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Utopia at a Discount
Housing Bust Puts Disney-Designed Suburb Within Reach

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.

A movie projector was once mounted there, but the last owners took it with them as a way to salvage something, said Donna McGrath, the real estate agent showing the house that day and, like Buoncervello, one of the first residents to move into Celebration. Their daughters grew up together, walking along streets at night, unafraid because they knew everyone who lived along their route. After all, this is a place where, true to the Disney fantasy of small-town America, there's a lemonade party when someone new moves in.

"This is definitely a relationship community," said Buoncervello, the town's unofficial mayor, a title that adorns the license plate on his electric car. "When I moved here 13 years ago, I moved three miles. So how much could your life change in three miles?"

When tree limbs fall, they get trimmed within hours. When children act out, parents call to apologize, Buoncervello said. When he lived three miles away, his daughter was allowed to stay overnight at three houses; within six months in Celebration, he gave her permission to stay at more than 50.

"It'd be impossible to figure out if it was my daughter Angela's, my wife's or my life that changed the most," Buoncervello said.

He and other real estate agents have watched as the recession has relaxed a once-tight market, as it has given and taken away. Where a lottery system was once needed to determine who would get a chance to move in, now about 10 percent of Celebration's single-family houses are on the market.

The upside is that "you've got people who never thought they could live here, now coming over here to see the possibilities," McGrath said. "It's so unusual for a community like this to have this situation. For most people, this was a dream. . . . It wasn't an investment."

The downside of the same situation: "You'll see a house that you know people planned on using for the rest of their lives and they just had to walk away," Buoncervello added.

Take the house that a Louisiana builder bought, lived in for 11 nights with his family and then was forced to put up for sale, complete with furniture and the BMW in the garage.

"Everything stays, the electronics, everything," Buoncervello said. "Everything stays, except their personal pictures."

Hints of the family's life remain behind, ready for another family to keep or toss: A framed baby photo, tickets to a college sports game, hand-painted wine glasses, umbrellas still wrapped in plastic.

The asking price for the house is $749,500, with owner financing available. Already, offers have been made.

Most houses, especially those under $400,000, don't linger long on the market here, said Kathy Yeasted, an agent at Imagination Realty on Celebration Avenue.

"We have people walking in every day," she said. "The entry point is now accessible to many more people."

Purchasing a house here is especially attractive to first-time buyers, who don't have to worry about selling another home elsewhere, agents said. Instead, they can move straight into this place that is often mistakenly referred to as the setting for "Pleasantville" or "The Truman Show," movies based in similarly pristine communities that turn out to be dystopias.

Unlike other communities, especially in hard-hit Florida, that the recession left in a state of mid-construction, every amenity that was planned in Celebration has been finished since it opened in 1996. There's a movie theater, a church, a golf course and a school -- and a real Wisteria Lane, though the one on the "Desperate Housewives" TV show is on a back lot at Universal Studios in California.

On the same day that Buoncervello and McGrath held the open house, Lynda and John Kangas pulled into a driveway of a nearby "available" house. The couple sat in their car just admiring the house while Lynda Kangas's sister, Barbara Arms, and her niece, Jessie Arms, got out to explore.

They were more than sightseeing, Lynda Kangas said. "Sight-dreaming," she said. "We're definitely sight-dreaming."

The couple live about 10 miles away -- "where the common people live," John Kangas said -- in an RV park that suited their first dream of traveling the country. But if they had a second dream, and money were not an issue, Lynda Kangas said, it would look like the house in front of them.

"You know why I want this house," she said. "There is no doubt that I could have a Christmas tree. It's kind of hard to put up a Christmas tree in a fifth-wheel [RV]."

She and her sister joked about the banister they would slide down and the floors they would slip across in their socks. They spent a little while looking at the house, imagining the possibilities, before driving less than a mile to the house McGrath and Buoncervello had opened to the public a few hours earlier.

The agents had left and the doors were locked, so the family settled on peeking through the windows.

"Oh my goodness, look at that -- it's so beautiful," Lynda Kangas said, turning to her niece. "Go tell Johnny, he doesn't have to remarry me for our 50th anniversary, just buy me this."

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