Home is where your heart is—on the lake, among good friends, with outdoor activities, with a sociable lifestyle, and they’re all in Lake and Sumter counties.
Goin’ up the country
Farm living is the life for some Sumter County residents.
Story: Chris Gerbasi // Photo: Anthony Rao
Not far from busy downtowns, some people seek an oasis on farmland, where they can raise a couple of kids and a couple of cows.
Brad Werlin and his wife, Amber, found that environment at Sumter Crossing, off County Road 214 west of U.S. Highway 301 in Oxford. It’s a gated community of ranchettes, with single-family homes on parcels of two to eight acres.
“I wanted more of a rural feel—country and more spacious—and she wanted a neighborhood feel for our two kids,” says Brad, adding that the family keeps two miniature cows as pets. “This brought the best of both worlds.”
The family-friendly development is home to residents ranging in age from young parents to retirees. Kids can ride bikes in the streets and romp in open spaces, and adults have a short commute to The Villages, where Brad owns a business.
“It’s near The Villages, but you literally don’t feel like you’re in the hustle and bustle,” he says.
Elsewhere in north Sumter County, Oak Hill is another popular destination for homebuyers, says Billie Faye Smith, co-owner of Smith & Smith Realty in Wildwood.
Oak Hill, north of State Road 44 and west of Interstate 75, has tracts of farmland up to 15 acres. That gives residents some elbow room as growth sprawls in all directions.
“Everybody wants all the conveniences of The Villages, but they also want that rural feel,” Billie Faye says. “I hear that every day. They want to be close to The Villages but not have somebody right on top of them.”
In south Sumter, Bushnell and Webster are prime spots for individual farms and communities with large parcels.
Eagle Ridge Estates, a gated community with about 35 properties of 10 acres each, is in horse country on County Road 476 in Bushnell.
That’s a far cry from the busy beltway of Washington, D.C., where Rebecca and David Higgins formerly lived. They were attracted to Eagle Ridge because Rebecca grew up in a small town, and David wanted a lot of land. Only dachshunds roam the Higgins range, but neighbors have horses and cows.
“We’ve enjoyed it here,” Rebecca says. “It’s very peaceful and certainly not congested like the D.C. area, and that’s the main thing for us.”
The relative tranquility of Sumter must be appealing: residential listings are down, Billie Faye says.
“It’s a seller’s market,” she says. “There’s a bigger demand than inventory.”
Security and privacy
Gated communities are not just for the super-wealthy.
Story: Theresa Campbell // Photo: Anthony Rao
Quiet and peaceful neighborhoods, a sense of security, a variety of recreational amenities, and homes in diverse housing styles are the appeals of gated communities. Luckily, one doesn’t have to be a multimillionaire to live in a gated neighborhood in Lake and Sumter counties.
“It’s pretty affordable; the median price point of $200,000 to $300,000 for the homes,” says
Leslie Hanson Rotarius, broker associate at Catherine Hanson Real Estate Inc., based in Sorrento.
“The number one reason most people purchase in gated communities, or even with an HOA (homeowners association), is that it maintains the property value,” Leslie says. “They want a little bit of control over how people maintain their properties; you’re in a community where most of the values are the same.”
Wally and Sally Nebel enjoy living in the 55-plus gated community of The Plantation at Leesburg, which has been their home for 13 years. They spent 10 years traveling in an RV doing church mission work, sightseeing, and visiting friends in different states before settling in Leesburg.
“We were lucky to look at gated communities in Arizona, California, Texas, and all over in Florida,” Sally recalls. “We love how The Plantation is laid out in 30 various-size villages, from eight homes to 100-plus homes. The village concept gives each village a small-town feeling where people are really neighborly and get to know each other well.”
Her community also has three activity centers, each with a swimming pool, workout rooms, tennis and pickleball courts, and two 18-hole golf courses.
“People looking for a gated community should take every opportunity to look at many different ones,” Sally says, in order to find the right fit for them.
Mount Dora Realtor Cheryl Hilty-Huth says people who love being on the water are drawn to the gated community of Lakes of Mount Dora, which is filled with navigable lakes and islands that are interconnected. More than 70 percent of the 950-plus planned single-family homes in the community have water access or water views.
“Lakes of Mount Dora is designed around 178 acres of scenic lakes,” Cheryl says. “Residents can drive boats directly to the clubhouse.”
The retirement community also has a state-of-the-art fitness center, game room, arts and crafts, reading room, tennis, softball, aerobics, dance lessons, resort-style pool, miles of walking trails, a fitness trail with exercise stations, and other amenities.
Vacationers come from afar to enjoy Lake County.
Story: Theresa Campbell // Photos: Nicole Hamel
Mount Dora Historic Inn and Cottages is one of several Lake County premises offering vacation rentals where guests can enjoy local attractions at their home away from home.
“We have a lot of repeat guests who come and stay with us several times a year, and some have been coming for many years,” says Melonie Cole, the innkeeper who finds guests love that the quaint cottages are within walking distance of downtown.
The cottages are equipped with full kitchens, family rooms with cable TV, private bedrooms and bathrooms, outdoor living areas, and Wi-Fi. Some of the cottages are pet-friendly.
Guests come from all over the globe to experience Florida in Lake County.
“We had a lady recently from Denmark,” Melonie says. “She stayed seven nights and she came and met her father’s family for the first time, and she’ll be coming back at Thanksgiving.”
Special friendships are often forged among the guests, she says, especially those who stay at the inn.
“We don’t do a continental breakfast, we do a sit-down breakfast, and everybody eats together,” Melonie says, referring to the gourmet morning meal served at a big table for eight. “So people make new friendships. They have really great conversations. Some people have met and come back the same time the next year to see each other.”
Clermont offers several vacation rentals, including Clermont Cabanas on Lake Minneola, a new community that opened in February. It features two units with one bedroom and a bath, a sleeper sofa that can sleep up to four people, a state-of-the-art kitchen, a washer and dryer combination, and more amenities, all located on the Coast to Coast bike trail and near Waterfront Park.
“People are extremely excited about it and love that it’s all brand new and beautifully decorated. Everyone who has stayed with us says it’s a little hidden gem in Clermont,” office administrator Laura Mancine says of Clermont Cabanas, owned by Nicky Martz, a broker with Florida Plus Realty.
“All of our reviews have been amazing,” Laura adds. “We’ve had tri-athletes with the NTC (National Training Center) stay with us, seniors 55 and up, and folks from other parts of the country who stay with us while they are looking for a new home.”
Social is more than media
Many people move to communities to find like-minded people and spend time on activities they never had time for before retirement.
Story: Leigh Neely // Photo: Fred Lopez
An active social life after retirement is something most people want, and young families look for a neighborhood near schools and parks to enjoy with other families. Social events and activities make meeting new people easier and more pleasant.
In this area, you can’t mention “social activities” without thinking of The Villages. The retirement community has grown steadily since it began in the 1970s as Orange Blossom Gardens mobile home park. With more than 2,700 social clubs, a variety of sports, theater groups, and clubs representing most states, The Villages is one of the biggest social centers in Florida.
“I really enjoy the social part of The Villages,” says Paula Chalifoux, who lives in the Village of Collier. “I just came back from a hula hoop class, and I also do cardio drumming. You go to these groups and find people who have the same interests you do. It’s kind of like high school, where you’re starting a new social web. Some you click with and some you don’t.”
Hawthorne at Leesburg is another 55-plus community that offers various activities, from the Aviation Club to woodcrafting. About 2,000 residents from 40 states and foreign countries live at Hawthorne, according to its website. Some are year-round; others are seasonal.
“They can play softball or pickleball and, of course, enjoy pool activities,” says Katrina Berlin, program secretary for the community. “They have about 109 clubs that keep residents busy.”
For family life, the towns of Bushnell, Lake Panasoffkee, and Wildwood are among the 2018 Best Places to Raise a Family in Sumter County, according to niche.com, which reviews and ranks schools and neighborhoods throughout the country.
If you’re a history buff, you usually can find a historical society in any of these communities. For example, Webster is the oldest incorporated town in Sumter, established in 1855. The Sumter County Farmer’s Market is one of the most popular gathering places and, according to the town’s website, it was organized by a group of area farmers in 1938.
Whatever type of social atmosphere you’re looking for when searching for a home in this part of Central Florida, you’ll have no trouble finding it. It may be as easy checking the website of the Realtors Association of Lake & Sumter Counties.
In the swing of things
When it comes to golf course communities, Lake County is definitely up to par.
Story: James Combs // Photo: Anthony Rao
On an overcast May morning, Ed Carls sized up his shot before teeing off on the ninth hole at Otter Creek Golf Course in Leesburg. He reared back with his driver and hit the ball 200 yards, all while keeping his head down and displaying textbook form.
Not bad for a 95-year-old man.
“I play golf two or three times each week,” says Ed, who moved to The Plantation at Leesburg 23 years ago to enjoy ample golfing opportunities. “It’s all about enjoying friends, fresh air, and exercise.”
Given his age and enthusiasm for the sport, Ed is a perfect illustration as to why so many love the game. Simply put, it can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
“Living in this retirement community makes golf affordable and convenient,” Ed says.
That’s a big draw to many of Lake County’s numerous active adult communities, which give retirees an opportunity to hone their swinging technique and practice the perfect putt. By paying a monthly membership fee, they can enjoy the sport until their hearts are content.
“They can hop in their golf carts, drive to the pro shop, sign a piece of paper, play 18 holes, and then head back home,” says Justin Mouser, head golf professional at The Planation at Leesburg.
The community’s 190 members have their choice of contrasting courses. Cranes Roost, the less challenging of the two, is wide open with few troublesome trees. Conversely, Otter Creek Golf Course features the daunting 13th, 14th, and 15th holes, which force golfers to hit over water hazards and play their shots around oak trees and pine trees.
“I refer to those three holes as Otter’s Revenge,” says Nick Slattery, general manager of both golf courses and the Plantation Oaks Restaurant. “They are three of the hardest holes in the entire county.”
Other local active adult communities feature popular courses where narrow fairways, sloped greens, and strategically placed bunkers test the skills of even the most seasoned golfers.
Mission Inn Resort and Club in Howey-in-the-Hills is home to El Campeón, which in 2017 was named as Florida’s top course by Golf Advisor, a leading source of golf course ratings and reviews.
The 18-hole golf course at Harbor Hills Country Club, featuring oak tree-lined fairways, was rated by Golf Digest as a four-star course.
The Villages, featuring 11 championship and 32 executive courses, is one of the world’s premier retirement destinations for golf enthusiasts.
A shore bet
People from all over the world inquire about Lake County’s ample opportunities for luxurious lakefront living.
Story: James Combs
Vibrantly colored sunsets, a paradise of recreational pursuits, and the serenity of sounds of waves crashing along a shoreline.
Indeed, living on a waterfront is like vacationing at home year-round. Few places offer ample opportunities for lakefront living like Lake County.
“Having a home on the lake is soothing to the soul,” says Jeanne Abernathy, who resides in a home on Lake Eustis. “You can rest, relax, and disconnect from electronics. It’s a great feeling when your noisiest neighbors are blue herons and osprey.”
Jeanne knows from experience that countless others desire that same lifestyle. As a Realtor with ERA Grizzard Real Estate who specializes in lakefront real estate, she receives inquiries from potential homebuyers as far away as the United Kingdom, Alaska, and Hawaii.
“People like that Lake County is centrally located and has a variety of different waterfront living opportunities,” she says.
For instance, homebuyers can choose to live on a canal or private, spring-fed lakes such as Lake Gertrude in Mount Dora or Lake Dalhousie in Umatilla. They also have options to buy homes on larger bodies of water that are part of the Harris Chain of Lakes and the Clermont Chain of Lakes.
Moreover, active adult communities such as Royal Harbor, situated on Little Lake Harris, and Lakes of Mount Dora, featuring manmade waterways, are popular with boaters, fishermen, and anyone else who enjoys a waterfront lifestyle. Other options include mobile home parks near canals and condominiums with lake views.
Of course, there’s a hefty price tag associated with waterfront living. A site-built home on a canal could cost up to $350,000. To purchase a home on the Harris Chain of Lakes, buyers may shell out anywhere from $800,000 to $1.3 million. Still, money does not deter people from seeking a luxurious lifestyle.
“Our buyer pool is so big because we constantly market our waterfront listings,” says Lauralyn Lane, a Realtor with ERA Grizzard Real Estate who also specializes in lakefront properties. “Some buyers look for up to two years. They ask about the fishing, the sunsets, and boating opportunities.”
There’s another popular question: How many alligators are in the lakes and is it safe to go swimming?
Lauralyn provides a standard answer.
“I tell them that’s why we have swimming pools.”
The great outdoors
With year-round great weather, enjoying the outdoors at home makes living in Lake and Sumter counties almost perfect.
Story: Leigh Neely // Photo: Anthony Rao
The weather in Lake and Sumter counties is so nice, residents can participate in outdoor activities all year. There may be a few days too cool for watersports, but golfing, cycling, canoeing, boating, tennis, and any other outside fun are usually available. The advantage of living in this region is that you can bring the outdoor fun to your home.
The Enclave at Lakeside Landings in Sumter County is built around beautiful Lake Miona. Amenities include a resort-style pool, gated community, state-of-the-art gym, and activities every weekend. This Oxford community is for everyone from newlyweds to families to retirees.
Eric Luplow, sales manager, says the development makes homeownership better. “We do outside maintenance for homeowners, so they don’t have to worry about doing the yardwork, which means they can enjoy all we have to offer.”
In addition to the pool with waterfalls, there are playgrounds, outdoor fitness equipment, dog runs, and sidewalks throughout the property that are great for a leisurely stroll or for fitness.
Enjoying the outdoors is a big part of Talia Werhly’s life. Her home in Tavares offers easy access off the kitchen to the outdoor area she loves. “I sit out there all the time and watch TV, enjoying the Florida summer. It’s an outdoor retreat for me.”
This area leads to the family pool that her 6-year-old daughter, Zoe, and friends appreciate. “We have a slide in our pool grotto that the kids love, and I can easily watch them and enjoy my personal time, too.”
Talia, whose husband is Dr. Scott Werhly, says they also like outdoor entertaining. With two tables that each seat 10 people, there’s plenty of room to enjoy whatever is prepared on the gas grill.
“Since school is out, some of the parents ask me to pick up their children after camp,” Talia says. “I don’t mind because they can use the splash pad or swim in the pool, and I’m right there with them.”
Another element of outdoor living the Werhlys love is the fire pit. “The other night, my daughter wanted to make s’mores and it was raining, but we lit the fire, took the stuff for s’mores outside, and enjoyed it under the screen in the rain. It’s just our summery, outdoorsy getaway.”