Buying a Bit of Celebration, Fla., Is Getting Easier

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

CELEBRATION, Fla. -- Half a Tank is a summer-long quest to find the stories of lives altered by a flattened economy. Reporter Theresa Vargas and photographer Michael Williamson left Washington June 1 to cross the country and post a daily online journal of the characters and scenes they encounter. Here's a recent post from their blog:

Less than three miles from the organized bustle and cheer of Walt Disney World, the community of Celebration has been a glass figurine on a shelf -- a place to be admired from afar but reserved for a rarefied few. The Disney-designed suburb, as quiet as the theme park is busy, is a perfect postcard of palm-tree-lined streets, 1990s architecture and 1950s family-friendly ambiance.

But if Disney World is the place where dreams come true, Celebration has been a distant fantasy for many would-be residents, a community where houses often sold for $1 million or more.

"It's a little place where people come to get away from everything," said Mike Pieper, an Osceola County sheriff's deputy who patrols the streets here. "It's a place you dream about living."

Specifically, it's a place he dreams about living. "Absolutely," Pieper said, "if I wasn't on a government salary." In Celebration, he said, the biggest crime problems are parking violations and stolen bikes.

Now, for the first time, just maybe, he and others on modest incomes can live that dream.

The recession has closed many doors, but it has also cracked open the intangible gates surrounding desirable neighborhoods such as Celebration.

Falling house prices have allowed some families to buy into a quality of life they likely couldn't have afforded otherwise, a community that offers Fourth of July fireworks and a Christmas supply of fake snow.

Real estate agents here tell stories of people who call every year, asking about housing availability and prices, hoping one day to afford a small piece of this utopian Zip code.

"If you would have asked us in the last five years, 'What's the least expensive home you have?,' " said Sonny Buoncervello, who owns Hometown Realty in Celebration, "our answer was always, 'Our houses start at $400,000, they average $600,000 to $700,000 and you have some up into the millions.' "

"Today, I could take you to a single-family house selling for $270,000 or $280,000," he added.

He said this while standing in a five-bedroom house that was once valued at more than $1 million and is now available for $745,000. There was no foreclosure sign outside -- only a quaint "Home Available," the generic notice placed outside for-sale houses here, regardless of how the property hit the market. A hole in the kitchen wall revealed this house was not surrendered by choice.

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