The cows have been hauled away and a tent is pitched in the rough-mown field. Powerful fans buzz in the tent's shade, moving, but not cooling, the thick July morning air. Sweet rolls and McDonald's sausage biscuits are stacked in boxes on a folding table, waiting for the same thing that has the meandering men in the American flag neckties rubbing their palms together in the fashion of salesmen everywhere–potential land buyers with an appetite.
The land auction is a scene not common in Florida for the past half decade as land practically sold itself at ever soaring prices, often to big builders desperate to feed their hyper-revved home-building machines.
“People haven't needed us as much,” says William R. Bone, president of The National Auction Group, which was conducting the sale. But sometime early this year, the National Auction Group's phones started ringing regularly. “Sort of like a girlfriend I used to have,” Bone chuckles. “Lately here in Florida the phones have been ringing from people needing a little bit of help.”
As surrounding thunderheads build, then burst, auctioneer Eddie Haynes starts his own patter, peddling the land beneath his boots. The 1,130-acre Honey Bee Ranch, once home to whitewashed fences and prized Shetland ponies, is now the site of a borrow pit, towering piles of hurricane-downed trees awaiting mulching. Just beyond Orlando's eastern sprawl, near major highways and Titusville, its sellers hoped it might be ripe for more profitable enterprises–home building, perhaps.
Not exactly. It took some persuasion to keep the numbered paddles in the air as prices rose. In the end, the landowners only accepted bids on 235 of the 1,130 acres–$29,000 an acre for 118 acres fronting State Road 50 and $12,000 an acre for 217 acres behind it. The sellers rejected the bids for $5,000 and $6,500 an acre for the remaining 786 acres.
NEW REALITIES A year ago, market watchers say, things would have been different .
“I think the sale price was a pretty depressed price,” says Jim Lentz, a local land market expert and developer of Harmony, another parcel far-flung from Orlando proper. “I think six months ago they would have gotten twice or three times as much. Then, all raw land, regardless of whether you could build on it or not, was at a premium. The bloom is off the rose now.”
Not just in Florida. Seemingly overnight, demand for land for residential construction fell through the floor during the summer, as many big builders virtually stopped buying–sometimes even leaving good faith deposits on the table as they walked from deals. Those with options started working to renegotiate terms for takedowns and prices. And everybody went into evaluation mode, reviewing land positions in lieu of the slowing market.
Meanwhile, those smelling potential fire sales in the wind started sniffing for land bargains. “I have worked Wall Street all my life. One of the first lessons is bull markets erode markets, bear market create them,” Lentz says.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL.