TAMPA - A grandmother strolls behind two toddlers navigating their tricycles down a sidewalk in Carriage Pointe, a new subdivision in Gibsonton.
They pass rows of two-story pastel homes with picture-book lawns and identical black-iron mailboxes. A neighbor waves as he pulls weeds out of his front yard.
One street over, the scenery is vastly different.
Vacant homes with 'For Sale' signs on lawns and 'For Rent' signs taped to windows line the block. Weeds are knee-high, and moldy newspapers, some dating back to June, are piled high on doorsteps.
Neighbors have vanished, some loading moving vans in the middle of the night. The homes are products of a mortgage and foreclosure wave leaving a lasting imprint on the Bay area. New neighborhoods such as Carriage Pointe, where speculators bought homes several at a clip and homeowners stretched their budgets with creative financing, are particularly hard-hit.
'It's depressing,' said Greg Gibbons, who has lived in the neighborhood 1 1/2 years and has a view of several empty houses. 'No one has ever lived in those two homes across the street. This is not where I wanted to live.'
As many as 69 percent of the 381 homes in Carriage Pointe are owned by people who don't live there, county officials estimate. This year, 31 of the homes have slipped into foreclosure, and many other homes are heading that way as owners struggle to make mortgage payments or just stop paying. Some investors drastically cut rents.
At the entrance of Carriage Pointe, on Symmes Road near Interstate 75, stands a wooden sign urging buyers to call about Phase Two, 'with homes starting in the low 200s.' That's the phase that was supposed to include a swimming pool and other amenities.
But the builder seems to realize the home-buying boom is over.
The phone number at the sales office is disconnected.
Carriage Pointe is just one example of what's playing out in hundreds of neighborhoods throughout Florida and the Bay area.
The Sunshine State's foreclosure rate of one filing for every 248 households is second only to Nevada. In Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, the number of foreclosure filings through September was 19,226, up nearly 131 percent compared with the same period last year, according to RealtyTrac, a California company that tracks foreclosures. That's up from 9,476 in 2005, the first year the company began its reporting.
Just last month, there were 4,365 filings in the three counties, and lenders took the keys back from 502 homeowners, RealtyTrac said.
The Tampa Tribune set out to find pockets of the Bay area that are feeling the foreclosure pinch more than others. The Tribune interviewed experts and homeowners, and analyzed public records and data provided by RealtyTrac and ForeclosuresDaily.com, a local company that sends researchers to courthouses daily.
The data show no neighborhood or price range is immune. Those in default are a mix of investors and people who bought primary residences. Neighborhoods with clusters of foreclosures were typically popular with speculators who purchased multiple homes. Many bought beyond their means with adjustable-rate and interest-only mortgages that fueled the 2005 real estate boom in Florida.
The idea was to sell or refinance before the low teaser rate went up. Now that the real estate market has slowed, that's no longer an option for many. Homes are sitting on the market for months, and prices are dropping.
The Bay area real estate market is expected to stabilize over the next two years, but experts say the neighborhoods where foreclosure rates are highest could suffer much longer.
'Those neighborhoods will have sharper drops in prices because you'll see more aggressive pricing to move homes,' said Mike Larson, a real estate analyst with Weiss Research in Jupiter. 'And when there are a lot of renters, prices could drop because renters don't typically take as good of care of the home as homeowners do.'
RealtyTrac's data show the ZIP codes with the most foreclosure activity were in Port Richey, New Port Richey, Wesley Chapel and Riverview. The areas tended to be more densely populated and, in most cases, had intense residential growth.
But out of 145 ZIP codes in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, the one for Port Richey in Pasco topped the list with 716 filings, RealtyTrac data show. As retirees have moved out in recent years, first-time homeowners have moved in, often using nontraditional financing. The area also was a hot spot among investors looking for rental property.
In Pasco, foreclosures in New Port Richey and Wesley Chapel, where hundreds of new homes were built during the boom, have risen dramatically in the past year, too.
In Hillsborough, ZIP codes with new subdivisions were hardest hit. The Riverview ZIP code had 573 filings, more than any other in the county. But it was followed closely by an area north of Ybor City and the Sulphur Springs area in Tampa, which had 528 and 538 filings, respectively.
Hillsborough and Pasco had ZIP codes with the highest total foreclosures, but Pinellas also has been susceptible. Some areas, such as neighborhoods in south St. Petersburg, have had a lot of foreclosures because of high investor activity.
It was May 2006, and Jesus and Hayley Torres had a baby and a newborn on the way.
They had never owned a home, and they wanted a nice neighborhood to raise their growing family. The Torreses were neither investors nor buyers of exotic mortgages; nevertheless, they were tripped up by Florida's other real estate phenomena: rising taxes and insurance.
They paid $203,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bath, 1,395-square-foot home overlooking a pond in Carriage Pointe. They got a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage, even though friends urged them to buy a bigger home with an adjustable-rate mortgage.
'We budgeted for all our bills and had only about $10 to $15 left over each month,' Jesus Torres said.
The couple made it work until the property taxes shot up. The Torreses' tax bill went from $1,436 to $2,959. Combined with rising property insurance, Torres said, the monthly mortgage payment went up by $500.
'There's no way we could pay that,' Torres said. 'Some months, it really became, 'Do I pay my mortgage or feed my kids this month?''
They put the home on the market in March but have been unable to sell it. They haven't made a mortgage payment since April and received the foreclosure notice in late September.
Torres is hoping to work something out with his bank so he doesn't have a foreclosure on his record.
Banks don't want the inventory, and some are willing to take back the deed to the home without a foreclosure. Others do a short sell, meaning the bank sells the home at a low price and the homeowner owes the difference. However, this is typically offered only on primary residences.
The Torreses' neighbor, Walter Childress, hates to see all the foreclosures. He feels bad for people losing their homes, but the result has affected his life. He thinks there's more crime in the neighborhood and worries about his property value.
Childress bought his Carriage Pointe home in April 2006 and is the only resident on the board of the homeowners association. The board tries to enforce the area's deed restrictions, which require homeowners to take care of the property. But there is little the board can do, he said.
'If it doesn't get better in a couple of years, I'm out of here,' he said. 'I'll move back north or to a gated community.'
The Investor Factor
During the housing boom, investors camped outside new subdivisions and bought multiple homes. Builders, eager to meet demand, overbuilt in the Bay area, said Per Gunnar Berglund, senior economist at Moody's Economy.com.
For example, one investor in Carriage Pointe purchased six homes. All of them are now in foreclosure.
Of the 31 homes in foreclosure in the neighborhood, more than half were financed with nontraditional financing, according to ForeclosuresDaily.com and public records.
Many of those loans had adjustable rates that have caused mortgage payments to skyrocket.
Some Carriage Pointe residents blame the builder for the influx of investors. When the market slowed, they say, Lennar Homes cut prices and sold excess inventory to investors.
Mike Southward, division president, said Lennar typically limits investors to purchasing every fifth house.
'It was a good selling community for us,' Southward said. 'I don't remember that there was need to sell to investors. What's happened in Carriage Pointe is unfortunate, but I think it's still a nice neighborhood.'
No one can say for sure how many investors purchased homes in the Bay area, but Moody's recent report on loan origination data approximates likely investor purchases.
In 2006, 18 percent of loans in the Bay area were made to people who said they weren't going to live in the home. That was up from 8 percent in 2001. In Florida, the number of nonresident buyers was 19 percent in 2006, up from 12 percent in 2001. Across the nation, 12 percent of loans in 2006 were for non-owner-occupied homes, up from 7 percent five years earlier.
Doug Duncan, chief economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association, said the numbers still may underestimate investor purchases.
'One lender recently told us that many of their loans in foreclosure were supposed to be to people living in the home,' Duncan said. 'But when they investigated, they learned some were actually investors.'
Duncan said he expects foreclosures to peak during the fourth quarter of 2008.
'It won't surprise me if it's at least a couple more years before things turn around in Florida,' he said.
'We Can't Do This Anymore'
The effect of foreclosures can also be seen at local real estate sales offices. Of the 21 homes sold through Greg Armstrong's Coldwell Banker office last month, 12 had been foreclosed on by lenders.
'I've been in this business for 17 years, and I've never seen the bank be the No. 1 seller,' said Armstrong, president-elect of the West Pasco Board of Realtors.
Homeowners who want to move or those seeking to avoid foreclosure by selling can't compete, he said. And every time a lender cuts prices dramatically to move a home, values in the neighborhood go down, he said.
'Lenders can afford to go much lower in price than homeowners can,' Armstrong said. 'The banks don't want all these homes, so they'll sell them for whatever they need to.'
That's part of the reason Brianne and Robert Thompson have decided to file for bankruptcy and walk away from their first home, a three-bedroom in the Thousand Oaks subdivision in New Port Richey.
The couple bought the home four years ago and took out a second mortgage nearly two years later. They had equity at the time and wanted to upgrade their home. Two months after signing the paperwork, Brianne Thompson discovered she was seriously ill and no longer could work.
For a year and a half, they made it work, barely making mortgage payments each month. With their second mortgage and home prices falling all around them, however, the Thompsons now owe more than they can sell the home for.
Robert Thompson has decided to give up his job at a nursing home to re-enlist in the Army, in part so the family can get help with housing.
'We hate to just let this house go,' Brianne Thompson said. 'We love it, but we can't do this anymore.'
In Thousand Oaks East, a Lennar subdivision in New Port Richey, 128 of 191 homes are either listed for sale or have slipped off the listing after six months on the market without a sale. Of the 12 homes in the community in foreclosure, half are on Lenton Rose Court. All along this street, homes sit empty, with 'For Sale' signs beckoning buyers. '$60,000 under the appraised value,' one sign says. Still, the home has been on the market for months, a neighbor said.
Kelley Felicciardi and her husband have rented a home on the street for four months. They have an option to buy but have decided not to, she said, citing the foreclosures.
One house on the corner, where neighborhood children catch a school bus, appears abandoned. Neighbors take turns cutting the lawn, she said, so the children don't have to stand in the weeds.
A few doors down is another renter, Gary Pirie. His landlord was heading to foreclosure before Pirie's family moved in, he said.
'It looks like a perfect neighborhood on the surface,' he said. 'But even a beautiful neighborhood like this will eventually go bad when there are so many foreclosures.'
Reporter Shannon Behnken can be reached at (813) 259-7804 or firstname.lastname@example.org.