Most visitors come to Southwest Florida for sun and fun, not real estate. But after they've spent a few days enjoying our water views and balmy weather, many of them pack up their beach blankets and start cruising through local neighborhoods with a real estate agent.
That's how one Cleveland-area couple, he a financier and she the executive director of a professional ballet school, came to own their vacation home on Longboat Key. The husband discovered Sarasota through a friend, and he introduced it to his wife after they married. "We really fell in love with the area," she says. "I liked the island feel and the beach. And Sarasota has all of the arts." They've owned their sixth-floor condominium in Sarasota's L'Ambiance for 10 years now; and their only complaint is that because of business demands and a standard poodle at home, they can rarely spend more than a week at a time here.
As Florida's east coast, once the fashionable destination for wintering Northerners, has become congested and expensive, Southwest Florida, with its tropical sunsets over the placid Gulf, wide-open wild spaces just a few miles from the beaches, and a kinder, gentler lifestyle, has grown in cachet. And the region can hold its own with anywhere in the country when it comes to luxurious living, with exclusive gated communities equipped with every amenity possible, championship golf courses, mega-mansions on and off the water, and fine dining, shopping and cultural attractions up and down the coast.
Once reserved for the mega-wealthy, second homes are now on the wish lists of many merely well-off Americans. Among the top reasons buyers give for buying a second home: vacation, planning for retirement, investment diversity and rental income.
In a study commissioned by Centex Destination Properties, the second-home/resort subsidiary of homebuilder giant Centex Homes, researchers found that the second home market could double by 2009, with about 25 percent of affluent Americans expressing interest in buying a second home within the next two to three years. And the place they'd most like that home to be? Southwest Florida, of course-specifically, the Marco/Naples area. (The southern New Jersey and Delaware coasts, the Florida Keys, the southern South Carolina coast, and Maui rounded out the top five.)
The National Association of Realtors projects that one out of every 1,000 Americans will own property in the Fort Myers or Naples areas by the end of 2005, says Jennifer Mesa, director of business analysis for HomeBanc, a Florida mortgage company. "It's the third fastest-growing [metropolitan statistical area] in the country," she says. While the study didn't differentiate between primary and second homes, there's a good chance many of those new property owners will be part-time residents.
EscapeHomes.com, a Web site that matches buyers and sellers with real estate agents who specialize in vacation homes, reports that Fort Myers recently ranked second among all site users, Naples fifth and Sarasota 10th.
When it comes to luxury buyers, most agree that ritzy Naples leads Southwest Florida's second-home market; but many brokers and developers say that more affordable Sarasota, with its cultural reputation and growing affluence, is an increasingly strong contender.
Linda Page, a Sarasota realtor, estimates that 60 percent of her clients are second-home buyers, targeting the $600,000 and up range. Sue Simon, an agent with Downing Frye, says the majority of her Naples-area buyers are seasonal residents, here for the more temperate months and back up North or elsewhere during the slower summer.
Most of Simon's buyers are looking in the $2 million range. Simons, who surpassed $1 billion in sales by July 2004, says second-home buyers want amenities like golf courses and private beach clubs. They're also more than happy to share their homes with adult children and visitors. "Palm Beach is very societal and people who like that go there," says Simon. "Our buyers are more family-oriented. They want to spend time with their families and relax in a beautiful environment."
A good number of those who buy Southwest Florida vacation homes already own more than one residence. For example, Bill and Judy Daniels, who live in Lansing, Mich., also own a home on Michigan's Beaver Island. They scoured Oregon and Arizona before they discovered Fort Myers.
"We spent a considerable time looking from one end of Arizona to another," says Judy Daniels, an engineer. "But Arizona had dust storms and water problems. We realized we wanted a lush environment and were used to being on the water. Our next stop was Florida. We visited friends in Gulf Harbour and fell in love with the whole area. We toured the area for a month, made an offer on a house and moved in two weeks later."
Many Southwest Florida second-home buyers come from the Midwest, although realtors report a growing trend of clients from the Northeast. And many, like Judy Daniels, are business owners close to retirement.
Researchers say baby boomers dominate the second-home market, but local realtors report that buyers are getting younger. Whether they're young or old, second-home buyers want low maintenance, proximity to shops and restaurants, and amenities that include walking paths, hiking and biking trails, fitness centers, pools and health spas, according to that Centex study. Surprisingly, many say that golf courses, tennis courts and ski facilities were not important. And they indicated they expected to spend $350,000 for a single-family home and $295,000 for a condo.
In Southwest Florida, however, golf courses fashioned by famous course designers and well-equipped clubhouses are part of the appeal for many buyers. The Danielses wanted a country club setting so they could meet others easily. At Gulf Harbour they got that, plus an on-site marina for large yachts, tennis, golf and a fitness center, says Marilyn Kistler, the couple's Coldwell Banker realtor.
It's not uncommon for second homes in our region to command several million dollars and be among a collection of five or so vacation homes, each with a specific purpose-a home in the city for urban delights, one in the country for a break from civilization, and a place in the mountains for skiing. This is especially so in Naples, where many buyers pay cash, says Simon. "Buyers in Naples aren't typical," she says. "Most don't have mortgages."
"If you can afford a $7 million or $8 million home, it's not likely your only home," points out Lois Kluberdanz, who's with Coldwell Banker. "It's nice for parents to be able to say to their kids, 'Here's the key to the house in Naples. Go down for a week and enjoy yourself.'"
Christie Dufinetz, a realtor with John Naumann & Associates-the high-end arm of Coldwell Banker-specializes in Sanibel and Captiva Island properties. She says many of her clients pay $1.5 million and up and prefer the maintenance-free life a condo offers. "They want everything taken care of because they're still up North going about their business," she says. "They want something turnkey so they don't have to concern themselves with maintenance, mowing, painting or management."
And they like Sanibel because of its low-key lifestyle, which affords them seclusion and anonymity, she says. "They come here to enjoy the preserve [about half of the island is the state-owned J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge]. They want to feel like they're on vacation at their second home."
Page senses a geographical shift for second homes in Sarasota. "It used to be the second-home buyer wanted a condo on Longboat Key or a villa on the golf course," she says. "That's not necessarily the case any more. We're seeing more downtown buyers and second-home properties in communities like University Place, which isn't on the golf course or waterfront. More people want an amenitized community that doesn't have to have golf. And we're seeing more second-home buyers building large custom homes."
Nick Figlow, president of the 4,000-member Sarasota Association of Realtors and vice president and general manger of RE/MAX Gulfstream Sarasota, says most second homes eventually become primary residences. Figlow estimates that second homes amount to 35 percent of his company's business. "They buy something to test the waters, so to speak, then come down for a few weeks," he says. "They say, 'Boy, this is nice. Let's come three months next year.' Then they buy a larger place and stay six months. Then, as they get closer to retirement, they may buy a house."
Page says many of her buyers leapfrog from condo to condo on Longboat Key, eager to be in the newest and best building-until another is built. "They want to be in the newest and greatest thing," says Page, pointing out that the 10-square-mile island is running out of developable land.
Not long after their first purchase, Judy Daniels says she and Bill bought a larger, $3 million-plus home, right on the Caloosahatchee River. "We first went down, like most people, thinking we'd stay two months," says Judy. "Then it's February, March, April and some of May. Now, we're down there six months."
Page also sees a shift in buyer demographics. Buyers, she says, "are younger. They're people who have earned their own way. More hail from the Northeast. The Midwest is still stronger, but the Northeast is getting stronger." Page has also noticed a steady influx of European buyers. Richard Zipes, who's building The Metropolitan Sarasota Bay next to Sarasota's Ritz-Carlton, is banking on London as a prime market for the 18-story luxury condo's 124 homes, priced from $1.8 million to $5 million.
For many first-time visitors, it's love at first sight that lasts a lifetime. "We know the second-home market is getting larger and larger," says Page. "People used to rent their second homes for three or four months. Now they're definitely buying, and they are making their move in large numbers."
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Research the market and don't settle for less than you want. Check into the zoning of your property and adjoining properties. "If you see a blank piece of property in the state of Florida, look into it," cautions John Naumann & Associate's Christie Dufinetz. You don't want to be surprised by condo towers or a shopping center rising next to your secluded getaway.
Once you've done your research, don't dally. Fiserv, the country's leading residential real estate analysts, reports that home prices in Sarasota County spiked 37 percent in three years, 32 percent on Sanibel Island and 29 percent in Naples. "Don't wait for off-season pricing. It's not going to happen," says Naples real estate agent Lois Kluberdanz. "There are no bargains. He who hesitates is lost."
"Ten years ago a condo on the beach went for $125,000," says Sarasota's Nick Figlow. "That same condo is now $700,000 to $800,000."
CONSIDER A MORTGAGE
Even if you can pay cash, a mininal mortgage can offer tax benefits, says HomeBanc's Jennifer Mesa. "An interest-only program can make your entire mortgage payment tax-deductible."