Family-friendly vibe draws house-hunters to Weston

While Weston’s housing bust was tough, the downturn was not as deep as in other places in Broward County.

05/11/2014 2:00 AM

05/11/2014 7:10 AM

This story is part of the 'Boom, Bust & Back' series. There is an enhanced version of this story available here

Evan Rosen and his wife searched extensively from north Miami-Dade to central Broward before buying a house in Weston.

“Probably the main driver was public education,” said Rosen, an attorney who has a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old. “We wanted to go somewhere where it’s safe, and they have great public schools.”

Kids rule in Weston. When residents cite what drew them to the young city, their top reason is they think it’s a great place to raise a family.

The family-focused suburb on the fringes of the Everglades in Broward County seems like something out of Disney. It was, of course, master-planned and built by Arvida Corp., once a Disney unit.

The public schools are generally regarded as top-drawer. The parks, nonpareil. Crime is low.

Youth sports and activities run the gamut.

As South Florida ’burbs go, Weston is picture-perfect, distinguished for manicured lawns and lavishly landscaped winding roads with bike paths connecting gated communities, parks and shopping.

And while Weston’s housing bust was tough, the downturn there was shallower and shorter than in most places in Broward.

The median price of a single-family home in ZIP 33326, which is the older and most modest section of Weston, rose 14 percent to $325,000 in 2013. That is 26 percent below its 2006 peak — a better rebound in price than most of Broward.

The town’s biggest PR challenge: “It’s boring,” says Lourdes Maestres, a Realtor with Keyes Real Estate who works and lives there because, well, it’s great for the kids.

The town may also seem a bit too antiseptic, especially for some New Yorkers who moved there.

According to Weston boosters, the recovery in housing has been helped along by the city’s deliberate focus on keeping up its image on the theory that if it behaved like a depressed community, it would become one.

“We made a conscious decision to maintain our services during the recession,” said Weston Mayor Daniel J. Stermer, who was a city commissioner at the time. “We did not want to appear distressed.”

When home values plunged, the city raised its tax rate so it could maintain services, including manicuring its public spaces.

None of which is to suggest that the real-estate debacle there has been a breeze.

One in every 30 houses in Weston ZIP 33326 received some type of foreclosure filing during 2013, according to RealtyTrac.

That is three times the national average and a bit higher than Florida’s statewide average of one in every 33 residences. Similarly, Weston’s other ZIPs — 33327, 33331 and 33332 — matched or exceeded the statewide foreclosure rate.

“We have all the same issues and problems all the other cities in the community have,” said longtime city manager John Flint. “We just happen to do it with a little more landscaping.”

Those challenges include the brutal traffic that snags commuters morning and afternoon. I-595, which traces the city’s northern borders, merging with I-75, recently got reversible lanes to improve the flow.

The city’s reputation for good public schools and low crime has made it a magnet for Latin American immigrants: New arrivals from Venezuela, Colombia and Peru often have followed friends and relatives who came before.

At the popular Café Canela, owner Ramon Peraza offers an authentic menu of Venezuelan cachapas and arepas, corn-based delights, tajadas, or fried plantains, and other Latin American dishes, often packing the house. The café is a favorite spot for local Venezuelans to gather and discuss politics. “I chose Weston because it had the largest Venezuelan population in South Florida seven or eight years ago,” said Peraza, who also sells flags, cheese, drinks and desserts from back home.

Hispanics make up 44.9 percent of Weston’s residents, compared with 25.1 percent in Broward as a whole, according to 2010 Census data.

Foreign investors

That makes Weston’s housing market more like sections of Miami-Dade County that depend heavily on foreign investment.

For years, political turmoil in Venezuela has steered flight capital to Weston.

Recently, however, the intensified upheaval of opposition protests against the leftist government has stanched the flow of funds, at least temporarily, Realtors said.

“In the past three months, Venezuelans aren’t buying real estate,” said Francisco Angulo, a Coldwell Banker Realtor who worked in Weston 15 years before moving to Miami. “It’s like a civil war there, but it’s armed versus unarmed. They’re not thinking about buying a place in Florida right now.”

In the parking lot of Weston Town Center, the main shopping center, car windows are hand-painted with “Pray for Venezuela” and “#SOS Venezuela.” Venezuelan flags flap from cars passing along meandering roads.

REVVING BACK UP

Weston’s housing rebound is evident in plans to transform the 122-acre west golf course at Bonaventure Country Club into a gated community with 125 luxury homes.

Sales in the new community dubbed Weston Estates are expected to begin within a few months.

The developer, CG Golf Venture LLC, which is managed by Joseph Chetrit and Ari Pearl, acquired the golf course in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding.

As part of the bankruptcy deal, the new venture includes the former owner, Tavor Holdings. Plans call for building single-family homes ranging from 4,000 to 6,000 square feet and running in the seven figures.

The developer has obtained permits to remediate the site and is in the process of cleaning up contamination from arsenic, a poison commonly found at golf courses.

The project signals that even ZIP code 33326 — which includes Bonaventure and much of Weston’s older and more modest housing — is destined to go upscale.

The meticulously planned city has only a handful of undeveloped parcels left. Already in older sections like Windmill Ranch Estates, a gated community in ZIP 33331 where development started in the 1980s, properties are being targeted for redevelopment.

“There are tear-downs: 4,000-square-foot homes are being replaced by 6,000-, 7,000- and 8,000-square-foot homes,” city manager Flint said.

In Weston, like other Broward suburbs, the housing market is shifting from investors to end users, according to Maestres, the Realtor.

The Rosens, for instance, purchased their home in December 2013 for $559,000.

A Miami Beach investor had clinched the 1995-vintage house in a short sale in May 2013 for $355,000 and fixed it up.

The 4-bedroom, 3 1/2-bath house earlier sold for $710,000 during the heady days of August 2005 and ended up in distress.

Rosen said he sold his last place in 2008 and chose to rent instead of buying out of concern about the housing market and the economy. But he and his wife decided now was the time to take the plunge. “Everything is so expensive,” he said.

More than most places, parents gravitate to Weston for the schools. Even within Weston, Cypress Bay High School is the preferred spot, agents say.

Keyes agent Maestres said shoppers often ask, “Does this house belong to Cypress Bay?”

The town is such a kids’ haven that empty-nesters often sell their homes there “when the kids go to college and move to the coast,” said M. Angelica Behm, broker-owner of Behm Brokerage in Weston.

While Weston was an early bloomer, the housing recovery has shown signs of losing steam. In 2013, the median single-family price rose 14 percent in ZIP 33326 and was up between 13 percent and 15 percent in its other three ZIP codes: 33327, 33331 and 33332.

That was a smaller spike than most of Broward, where the median single-family home price soared 26 percent last year.

Real-estate agents say Weston’s home prices started flattening toward the end of last year.

“Prices definitely recovered better in Weston than in other areas of Broward, but now they’ve stabilized,” said Craig Green, an agent with Real Estate Asset Disposition Corp., which handles property sales for banks that have taken properties in foreclosure. “The values have definitely stabilized a bit, and properties are staying on the market longer.”

With the rebound, the expectations of many property owners have gotten ahead of the market.

A 4-bedroom, 3-bath house at 1226 Iris Court in ZIP 33326 that sold at auction for $385,000 last September, according to listing agent Rose Sklar, is on the market for $595,000.

“It’s probably a little higher than I’d like. The guy thinks it’s worth more,” said Sklar, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Weston. “It’s a flip. It’s definitely a flip.”

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