refunds are designed to help the companies cope with the big losses they have experienced in the past two years or so.

homebuilder pictureThe tax break will apply to large companies of all kinds. But it may be of particular benefit to the country’s biggest home builders, because they have experienced some really hefty losses as the economy has tanked over the past couple of years.

Some critics say they home builders don’t really need that much help because they have been selling off assets, such as land and unsold inventory, and bargain prices and then hoarding the proceeds. One source estimates that the 10 largest home building companies are sitting on average of $1.2 billion in cash each, quite a lot more than the $616 million cash average they had just a couple of years ago.

Pulte Homes says it may receive more than $450 million in tax refunds; Lennar Homes may get refunds of as much as $300 million.

One benefit to the tax refund news: stock prices for Lennar and other builders went up last week as the legislation was announced.

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