MANATEE -- With an all-time annual sales record on the books, Manatee County's biggest homebuilder is going into 2015 leading a pack of construction companies that plan to build more and earn more than almost any time in the past.
As of this week, Lakewood Ranch-based Neal Communities had sold an estimated 870 homes, eclipsing its previous best of 826 from 2013. It has earned more than $276 million selling those homes, another record for the company.
On top of that, the privately held company cemented its place as the big gorilla in the Manatee market, having grabbed 20 percent of the new home business against local competition and billion-dollar, publicly traded builders.
"We're still clearly No. 1," said Neal Communities President Michael Storey. "That 20 percent market share, there's probably only a handful of instances of that in the country."
Neal sold 485 homes in
Manatee County this year and opened nine new communities statewide, making it the most prolific builder in the county, according to data shared among a dozen major homebuilders active in the market.
The big numbers put Neal Communities at the leading edge of a building boom that has benefited the industry across the board in Manatee and Sarasota counties. Manatee officials have estimated that about 550 more new homes will be built in the county this year compared with 2013, bringing the total to about 2,500.
That increase, which has largely been portrayed by real estate professionals as the rebound of a recession-crippled market, is expected only to accelerate in 2015. Pat Neal, chairman of Neal Communities, said his company did not quite meet his 2014 goal of building 1,014 homes. The year was good, he said, but he now sees 2015 as the start of a construction boom cycle.
"2014 didn't have the growth I expected," he said. "We expect '15 to be the real beginning of the cycle."
Other builders in Manatee and Sarasota counties saw their numbers increase alongside those at Neal. National builder Minto Homes notched 65 sales in its only local development, Harbour Isle, earning $40 million. Mike Belmont, president of the company's Florida operations, said his company expects sales to jump another 30 percent next year even without opening another development in the area.
Publicly traded Pulte Group, which opened three new communities in the past year in addition to its Harrison Ranch development in Parrish, put up even stronger numbers. Through the first three quarters of 2014, the $5.4-billion company sold 285 homes in the two-county area, up from 187 during the same period in 2013. Along with its other building projects, Pulte goes into next year starting site work in a planned, 1,300-home development in Lakewood Ranch under its Del Webb brand.
Smaller, local companies that build just a few dozen homes each have also benefited, both in the number of homes sold and the amount they can charge. Derek Nelson, president of Arthur Rutenberg franchisee Nelson Homes Inc., said sales jumped 12 percent to $28 million in 2014 even as his company built fewer homes. Those homes sold for an average of $1.2 million, allowing Nelson to add five employees as he prepares for 2015.
Nelson said he wants to bring more high-end inventory to market next year because buyers are hungry for new homes in the multimillion-dollar price range. His company opened models priced at more than $2 million in the tony Country Club East and Concession neighborhoods.
"They're buying what they can see," he said.
T.J. Nutter, president of Sarasota builder Nutter Construction, reported a 35 percent jump in sales revenue in 2014. That will continue for the foreseeable future for the boutique luxury homebuilder, he said.
"I'm very optimistic about the continued recovery," he said. "I still am not confident that we're there, but we're on the way."
Bradenton-based Medallion Home, which has been the area's second-most active local home builder in recent years, did not respond to a request for its 2014 sales figures. In 2013, the company notched more than $100 million in revenue.
Neal grows by diversifying
Since 1970, Neal Communities has built in more than 70 housing developments, centered largely around the active adult homebuyer market in Manatee and Sarasota counties. Recently, however, its selling model has started to change.
Highly public with its sales figures, the company put out its key business numbers this week.
Neal has expanded its geographic range by building in Venice and Fort Myers. The company is also building more of its product for buyers between the ages of 25 and 44. Storey said this demographic, which accounted for 12 percent of the company's sales in 2012, bought 25 percent of Neal's homes in 2014.
With that change, the company will offer more homes at a lower price point. The average Neal home sold for $380,000 in 2014, but its lowest-priced model could be had for as little as $150,000 in its new Silverleaf subdivision.
By offering more affordable homes, Neal's company will capture more first-time homebuyers, he said. Better loan rates from banks and an improving economy will help get those buyers into new homes.
"They're going back to making 3 percent money available, and we're slowly starting to see wages moving up," Storey said.
Neal Communities should be able to offer plenty more of those homes in the coming years. Keying on projected peak production in 2017 of nearly 1,600 homes, the company stocked up on land this year. It purchased the equivalent of 1,300 building lots, spending about $34 million.
And while it strengthens its purchase in the affordable home market, Neal is also planning to bulk up on its luxury offerings. Its high-end construction division, Neal Signature Homes, built 40 units this year, and is scheduled to put up 88 in 2015. To do that, the company will build a more affordable brand of luxury. The average price of a Neal Signature home is projected to drop from about $812,000 in 2014 to $510,000 next year. Storey said the company is still looking to sell about 40 homes in that higher price range next year, but will offer lines of less-expensive luxury homes that will increase sales volume.
As the year closes, the company is taking an average of 15.1 weeks to build each home it puts on the market. Its workforce expanded during the year from 120 employees to 190 as of this month.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.