A struggling housing markets leaves Realtors looking for ways to diversify


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DAVENPORT – Diversification is key for a lot of things, particularly investors, who view it as a means of reducing risk by investing in a variety of assets.
But diversification can also apply to the job skills that people have. If their talents in one field start to become obsolete, they can retrain and diversify, and offer more to employers.
It may not seem like the case, but this has become particularly true for Realtors.
Just ask Pete Howlett.
“We’re looking to have a strong year,” said Howlett, who operates a real estate company in Davenport, Orlando Vacation Realty.

Realtor Pete Howlett operates Orlando Vacation Realty in Four Corners.


“We’ve had some good activities recently as far as sales,” Howlett said. “I have more deals now than I’ve had in a while. I have eight deals going on now. I haven’t had eight deals at one time in a long time.”
Howlett markets properties in Four Corners, the area where the counties of Lake, Orange, Osceola and Polk meet at U.S. 27 and U.S. 192. This area has been a booming spot for newly built vacation and luxury homes, and when the real estate market was booming between 2004 and 2006, business was great.  People moved to Four Corners just to open up real estate offices to take advantage of the heavy demand for properties there.
But when the housing boom turned bust by 2008, the crash was felt throughout a host on industries.
Mortgage lending.
Construction work.
Home building suppliers.
Home furnishings.
Landscapers.
The housing boom had fueled growth throughout a wide variety of fields, when suddenly the huge drop in home buying left behind a massive inventory of unsold, vacant homes, and a rising home foreclosure rate.  Also gone was a long list of jobs related to the home building and growth industries.
The same was true for Realtors like Howlett, who struggled to stay afloat when the real estate market was tanking. What kept him in business, Howlett said, was that he diversified what he could offer his clients.
He did that be expanding into property management. For the past few years, Howlett’s company has managed homes that people want to sell, but simply couldn’t because the market was so weak and there were so few buyers.  In some instances, these sellers decided to pull the house off the market and rent it instead. Managing other people’s homes, he said, helped pay the bills when there was a surplus of homes for sale but a big shortage of qualified buyers.
“I want to really push property management this year,” Howlett said. “We have about 70 properties that we manage. I want to get to 100. That’s our bread and butter right now.”
Howlett plans to continue expanding this year as well, by going into the field of Community Association Management – or consulting for home owners associations. This is a potentially strong field, since few builders during the residential construction boom built single family homes, and instead constructed subdivisions containing hundreds of new houses. These developments, often built in unincorporated areas, are run by home owners association that set the rules and regulations that all residents live by.
“Basically, you’re working for the homeowners association,” Howlett said. “There’s a lot of competition in that business, but it is a monthly paycheck. I think I can use some of my property management contacts to get into HMAs.”
Howlett said the local housing market has improved recently, as more buyers show interest in purchasing homes in Four Corners and Northeast Polk County. But he also knows that the market remains fragile, since inventory is so high, and since a lot of sellers have to compete with “short sales” transactions.
Short sales are when the seller owes more on their mortgage than a buyer is willing to pay for the home, so the property is sold at a reduce price.  The hope is that the banks will agree to write off the seller’s remaining debt, rather than let the home fall into foreclosure.
Short sales may be good for a seller eager to unload a mortgage they can no longer afford to pay, and even better for buyers looking for good deals on the price.  But for the overall housing market, these transactions painfully drag down home prices.
“Short sales are still going to be on the landscape for a long time,” Howlett said. “Prices have gone down and people are selling at a loss.”

The real estate market in Northeast Polk County remains weak but shows signs of improving.


Howlett said he’s stayed in business by diversifying what he offers clients, both in terms of property management and now home owners association management.  He believes the local housing market, while certainly getting better compared to 2008 and 2009, nevertheless has a long way to go.
“I’m looking to do as much diversification of the real estate market as I can,” he said.  “I want to work smart and open up other avenues.”
Realtor Brooke Thompson has gone through a similar experience.  She became a real estate broker in 2005, and remembers how quickly sales went through back then.
“It was easy,” she said.  “People would just put in an offer and get an answer right away.”
Times have changed since the housing market collapsed.
“Now you have to wait months for a deal to go through,” she said.  “In one case, it was three months before we heard back on the offer.”
Thompson said she had to work harder to find qualified buyers, and she also put a focus on helping people who didn’t qualify for a mortgage and instead needed to find an apartment or home to rent.
“I did a lot of rentals,” she said.
Thompson, who runs Premiere Realty in East Orlando, said she also does a lot of short sales transactions.  The good news, she added, is that “There are still qualified buyers out there,” including retirees and young couples looking to buy their first home at a time when prices keep falling. 
To learn more about Orlando Vacation Realty, call Howlett at 863-424-3580.
To learn more about Premiere Realty, call Thompson at 407-716-7810.

 Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

Maintaining your property should be one less thing you need to worry about and with Orlando property management this can be possible! Orlando Property Management

Orlando’s base of fine vegan restaurants includes Garden Cafe.


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ORLANDO – Those who are not inclined to think of vegan eating as being healthy, nutritious and a precursor to a long lifespan may be quick to write it off with one common word: boring.

Or maybe two words: hopelessly boring.

I mean, it’s all just vegetables, right?  How much can you really do with a bunch of veggies?  If you’ve tried one carrot or piece of celery, you’ve gone the distance, right?

Isn’t the vegan lifestyle pretty much the same as committing yourself to eating a salad every day, and discovering by day three that you absolutely hate lettuce, no matter how much dressing your pour on it?  Doesn’t the whole vegan/vegetarian lifestyle eventually lead you to crave meat, even if it means breaking into the local Burger King after hours for a mad run on their Whoppers?

That’s probably a fairly common misconception about vegan food – that the best you can do with vegetables is either serve them raw or steam them in a hopeless attempt at variety.  If you’ve lived in Orlando long enough, you probably know this is a great city for living the vegan lifestyle, because there are so many different vegan restaurants to pick from.  Even better: the restaurants themselves are as diverse as McDonald’s is from Ruth’s Chris’ Steak House.

A good example: if you’ve ever stopped in at Ethos on Orange Avenue, or gone to The Loving Hut on Colonial Avenue near Bumby, you know these two vegan restaurants are radically different in terms of what they serve you – but in both cases, the emphasis is on non-meat dishes that are both healthy and delicious.   Neither one fits into my view of a dull place to eat because … well, those vegetarian dishes are too bland to waste your time with.

Are vegan meals all boring? Not at Garden Cafe.

Another fine example of this region’s ability to attract first rate vegan restaurants is the Garden Café at 810 W. Colonial Drive (considering that there’s also a Sweet Tomatoes restaurant at 4678 E. Colonial Drive, near Semoran Boulevard, I’m starting to think Colonial may be becoming the true vegetarian strip in this growing city.) 

Garden Cafe advertises its "natural, healthy" menu.

Every time I visit Garden Café, which is close to Orange Blossom Trail, I think less about it being a vegetarian restaurant than a Chinese one – because it looks just like most other local Chinese restaurants.  And the menu isn’t all that different, either.

The soups include Egg Drop, Wonton, Hot and Sour and Miso.  The appetizers include a Spring Roll, String Beans in Five Spices, or Dumplings.

The regular lunch and dinner entrees (Garden Café is closed on Mondays, and open Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 9:30 p.m.) sound familiar as well –Moo Shu Vegetables ($7.50), or Stir-Fried Mixed Vegetables ($7.95), Seafood Tofu Pot ($11.95), or Sweet and Sour Taro Fish ($9.25).

Like many other Chinese restaurants, there are also chicken dishes (Mandarin Chicken for $12.95, Sesame Chicken for $8.95), pork dishes (Pork in Canton Style or Double Fried Pork, both $8.25), Lamb meals (Satay Lamb, $9.95, or Lamb Stew Tofu Pot for $10.95), and even Garden Café specialties like Fried Oysters ($9.50) or Beef Stew ($11.95).  Toss in some Ginseng Tea and a side order of Lo Mein ($6.95), and Garden Café sounds like the perfect Chinese restaurant to visit.

The difference, though, is in this restaurant’s philosophy, so proudly stated on the menu: “Forgo the meat without giving up the taste,” or their mission, “To create a vegetarian restaurant which can be enjoyed by both vegetarian and non-vegetarian friends.”

How do you do that?  The same way as The Loving Hut and other vegan restaurants serving “meat” dishes: ditch the meat.  Instead, offer meat substitutes – the Fried Oysters, for example, are made from Portobello mushrooms.

I used to look at meat substitute dishes with a sky high degree of skepticism – kind of like drinking Diet Coke when you really crave the genuine original, or buying one of those awful “low fat” cakes that strips out all the stuff that makes it taste good to begin with, even as it adds to your grief when you get on the scale the next morning, but which tastes like stale bread.

Garden Café cured me of that skepticism, though.  Their meat dishes taste like … well, meat, or seafood, or whatever else it’s supposed to resemble.  At least, I can’t notice a difference, and I will say that this restaurant which advertises “natural, healthy Chinese cuisine with meat substitutes” lives up to its billing.  The meals are delicious, the servings generous.  The service is fast, and if the restaurant’s overall décor isn’t flashy, it doesn’t need to be.  It’s another happy addition to Orlando’s growing number of fine vegan establishments, and there’s nothing about these meals that cry out “boring.”

To learn more about Garden Café, call 407-999-9799 or log on to www.gardencafevege.com.

 Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

Blessing or boondoogle: supporters and critics of a high speed bullet train await Gov. Scott’s decision.


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ORLANDO – It’s a project that could help transform Central Florida’s economy, bringing thousands of badly needed construction jobs to the area, while relieving traffic congestion on Ilocal highways and creating a network of alternative transportation options …

No, it’s a costly and wasteful boondoggle, one that will saddle Florida taxpayers with expensive long term maintenance costs that the state can’t afford, all for a train that nobody will bother riding …

As 2011 starts, the debate over a high speed bullet train from Cocoa Beach to Orlando and then on to Tampa rages on, and it’s going to be up to new Gov. Rick Scott to make the final decision on the project.  Scot was a skeptic of the high speed rail system during his gubernatorial campaign last year, and his political supporters are counting on the governor to kill a project they view as costing far too much money, while offering too little in the way of a payback.

“We do not want him to be endorsing the rail program,” said Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, which endorsed Scott in last year’s Republican primary.  Scott, a South Florida businessman, defeated former state Attorney General Bill McCollum in the August 2010 primary.

Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, thinks most people want the freedom their cars offer, and won't ride a high speed train.

Doug Guetzloe, host of The Guetzloe Report radio talk show and a longtime critic of the train, said the governor may have no choice but to kill the high speed rail project, since the state is facing a huge budget deficit due to declining tax revenues.

“Scott’s got an estimated $3.5 billion budget deficit in this fiscal year,” Guetzloe said.  “He’s either got to cut spending or raise revenues, that’s all you can do.”

Since the governor has pledged not to raise taxes and to look for ways to cut them further to help spur the economy, Guetzloe said that means steep cuts in state spending.

“Our Constitution requires a balanced budget,” he said.   “Where do you get the money without raising taxes? He says he won’t raise taxes, but those are very serious cuts. He could start by turning down money for rail.”

In 2009, the Obama administration signed on to the construction of a high speed line between Orlando and Tampa, using funding from the federal stimulus bill. After announcing the administration’s support for the project, the Federal Railroad Administration granted Florida $1.25 billion to help build the train route.

But critics say Florida will still have to fund the rest of the construction costs, along with the long term maintenance bill as well.

“There’s no source of funding for the operating costs,” Dunmire said.  “And we’re getting this money from the federal government – which doesn’t have the money to begin with.”

Dunmire and Guetzloe noted that last November, voters in Osceola, Polk and Hillsborough counties voted down ballot referendums that would have raised taxes to pay for road building projects or new or expanded public transportation systems.  While those votes could simply be viewed as an anti-tax message, Dunmire said, it also signals skepticism about people giving up their cars to take a train on a fixed route to their jobs, health care providers or shopping needs.

“It’s the wrong technology,” she said.  “Americans like their cars.  We like to decide when to go, and where.”

But the project’s supporters think Scott will ultimately get behind it.

Paul Senft, director of the Economic Development Council in Haines City and a strong supporter of the high speed train, said new Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio came to the Sunshine State’s rescue by turning down federal money for rail projects.  That freed up more than a billion dollars in federal stimulus money, and shortly afterwards, the White House diverted another $342 million to Florida.

Paul Senft, Haines City's economic development director, thinks cities across Central Florida can boost their economic prospects if residents have easy access to a commuter train.

“The fact that some other states reejected the funds and Florida picked up a tremendous amount of extra money, that helped a lot because the local investment became smaller,” Senft said. “The construction cost has become smaller and smaller as the federal government has given us more and more money. I think we’ll be in good shape on the high speed rail.”

Senft has been supporting the rail line because it would include stops at Walt Disney World, about 20 minutes from Haines City, and in Lakeland, the largest city in Polk County.  He believes communities like Haines City can sell themselves to businesses interested in relocating to the region by reminding employers of the easy access workers would have to rail.

“There’s not any regions in the world that are truly economic regions that don’t have mass transit,” Senft said.  “It will help us, image-wise, and with higher wage jobs.”

But Guetzloe countered that the high speed train will ultimately cost the state far more in the long run than the federal investment suggests, and he said Scott risks burdening the state with a massive long term price tag if he signs on to the project. 

Doug Guetzloe thinks Gov. Rick Scott needs to stick to his opposition to a high speed train from Orlando to Tampa.

“It’s an unfunded liability,” Guetzloe said.  “We don’t have $17.6 billion in the next 20 years to operate the train. I think he (Scott) will be hard pressed to flip on that one.”

 Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

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