Orlando’s Hottest Neighborhoods: Where To Live Now
What's hot in Central Florida?
“If you build it, they will come,” is a popular business mantra made famous by Kevin Costner’s character in the film Field of Dreams. Any wise business person will point out that when there is a demand for something, that often-quoted line from the movie rings true.
As pandemic concerns across the country continue to ease and interest rates remain low, homebuyers are out in full force. Developers, builders and real estate agents in Orlando and Central Florida have been busier than ever trying to meet the needs of out-of-state buyers eager to call Florida home, as well as local folks wanting to upgrade to larger houses to accommodate working-from-home lifestyle changes.
So if you’re looking to move to a new neighborhood, buy a home, build your dream house, or sell your home, you’ll be faced with a very different market in 2021.
Juliana Boselli-Neves, the 2021 Orlando Regional REALTOR Association secretary, explains: “The market is extremely good for both buyers and sellers. Buyers have options. They have to be quick, but they do have options, and interest rates are so low that it’s a good market to buy. When it comes to the sellers, they have the ability to choose the best offer. And they’re getting multiple offers.”
How long interest rates stay low and buyer interest remains high can’t be predicted, but the median price of a home in the Orlando market has felt their effects. In April 2021, the median home price was $295,000, a 12 percent increase from April 2020, according to Orlando Regional REALTOR Association.
Boselli-Neves points out that there’s a big surge of out-of-state buyers, which is affecting prices. These folks are looking for more space and bigger houses. And for that they are heading to the outskirts of Orlando: Windermere, Winter Garden, Horizon West, Lake Nona, St. Cloud and Apopka.
NEIGHBORHOODS ON THE RISE
To build new communities you need land, and the logical place to go is either southwest or southeast of Orlando, where there is still land available for development. One community growing aggressively is Horizon West, located southwest of Winter Garden, Windermere and Dr. Phillips.
Simon Simaan, broker, Realtor and owner of The Simon Simaan Group, grew up in Orlando and has watched the development firsthand. “Back then there were mostly forests, cattle and orange groves; all that is being developed now. The price of land has increased. You can’t redevelop an area that has already been developed, so you have to go out and prospect—goldmine like back in the days of the Old West,” he says.
Horizon West, considered one of the largest master-planned developments in Central Florida’s history, was on the drawing board beginning in 1995. The project, inspired by the New Urbanism movement, encompasses a town center and five villages, each with several neighborhoods offering a mix of housing styles, schools, parks and recreation. In January 1997, Horizon West received the green light from Orange County to begin work on its first village, Lakeside, which was approved for 8,915 residential units—and the building hasn’t stopped.
Since then, the development has evolved to include Bridgewater (10,450 units), Seidel/Village F (3,891 units), Hickory Nut/Village H (6,548 units) and Ovation/Village I (5,608 units). The construction of Hamlin Town Center, a commercial area designed to serve all the villages, followed. It’s home to several small businesses, from orthodontic offices to coffee shops and fitness centers, as well as essentials such as Orlando Health Horizon West Hospital, a Publix supermarket and a 24-hour Walmart Supercenter. Newer residential neighborhoods are nestled around it.
Today, Lakeside, Bridgewater and Seidel are basically complete. Each still has a few properties available, but very little development remains. Hickory Nut, Ovation and Hamlin are where homebuilders are now actively building.
According to Michael “Bo” Julian, broker, Realtor and co-owner of Julian Properties, Hamlin is one of the hottest areas. “It’s on fire over there. Everything is new: homes, schools, shopping, restaurants and a hospital. It’s a great location with easy access to theme parks and downtown Winter Garden,” he says, adding that homes are selling so quickly he can’t keep enough properties in inventory.
Lisa Wargel and her family moved to Horizon West from Dallas 18 months ago and built a five-bedroom home, which she describes as “our forever house,” in the Overlook neighborhood. She says that the No. 1 reason she chose the area was for the good schools, adding “it’s so close to Disney.” Her two teenage children adjusted easily to their new neighborhood, and she landed a job as studio manager for Eat the Frog Fitness, which opened in 2019. “It’s a growing town … we love it here—good people and diversity,” she says.
A couple of doors down from Eat the Frog in the same retail strip is Abbott’s Frozen Custard. Owner Jennifer Pelcher left Rochester, New York, eight years ago. “We knew this would be a great location, an area that was developing. It was orange groves when we arrived,” she says. “It’s amazing how quickly it has grown, but I feel we picked a good place to live.”
In July 2019, she opened her shop—a well-known business in the Rochester area—which has since become an after-school hangout for kids and parents hungry for scoops of creamy frozen custard, milkshakes, sundaes and the famous Turtle novelty bar. She hires high school kids to work in her shop and takes an ice cream cart to community events. “I’ve met so many neighbors because of my business. As big as Orlando is, this feels like a small community,” she says about Horizon West.
At the New Independence Parkway exit 15 on State Road 429, you can see homes under construction, land being surveyed, and acres of burnt-out orange groves near County Road 545 to the west. On the east side of S.R. 429, manicured landscaping and rows of magnolia trees skirt the main roads that lead into Hamlin Town Center and the more-developed neighborhoods, where Craftsman-style homes with front porch swings line streets with names that pay homage to Florida’s bygone citrus industry: Honeybell Drive and Tangelo Twist Alley. Some neighborhoods boast lakefront homes with wooden deck stairs descending to docks. Canoe launches as well as clubhouses can be spotted inside neighborhoods.
Both home choices and builders within Horizon West’s 21,000 acres are plentiful. You’ll find single-family homes, townhouses, apartment homes and 55-plus communities. Builders include Ashton Woods, Taylor Morrison, Dream Finders Homes and Toll Brothers, to name a few. In the Hamlin area, 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath townhomes are priced from $350,000 to $400,000, with some exceeding that amount. However, the average price of a new home in Horizon West is $500,000-plus.
As for home sites, Julian says they are definitely in demand—not only in Horizon West, but other communities as well—and there is often a list of potential buyers. Each month six to 10 home sites are released by the developer, and they go fast. Building a home used to take 5 to 7 months, but now it’s about double that because of a shortage of materials. “It’s all about supply and demand,” Julian says. “There’s not a lot of negotiation right now because demand is so high. An entry-level home that costs $250,000-$300,000 could receive 40 offers.”
On the opposite side of town, southeast of Orlando, just north of the Osceola County line and St. Cloud, is Lake Nona, a shining gem in the portfolio of Tavistock Development Company. A well-thought-out, master-planned community, Lake Nona is anchored by Medical City and an impressive town center where a creative urban vibe is evident in its architecture. Four- and five-story office buildings, hotels, restaurants, small businesses and sidewalks, plus public art and a color-themed design put it a notch above other planned communities. When completed at the end of this year, its 18-story Lake Nona Wave Hotel, designed by Arquitectonica, will be the beginning of Lake Nona’s skyline.
Rob Adams, vice president of residential development for Tavistock, explains that while a typical developer will build houses and strip retail, Tavistock’s leadership had the foresight to understand that Lake Nona was going to be dense and started building the town center a bit ahead of its time.
Cutting-edge technology can be found throughout the community, from high-speed internet connections to autonomous shuttles. Fiber optics were installed in homes for enhanced internet connections, proving serendipitous given COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, home offices in Lake Nona were becoming commonplace. Today it is estimated that about 20 percent of residents work from home. With more and more people resuming normal activities, residents are boarding one of the area’s more visible examples of high tech: the driverless minibuses that “Move Nona.” The autonomous shuttles were introduced in 2019 to transport residents from the town center to major points within the community.
Medical City, which rose up in 2011-2012, is home to UCF College of Medicine, Nemours Children’s Hospital and Orlando VA Medical Center. Also located in Lake Nona are the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, offering improvement programs for individuals and groups; USTA National Campus, the largest tennis facility in the nation with 100 courts; and KPMG Lakehouse, a national training center for the accounting organization. These facilities bring both jobs and educational opportunities to Lake Nona and reinforce the focus on health, wellness and education.
Resident Jim Kilp was keen on the community’s attention to such things as wellness and exercise. His company transferred him from Kansas City, Missouri, to Orlando in 2003 and he bought in Lake Nona’s NorthLake Park, one of the development’s earlier communities. However, in 2018, he moved to the newer Laureate Park because of its proximity to the thriving town center, where he opened Rukus Cycling Studios in November 2019. “I love the center. It’s a happening, happy place with lots of activity and people. It just seems like the heart of Lake Nona,” he says. It’s not unusual to see parents or grandparents coming for cycling sessions and bringing their kids with them. “We have 10-year-old riders all the way to 75-year-old riders,” he says, adding that besides locals, people who work in Lake Nona join his classes before heading home.
Kilp also says that he’s a big fan of the Tavistock restaurant group, which has several eateries in Lake Nona. “Park Pizza sponsors our happy hour ride on Friday night, and the other weekend, we were at Canvas [a casual, upscale restaurant tucked in Laureate Park].”
Since Tavistock acquired the Lake Nona Golf and Country Club community in 1996, neighboring NorthLake Park, a more traditional neighborhood, followed; however, it wasn’t until mid-2015 and 2016 that population growth accelerated. Today it hovers around 64,000 residents.
The difference between Lake Nona and other developments, Adams explains, is that developers usually want to get in and out, and the sooner they get out has a meaningful difference on their ability to make money. “We [Tavistock] are not getting out. Every decision we make, we know we’ve got to live with it. If we have a poorly designed piece of land somewhere, we’re going to be dealing with it at some time. So what that adds for us is some pressure to do it right.”
Today, Lake Nona boasts 14 communities. In Laureate Park, you’ll find townhouses as well as bungalows, cottages and contemporary, single-family homes. The neighborhood is still being built out with three-story townhomes priced from the mid-$300,000s and up. Another parcel under development will be ready for sales in the fourth quarter. Most single-family homes here are priced in the $400,000 to $500,000 range.
Laurel Pointe was scheduled to break ground in June this year. In May there was already a list of interested parties for the gated community’s 124 lots, which are designated for one- and two-story, single-family estate homes, with luxury features and large yards. Toll Brothers is the designated builder on the project, and models and pricing should be available by fall 2021.
Another developing neighborhood is Summerdale Park, with 209 lots. Tavistock turned over the first homesites in July to affiliated builders Dream Finders Homes and Craft Homes. Eleven lots were sold in April, the first month of sales, and Dream Finders will start construction in the third quarter on single-family homes priced from $435,990.
NEW DEVELOPMENTS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
College Park scores as one of the more popular neighborhoods in the Orlando, so folks desiring a home in that area will be happy to learn about The Packing District, a new community west of College Park. Plans are on the drawing board and Dr. Phillips Charities will lead the development of the 202-acre site, which will feature townhomes and multifamily properties. Toll Brothers is scheduled to unveil its models in November 2021.
Homebuyers are also finding newer developments tucked in pockets of older neighborhoods. “Dr. Phillips is a stable area and has always been desirable, but there is a lot of change going on in the southern quadrant near the new O-Town West development,” Julian says. Located at the intersection of Palm Parkway and Daryl Carter Parkway, between Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, O-Town West is a mixed-use development, which will offer shopping, dining and entertainment options as well as office space and residential units. Among the housing developments will be The Glasshouse, with 900 luxury apartments. Nearby is the brand-new Buena Vista High School, scheduled to open in August. A few blocks away is Ruby Lake, a fairly new community of single-family homes priced from $500,000 to $800,000.
Developers searching for available land are heading west of Orlando to Gotha and Oakland, as well as Clermont. They’re finding parcels they can clear, so the sound of bulldozers may very well signal new construction of homes and neighborhoods in those areas.
Farther south, crossing into Osceola County, new waterfront communities such as Hanover Lakes in St. Cloud are popping up. Designed around the 3,400-acre spring-fed Alligator Lake, the development offers homes priced from $350,000 to $600,000. Canals wind through the community, and waterfront homes with docks are offered. A resort-style swimming pool, a playground and a community dock are planned. The property is being promoted as a boater’s paradise.
Established neighborhoods such as Bay Hill, Winter Park and College Park are very desirable for their character and excellent locations. For example, at Bay Hill you have the Arnold Palmer legacy.
“In Bay Hill, all the homes are on larger sites and they are on the golf course. I’m seeing a renaissance in people purchasing homes, rehabbing them, and then moving in,” Simaan says. Some buyers will purchase a home for $700,000, for instance, only to demolish it and build a new house on the same spot.
Boselli-Neves has seen similar trends in College Park and Winter Park, with buyers taking it to a new level with pricey custom construction. “So, you’ll see homes purchased for $350,000 to $550,000. They’ll tear it down and build something that’s worth $1.2 to $1.3 million. It’s incredible to see what’s being done.”