David Hitchcock, ALC, CCIM, is a seasoned real estate professional and Senior Advisor at SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler. In this episode, we uncover Hitchcock’s experiences, challenges, and triumphs as he shares his expertise in residential land development, navigating the complexities of these transactions and the rising population and residential development growth in Central Florida. From his early days working on a massive orange grove to his current role as a trusted real estate agent, Hitchcock holds a wealth of knowledge in the industry as he continues to be a top performer at SVN.
Below is an excerpt from the interview. Listen above for the full podcast.
How did you start your career? I played football for four years at the University of Florida and then for two years, I was a grad assistant trying to get into college coaching. I went all over, recruiting and scouting, but I saw that it wasn't going anywhere. After those two years, I went to work in the Fort Myers area for Bob Paul Incorporated. Mr. Paul was a citrus grower from Winter Haven, and he gave me a job in LaBelle working on a 5,000-acre orange grove.
That taught me the citrus business, which is what got me in agriculture. I was with them for seven or eight years before I changed jobs and moved back to Polk County, where I'm from. Then for 12 years, I was a production manager of the Haines City Citrus Growers Association, managing five to six thousand acres of citrus. After that, I went to work for Helena Chemical and sold fertilizer. The whole time, I was learning, meeting customers, knowing all the properties around, and knowing all the backroads. It was a good background for what I'm doing now.
In 2005, I got my real estate license and talked to Dean [Saunders]. I knew Dean back when I was a production manager in Haines City and would show him our groves. After I got my real estate license, I started with Dean in 2006. If you know the history of the economy, that was not a great time to get into the real estate business. I had a few lean years, but it all worked out.
How do you identify parcels of land for development? The main things you look for are land use and zoning. You've heard the expression, “location, location, location”. Just as important for us is “land use, land use, land use”. If you can't do residential development, then it doesn't have value for us. It has to have land use and zoning. Then it has to have water and sewer.
Those are the main things you look for. Everything else is about constraints to development. What kind of wetlands are on it? You can't really mess with wetlands. What does a property look like in that regard?
How long do development transactions take? Three years would be a long one, but usually, it takes around 12 to 18 months. Those would be quick because there's a lot they have to do. 12 to 18 months from the time that you sign the purchase contract to when you close on the property.
There's a lot they have to do. Sometimes you have to annex into the city or municipality, then there’s the bugs and bunnies, the environmental traffic studies, school concurrency, having to get site plans approved, and all the things.
We had a property in Haines City once that was an old citrus grove. I opened the door to their chemical barn, and it was like Three Mile Island with all the leaking drums. That was like a $50,000 cleanup.
Are there certain areas that developers want to be in? Development is spreading out from the A-areas of Tampa and Orlando because there's no more land left. In Orange or Seminole Counties, there's nothing left. Hillsborough County has land, but they have an Urban Service Area, and they don't want to develop past that. They're not going to allow any development in the western Plant City area.
The land that's left is tight, so development is spreading out of the cities. The concentric circles are going out of the B-areas. Now, the hot area for us is the US 27 corridor in eastern Polk County. Another one is north of Lake Alfred, if you can believe it. Clay [Taylor] and I were there yesterday, and every hill has dirt being turned on it because Lake Alfred is just three miles from I-4. People can jump right on I-4 and get to Orlando or Tampa for work.
Have you noticed any changes since the pandemic? The pandemic was a hiccup in development, but now it's back. With the latest economy, it may not be what it was, but it is still good for us. If you've got a good property, you'll get five offers on it very quickly.
We had lunch with a land acquisition person last week, and he has to plan two to three years out. That's how long it takes to get something going. He has to find stuff now to have a house ready in two or three years. It's just a vicious cycle for them to keep properties coming because of the proverbial 1,000 people moving into Florida per day.
Why is there so much development in Central Florida? On the west side of Orlando, there are jobs all about there. On I-4, US 27 is off of Exit 55, and Disney is off of Exit 65, just 10 miles. Every morning, thousands of people go from Eastern Polk County to the attractions because of their jobs.
In Lakeland, we don't have a lot of land here to develop. North of I-4, you have the Green Swamp, and you have the phosphate down in the Mulberry area. The development in Polk County is now in eastern Winter Haven down to Lake Wales. In Lake Wales, they're having growing pains as the county approved probably 10,000 to 20,000 homes there already. Now the politicians are backing up and getting the heat put on them by their residents, saying, “We don't want more development”.
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