Where The Buys Are

By: Robert Plunket


Who is Lis Pendens? And why is she involved in so many sales listings for homes and condos in Florida?

I asked myself those questions as I recently began a quest, at the behest of Barron’s, the national business and financial weekly, to find luxury-housing bargains in five cities in the Sunshine State: Sarasota, Orlando, Palm Beach, Naples and Miami.

Well, I soon learned, Lis Pendens has indeed become a huge player in Florida real estate, much bigger than, say, the “queen of mean,” Leona Helmsley, ever was in New York real estate. Lis is much meaner than Leona, but she isn’t a person. Instead, “lis pendens” is a dreaded legal term indicating that a lawsuit is pending on a property, which usually means it’s in foreclosure.

In Florida, which consistently has ranked among the five or six states with the most foreclosures since the housing bubble collapsed, Lis has created a chaotic pricing situation that’s hurt every sector of the market. If you’re hunting for a luxury property and have ready cash, you certainly can pick up a great buy now.

As a rule of thumb, Florida real estate generally is selling at half the price it would have fetched at the height of the craziness in 2005. Luxury properties have held their value better, but even in this rarefied atmosphere, prices have slumped by around 40 percent. If you’re looking for a retirement dream home, now is probably the time to buy. The market in much of the state has bottomed out, or seems about to do so. Your dream house may be marginally cheaper in six months—but then again, it may not. Just hold on to it, rent it out, or let a friend live there rent-free. And you’ll have plenty of friends if you own luxury property in Florida.

We concentrated our search in the $3 million range, which is where luxury truly starts to kick in. Anything cheaper looks a little ordinary. Anything more expensive, a little showy. So let’s do a little exploring…

 

This house, on Sarasota’s Siesta Key, is listed at $2,995,000, down from an original $5,995,000.

Sarasota >>Bay views for the rich and brainy

This city, where I live, is a favorite of retired intellectuals, who often have more taste than megacash. They want the quintessential Sarasota house, a big, low-key place on the water—not the beach, but rather on the bay. A McMansion just isn’t right. How do you display your Nobel Prize in a McMansion? Of course, Paul Samuelson—he won one for economics in 1970—wintered here in happy retirement until his death at 94 in 2009. He supposedly kept his Nobel in the linen closet of his apartment on Longboat Key, one of the city’s barrier islands.

If he had the money, he would have bought something like the listing at 5151 Jungle Plum Road, on Siesta Key. (See the list of agents handling the properties in this article on page 54.) It started life as a vacation cottage in the 1950s and has been enlarged and updated over the years. It’s now a little compound—main house, guesthouse and garage, plus another garage—totaling 6,819 square feet. The interior is rather grand, with a two-story living room, enormous bedrooms—four in the main house, two in the guesthouse. The finishes are top-quality, and it has four fireplaces, including one in the master bath. My favorite room is the study, almost free-standing, attached to the main house by a little hallway. It has a cedar-beamed ceiling and it’s surrounded on four sides by tropical foliage, with Sarasota Bay peeking through the palm fronds. It’s the perfect place to write your memoirs—or an economics textbook.

In Sarasota, you buy for the view, and here the view is exceptional. You look out over your pool to your dock, big enough for a 65-foot yacht, past a mangrove island to some equally impressive homes a mile or so across the bay. To the left is the city skyline. Birds are everywhere.

The house is on Siesta Key, which was an artists’ colony back in the day. It’s in a premium neighborhood called Hidden Harbor and, yes, it is hidden, tucked away and jungle-like. It was originally priced at $5,995,000, but now it’s down to $2,995,000—not a short sale, but priced like one.

 

 

This Orlando home sold for $1.8 million.

Orlando >>You could have been Tiger’s neighbor!

This city, famed for Disney World, is the anti-Sarasota. For most people who live in Orlando, it’s all about entertainment and sports. True, there is a nice suburb called Winter Park, which has a tony atmosphere. But typical luxury in Orlando is more likely to be found in Windermere, to the southwest of the city.

The country is very familiar with Windermere, for it was here, in the gated community of Isleworth, that the drama of Tiger Woods was played out. Well, guess what? The house next door to Tiger’s was just on the market. It sold in March for $1.8 million, down from an asking price of $2.5 million.

Naturally, it’s a McMansion. This part of Florida has the mother lode of these. Though people make fun of them, these homes are very comfortable. This one was built in 1991—a little early for the genre—and is starting to look dated. It even has the dreaded plant shelves. The entrance hall is a two-story, chandeliered space and has a water feature that for the life of me I can’t figure out, although the property description offers a disturbing image: “Imagine sitting in the dining room listening to the calming water pouring down the walls….”

Other “only in a McMansion” touches include a black master bath with two tubs, a sunken sitting area in the master bedroom, with a double-sided fireplace, and an enormous billiard room. It has five bedrooms, five baths, and measures 6,295 square feet. The back of the house faces a pretty lake, with a dock for fishing.

To me the most shocking revelation in the Tiger Woods scandal was that his house cost only $2.1 million. I always mistrusted this figure, but since our house next door was similarly priced, I guess it’s true. And though the scandal was a human tragedy, it was also a shot in the arm for the Central Florida real estate market. Tiger is building an enormous new place in Jupiter for a reputed $50 million, and of course, Elin needs a new place of her own, so she put down $12 million for a waterfront mansion in North Palm Beach. I guess she didn’t want to move in with Tiger’s mother, who is also getting a new house ($11.1 million). No word yet on when the Isleworth place will be on the market, but I’m sure both he and Elin can’t wait to dump it. Bargain hunters, take note!

The perfect Palm Beach apartment on Ocean Boulevard, just $2.55 million; also in Palm Beach, a home designed by famous architect Maurice Fatio is under contract for close to its asking price of $2,399,000.

Palm Beach >>The perfect pad for a well-heeled old lady

OK, $3 million here only gets you a place on the margins of society. True, there are homes at this price level, but they look rather suburban. Not common suburban, certainly, as no home in Palm Beach could be called common. But they’re a far cry from the old Spanish mansions lining the beach and the chic Regency pavilions facing Lake Worth. These can go for $40 million or more.

Palm Beach isn’t quite the draw you might think it is. Blame the very high intimidation factor. Moving here provokes an identity crisis. Can you pull off the style and polish and effort needed to succeed in one of the world’s most sophisticated and socially driven towns? Probably not. And certainly not in a $3 million house.

Nevertheless, there are some charming little homes, both in the downtown area near Worth Avenue and in the north section, full of families and dogs. There’s a marvelous Maurice Fatio—said to be his own home—at 234 Phipps Plaza. It’s new on the market and listed at $2,399,000. Fatio was one of the great Palm Beach architects of the 1920s and 1930s; he’s been immortalized in the lyrics of a Cole Porter song, rhyming with “patio.”

And yes, this Fatio does have a very nice patio. Inside, it’s not large (2,700 square feet), and the renovation is a bit modern and severe for such a piece of history. But there are wonderful details—a paneled library, in particular—and the in-town location is very convenient. It last sold in 2004 for $2 million.  

In addition to mansions and Fatios, Palm Beach has some great condos, and you can get a very nice one in our price range. In fact, you can get a nice one in any price range. Along the stretch of South Ocean Boulevard that runs along the ocean down to Lantana and Hypoluxo, there are rows of perfectly nice buildings bursting with bargains. One just sold for $24,000. Imagine—an apartment in Palm Beach for the price of a Toyota. And you don’t have to worry about any recalls. That’s how bad things have gotten.

My favorite condos are at either end of Worth Avenue, right in the middle of town. Many of them have an early 1960s look, stylish in a Mad Men kind of way. I wondered about who might live in these buildings, when I noticed that every afternoon around 4:30, home healthcare workers, clad in those blue and purple scrubs, walk their employers’ poodles. Of course! It’s the home of the rich old ladies.

No matter how rich you are, once you get to a certain age—generally your early 80s—cozy becomes a plus. You want your bathroom as close to your bed as possible. No more trips across a 30-foot bedroom, down a hallway lined with walk-in closets (and maybe doggie toys) into a marble-floored bathroom (slippery when wet) where you must search around for a tiny little room with a bidet and a toilet. That sort of floor plan has “broken hip” written all over it.

That’s why they invented apartments for rich old ladies. They can still be elegant and spacious, but they’re much easier to live in. One of my favorite old-lady buildings is 300 S. Ocean Boulevard, right on the Atlantic. There is a unit (4C) currently on the market for $2.55 million that’s perfect for life’s home stretch. It’s 2,300 square feet, with two bedrooms and three baths. It has a wonderful view and is well suited for a makeover in the Palm Beach manner—French and chinoiserie furniture, tassels, lots of porcelain objets, stripes and prints.

And it’s right in the middle of the greatest rich-old-lady recreational area in the world. The boutiques of Worth Avenue—Hermès, Chopard, Cartier—are so close they can easily be reached with a walker—either kind.

 

This home in Naples’ pretty Port Royal is listed for $2.45 million.

Naples >> Bountiful choices for boomer billionaires

Welcome to the town known throughout Florida as the home of the insecure self-made billionaires.

Our new governor, Rick Scott, is from Naples. He spent $70 million of his own money to get elected. That sounds like a lot, but in Naples terms, it’s just a house or two, an adjoining vacant lot, a golf-club membership and a modest yacht.

Naples’ growth spurt took place during the boom, and its luxury real estate is very up-to-date. Almost 1,500 homes here currently are listed at more than $1 million. Billionaires aside, Naples’ bread-and-butter is affluent retirement. Boomer CEOs can choose a high-rise overlooking the beach (anywhere from less than $1 million to well over $5 million) or a house in a gated community (usually $1 million to $3 million.) Or they can choose Port Royal.

Port Royal is like a WASP-y suburb in Connecticut that moved to Florida and glamorized itself. There are meticulously trimmed hedges everywhere, the streets have names like Gin Lane and Rum Row, and there’s a tiny, charming Episcopal church in the middle of everything. Visually, it’s a little Bermuda, a little France, a little Greenwich. Its homes demonstrate perfectly the difference between a McMansion and a real mansion.

In Port Royal, $3 million generally buys an empty lot, but if you search hard enough you can find a couple of homes at that price. My favorite is a short sale at 3503 Gin Lane. It’s very intimate by Naples’ standards—4,000 square feet. But it has custom finishes and detailing everywhere, including travertine floors, an enormous master bedroom and a fancy new kitchen. It also has a pool and a 55-foot deepwater dock. It’s a great place to begin your second career in politics. It sold for $4 million in 2007, but now it’s listed at $2.45 million. You also get to join the Port Royal Club, a beach club for property owners. It serves a sensational Sunday brunch.

 

 

A Miami condo just right for Scarface, listed at $2.9 million.

Miami >> Penthouse dreams on sale

Only 80 miles from Naples—you drive straight through the Everglades—this city might as well be on another planet. To put it simply, most Floridians regard Miami the way people in Utica regard New York City.

But who can’t be seduced by a Miami penthouse? Those countless condos that were built several years ago and were partly to blame for the world-wide recession are among the world’s most glamorous pieces of real estate. Talk about your “wow” factor. When it comes to views, Miami apartments have some of the best, with broad expanses of ocean and bay everywhere, new skyscrapers lit up dramatically at night, and cruise ships sailing in and out.

These condos are slowly starting to sell. Some buying is in bulk by investors. But most sales—70 percent, by some estimates—are to individual foreigners, many from Latin America, paying cash. And paying about half as much cash as they would have six years ago. In our price range, we’re at the top of the market. I was looking for something that a remake of Scarface could take place in, and I found it at the Marquis at 1100 Biscayne Blvd. Designed by the famous firm Arquitectonica, it’s Miami’s tallest residential building, modern and severe, with restaurants, bars and nightclubs, plus a pool on the 14th-floor sun deck. It’s the kind of building where the glass-walled shower is in the master bedroom. A crazed Al Pacino would feel right at home.

Any decent Miami penthouse should have a two-story living room, and this 3,381-square-foot unit delivers. It has four bedrooms, 4 1⁄2 baths. The asking price is right on budget: $2.9 million. Is it a bargain? Probably not; it might pay to wait on this one. But I want this apartment. Sure, I’d have to buy white furniture and recruit a bunch of rich Venezuelan friends, but that’s the thing about Florida real estate. So many gorgeous backdrops against which to reinvent yourself. And, these days, at a very reasonable price.

Novelist and journalist ROBERT PLUNKET writes our monthly “Mr. Chatterbox” column and blogs as “Real Estate Junkie.” He won a first-place “Charlie” from the Florida Magazine Association in 2010 for “Best Humor.”

Luxury Listers

Sarasota>> For the Siesta Key house, call Linda Dickinson, (941) 350-3304.

Orlando>> To learn more about Isleworth homes, call Courtney James, (321) 228-6181.

Palm Beach>> The Maurice Fatio home is offered through Marianne Copp, (561) 351-1277. For the condo, call Rosalind Clarke, (561) 721-1533.

Naples>> The Gin Lane home is offered through Jim Forrest, (239) 434-7228.

Miami>> The Marquis condo’s agent is Johanna Bassols, (786) 587-5689.

This article was first published in Barron’s, copyright Dow Jones & Co., 2011. All rights reserved.