The cows at the old Moore’s dairy farm on Upper Manatee River Road in Manatee County still munch away as though nothing has changed. But their days are numbered. Million-dollar homes are rising right next door at the luxury community Waterlefe Golf & River Club; and pretty soon, Moore’s green pastures and cows will make way for a huge U.S. Homes community.
Only two years ago this land was nothing but Florida scrub, home to a handful of farmers in pickup trucks. Today, well-heeled folks who prefer gated communities and golf to rustic ranches and cattle are whizzing by in Lincoln Navigators and Lexuses to their jobs in downtown Sarasota, Bradenton, St. Petersburg and Tampa.
The scene repeats itself up and down I-75 in east Manatee and Sarasota counties. Palatial homes, once reserved for the waterfront, are sprouting east of the interstate. It’s surprising even the most seasoned realtors.
"Five years ago, if you had told someone that there would be million-dollar homes in northeast Bradenton, they would have laughed," says Peter Kluge, a real estate agent at Waterlefe. "But I-75 has become Main Street Southwest Florida. We’re two stoplights to Tampa International Airport and one stoplight to Disney."
"I think it’s all going to meld together," says Penny Sanders, a Michael Saunders & Company realtor, about the communities cropping up from the Manatee River south to Sarasota. "People want access to I-75."
Last fall, there were 77 homes listed at more than $500,000 from the east-of-the-interstate communities Waterlefe and Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County and in Laurel Oak Estates and Country Club and Bent Tree in Sarasota County. The same thing is happening at other new communities such as Greyhawk Landing, River Club, Heritage Harbor, River Wilderness, Heather Glen, Creekwood, Greenfield Plantation, Panther Ridge and Mote Ranch. "At Heritage Harbor, our higher-end neighborhood is one of our best-selling of the four we offer," says Joy DuPree, vice president/sales manager of the 2,500-acre community off of S.R. 64.
Blame the huge master-planned community of Lakewood Ranch that stretches from S.R. 64 to the north and University Parkway to the south for starting the trend of opulence east of the interstate. When the ranch’s developer (SMR) began building homes in 1995, the first residences were $80,000 starter homes. But it quickly became apparent that people wanted bigger homes with all the bells and whistles, and SMR opened up "estate" neighborhoods. They were an instant hit. Today, 20 homes have been sold for a million-plus dollars and more are being built-none of them on the water. Claritas, a national data-source firm, reports thousands of millionaires residing in the zip code that includes Lakewood Ranch.
"It all has to do with Lakewood Ranch," says Renee Eppard, a Re/Max realtor who lives in the million-dollar section of Waterlefe called The Shores, which sits along the Manatee River. (Her husband Walt sold the property to WCI, the developer of Waterlefe, and the Eppards are developing The Shores themselves.) "Now everything’s taking off like crazy."
That’s particularly true in Manatee County, where, in contrast to Sarasota County, development east of the Interstate has been welcomed. "Most of us are surprised at what’s happening out there," says Robin Tardiff, senior land appraiser at the Manatee County Property Appraiser’s Office. "The properties are appreciating quite a bit." And the prices are beating the once unbeatable waterfront. Incredibly, the median price for a new house east of the interstate is $120,000 more than in the rest of the county, including the beaches, according to the appraiser’s statistics.
Even in Sarasota County, where there is very little "new product" east of the interstate, a few of the older upscale, gated communities are attracting buyers who want bigger. At the 13-year-old Laurel Oak Estates and Country Club off of Bee Ridge Road, older homes are being renovated or razed to make way for bigger, grander residences, says Linda Dooley of Laurel Oak Lifestyles.
Jeff Gravely, executive vice president of Panther Ridge Communities, Inc., says Panther Ridge-initially a community for horse people, straddling S.R. 70 just east of Lakewood Ranch-began selling homes in 1996 with five to 10-acre homesites and homes, each with a minimum of 1,600 square feet. Almost immediately, homebuyers wanted bigger and better houses-and they didn’t want the land or the stables. Now Panther Ridge is opening up one-acre and even half-acre lots for homes with a minimum of 3,200 square feet. Today there are about five or six million-dollar properties in Panther Ridge with square footage of about 6,000 to 10,000.
Since Waterlefe opened for business in January 2000, that development has also seen a steady increase in prices and home size. "People who took the chance and bought when nothing was here have seen staggering increases," Kluge says. Last fall, 13 of the homes listed for sale were more than $500,000, with some of them priced at more than a million. Two more with million-dollar values have just been built, and six more are under construction.
Who are these affluent buyers? Kluge says 60 percent are local, mainly young professionals who commute to nearby cities. Many of them are buying $700,000 to $800,000 homes. He’s also seeing buyers who are pulling money out of the stock market and investing in Waterlefe. "I personally I have seven clients who have multiple homes in Waterlefe," he says.
"This is a bedroom community for the St. Pete area," asserts Eppard. "The majority are in their 40s and 50s. A lot of people are still working, and some are young retirees. This is the youngest golf course community I’ve seen in 20 years of real estate."
Penny Sanders and her husband Wayne, who is also a realtor, say much of the allure in these east-of-I-75 communities has to do with their meticulous, master-planned look, gorgeous landscaping and show-stopping, brand-new homes.
"Buyers don’t want to redo anything," says Wayne. "When people go into homes 10, 11 years old, they say, ‘Oh that’s a redo.’ We can tell people, ‘It’s not so bad taking up the ceramic tile or taking down wallpaper,’ but they say, "We don’t want to do the work.’"
Stacy Haas is one of the Waterlefe buyers who likes "new." She, her husband Bryan and two small children moved to Waterlefe almost a year ago from Turtle Rock in south Sarasota. Originally they had wanted to buy a new home close to Turtle Rock, but they couldn’t find anything big enough in their price range in a community with all the amenities. They built a 3,300 square-foot, four-bedroom home in Waterlefe with all the latest products and interior finishes. "At first, my friends asked, ‘Why would you move out there’?," Haas says. "Then they visit us and they say, ‘Wow.’ Everything is so new and gorgeous. If we sold right now we’d probably make a profit of $100,000."
But for now, Haas wants to stay. She likes the schools her children attend and says the proximity of I-75 means she can get to downtown Sarasota and upscale shopping in the same amount of time it took her to get there when she lived in south Sarasota. "We go to downtown Sarasota even more now," she says.
But she may have fewer reasons to make the trek. Commercial development out east is hot on the heels of these new, affluent residents. Four huge, brand-new Publixes have opened within minutes of many of these I-75 neighborhoods, and they are surrounded by the banks, dry cleaners, nail salons and the pizza shops and Chinese take-out restaurants that are part of middle-class life. Lakewood Ranch is developing Main Street at Lakewood Ranch, billed as a tony little St. Armands Circle, and has already signed a contract with the popular, upscale Morton’s Market from Sarasota, which will be opening a gourmet market and a Fred’s restaurant there. Hotel chains such as Holiday Inn and Marriott Fairfield Inn are open for business. Soon, Manatee Memorial will be opening up a hospital at Lakewood Ranch, and medical offices are rising next door.
And if all these conveniences aren’t enticement enough, the prices are a relative bargain, says Gravely of Panther Ridge. "When you’re living on a barrier island it takes tens of thousands more just to build a foundation," he says. "That buys a lot of nice tile and cabinetry in an inland location."
John Cannon, president of John Cannon Homes, says a million dollars on the water basically buys a teardown. His $2.8-million "The Nariah" model at Lakewood Ranch would be $5 to $6 million on the water.
"One of the first things realtors used to tell people, was ‘Don’t go east of the interstate,’" says realtor Wayne Sanders. "Now the realtor is saying, ‘I need to take you out there.’"