BROOKSVILLE - Finally, some good news on the sinkhole front.
Kevin Johnston, valuation services administrator with the Property Appraiser's Office, said 2013 was the first year Hernando County had a decline in the number of sinkhole properties reported to his office.
And considering that the property appraiser has been tracking the data since 2000, that's worth noting, Johnston said.
"We've actually hit the point now where we have more sinkholes repaired than unrepaired," Johnston said.
New statistics from the county property appraiser's office show 1,313 sinkhole claims were lodged with the county in 2013, down 33 percent from the 1,957 in 2012.
That compares to 1,655 in 2011, 874 in 2010 and 402 in 2009.
Johnston attributes the decline, in part, to new state legislation. Legislators in 2011, recognizing that bogus sinkhole claims were eating away at county budgets, amended existing law to make sure homeowners repair legitimate sinkholes on their property.
Before that, many homeowners pocketed the money and left the homes unrepaired. Worse, some packed up and left, leaving a damaged home on the market and leading to a glut of depreciated homes on the market that affected property values of neighboring properties.
The new law forced people to fix their homes, Johnston said.
Hernando County commissioners in 2011 also passed an ordinance that requires the issuance of a permit by the county prior to any investigation. And all such investigations and remediation activities are now required to be monitored by a state-licensed engineer or geologist, who must submit a final report to the building department outlining his or her findings.
The whole idea was supposed to make for a more consistent and complete process from investigation to remediation.
Formerly, there was no mechanism in place to record or track such investigations and that opened the door to bogus sinkhole claims which cost taxpayers money.
Sinkhole claims are still putting a heavy dent in market value, although the percentage loss was less year-over-year than previous years.
Johnston cited a $197.2 million loss in market value for 2013, up from $184.3 million (about 7 percent) from 2012.
In 2011, the market value loss was $110.3 million; in 2010, $62.1 million; in 2009, $41.7 million.
Another positive trend: The amount of permits the property appraiser is getting for repairs is up as well. From October through December 2013, the county issued 218 permits for sinkhole stabilization.
In contrast, there were only 44 for sinkhole investigation permits.
County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said he is not surprised by the permit increase because the new state law gives affected homeowners 90 days to find a contractor and repair their sinkhole home.
"There is no choice anymore," Dukes said.
"We're about to hit 7,000 properties in Hernando County receiving an adjustment to the market value due to sinkhole activity," Johnston said.
It appears that some homebuyers are seeking out sinkhole-repaired homes because they have a higher degree of confidence, he said.
Ana Trinque, president of the Hernando County Association of Realtors, said buyers used to regard the word "sinkhole" as a curse and would not even want to see the property.
But that is starting to change as more information gets out about the sinkhole remediation, she said.
As long as a seller has had the sinkhole activity on the property repaired and has proper documentation to prove it, then buyers are less wary, Trinque said.
They know they can get financing and insurance on the home, she said. Plus, a warranty often transfers to the new owner insuring future remediation should sinkhole activity recur.
"They're not as scared of (sinkholes) as they used to be," Trinque said.