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Florida’s West Coast
The subtropical landscape of Southwest Florida has long attracted those seeking a second home. They are drawn to world-class golf courses, boating and water sports on the Gulf of Mexico, as well as fine restaurants and shops. A variety of towns and cities line the coast — from laid-back Anna Maria and Bradenton Beach in Manatee County at the mouth of Tampa Bay, to the “Cultural Coast” of Sarasota; from Sanibel Island’s shell-rich beaches, to the “Platinum Coast” of Naples and Marco Island in Collier County.
The flavor, and even the weather, varies significantly from Bradenton to Naples. In Collier County, they brag that when a cold front blows through in winter, their temperatures are 10 or 15 degrees warmer than Sarasota’s. And plants that will grow in subtropical Fort Myers or Marco Island won’t survive the occasional freezes in Bradenton or Palmetto. The subtropical landscape of Southwest Florida has long attracted those seeking a second home. They are drawn to world-class golf courses, boating and water sports on the Gulf of Mexico, as well as fine restaurants and shops. A variety of towns and cities line the coast — from laid-back Anna Maria and Bradenton Beach in Manatee County at the mouth of Tampa Bay, to the “Cultural Coast” of Sarasota; from Sanibel Island’s shell-rich beaches, to the “Platinum Coast” of Naples and Marco Island in Collier County. The flavor, and even the weather, varies significantly from Bradenton to Naples. In Collier County, they brag that when a cold front blows through in winter, their temperatures are 10 or 15 degrees warmer than Sarasota’s. And plants that will grow in subtropical Fort Myers or Marco Island won’t survive the occasional freezes in Bradenton or Palmetto. Yet despite the threat of hurricanes, the cost of home insurance and other problems, about a thousand people move to Florida each day, many of them to Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee and Collier Counties. A dozen brokers recently interviewed agreed that it is a buyer’s market. In most communities, the number of homes listed for sale has tripled or even quintupled as investors have been trying to unload properties. The high end — $2 million or more — is perhaps the strongest segment of the market, local brokers say, because investors generally stayed away from prices that high. But sellers have not brought the prices down to where a lot of buyers thought they would. Activity is picking up only where houses are priced below what people consider the market price, said Beth Barnett of Coldwell Banker in east Manatee County’s Lakewood Ranch community. “The buyers are more educated, and anything that’s overpriced, forget it,” she said. “No one’s even going to make an offer on it.” Linked by the Tamiami Trail (Route 41) , since the 1920’s and Interstate 75 since the 1980’s, the dominant cities are Sarasota, Fort Myers and Naples. Some buyers who have found Naples’s “Platinum Coast” too expensive — the median home price there is $500,000 and prices in the millions are commonplace — are going north to Sarasota, where the prices are lower and the cultural amenities are more numerous. Between these two pricey markets, Charlotte County is the affordable alternative. Bargain-seeking investors and second-home buyers discovered it after Hurricane Charley hit in August 2004. Waterfront prices are still half those found in Sarasota and Naples. In booming Lee County, where real estate prices are lower overall than in both Sarasota and Naples, luxury golf-course communities seem to be going up on every corner in the southern half of the county. Fort Myers’s downtown, which is now undergoing a makeover, is attracting high-rise condominium developers. And once-sleepy Bonita Springs is sprouting luxury high-rises. Here’s how it looks, going from north to south: Bradenton/Palmetto A historic town where Hernando De Soto is said to have landed in 1539, Bradenton has a small-town feel, yet is just a 30-minute drive from the big-city amenities of Tampa and St. Petersburg to the north. A Saturday farmer’s market is held on Old Main Street, which has several restaurants. In March, the Pittsburgh Pirates move into McKechnie Field, a vintage ballpark, for spring-training baseball. The Promenade at Riverwalk condominium project, with units from $405,000 to $751,000, links downtown to the Manatee River. Riverview Boulevard, which runs along the river, is west of downtown and has large homes on big lots with prices reaching close to $4 million. Bradenton’s disadvantage is that it is a seven-mile drive, sometimes taking 30 minutes, from downtown to the beaches of Anna Maria. Anna Maria/Holmes Beach/Bradenton Beach These coastal communities on Anna Maria Island have a beach-town feel. Prices range from $300,000 to $1.9 million for condos and $400,000 to $2.3 million for houses. Boating and water sports are the main attractions, and the beaches are wide and long. Bradenton Beach is not at all pretentious; witness these T-shirts in a boutique on Historic Bridge Street: “Beauty is in the eye of the beerholder,” and “Bradenton Beach: A quaint drinking village with a fishing problem.” It is doubtful that buyers at the proposed Boca Del Mer condominiums will be picnicking with their families under the shady Australian pines at the nearby public beach — the 14 luxury units, in the ubiquitous Mediterranean revival style, will be priced from $1.7 million. But they will still be surrounded, at least for a while, by beach motels and rentals serving a different market. Palmetto Facing Bradenton on the north side of the Manatee River, Palmetto lies between the river and nearby Tampa Bay to the north. It does not have a wealthy reputation, and it is beach-less, but it is moving on up: A dolomite-mining pit has been converted into an 80-acre yacht basin with 400 slips at the Riviera Dunes development. It mixes new, water-view, mid-rise condominiums (Laguna at Riviera Dunes), two new high-rises (Bel Mare) and new luxury single-family homes. In downtown Palmetto, one can enjoy a stroll along the Manatee Riverwalk, past the 1899 J.A. Lamb House, a Queen Anne Victorian that was restored in 1996. Palmetto has the feel of a small, old Southern town that is on the rise. Ellenton and Parrish To the east on U.S. 301, the Ellenton and Parrish communities are booming with single-family home construction around Prime Outlets, a regional shopping destination. Homes here are among the most affordable, starting in the mid-$200,000’s. Residents in the new subdivisions going up around this rural village tend to be year-round families. East Manatee For those who want the golf lifestyle, East Manatee is appealing. At Heritage Harbour, houses in the golf-course community range from $300,000 to $800,000. Waterlefe Golf & River Club offers golf and “grand estate” homes of 4,600 to 5,800 square feet. Prices are about $2 million to $3 million. The golf course at the Concession, a new development, has been rated by the Florida State Golf Association as the toughest in the state. The Nicklaus family is developing an enclave of 33 houses there, Nicklaus Manor, priced in the mid-$2 millions. Nearby, the Ritz-Carlton Members Club gives members and guests of the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, a chance to play a Tom Fazio-designed golf course. Lakewood Ranch Lakewood Ranch is a 7,000-acre planned community. It attracts many seasonal residents with homes that range from low-rise condominiums to large new estates priced at up to $6 million. With 6,500 homes sold in its first 10 years, the Ranch is home to a number of professional athletes because it is a short commute for players with Tampa Bay’s three professional sports teams, and athletes in general like Florida’s lack of a state income tax. But perhaps the best-known celebrity resident is the bombastic college basketball commentator Dick Vitale. His 12,000-square-foot mansion on two lots in the Country Club section has been the scene of some notable fund-raising parties. The 1,500-acre Lake Club is the newest addition. The clubhouse will house a day spa and a concierge. Lakewood Ranch has two golf courses, one private and one public, both designed by Arnold Palmer. The new Main Street at Lakewood Ranch has attracted top restaurants and upscale retailers from nearby Sarasota. “Most of our second-home buyers are buying the maintenance-free villas for the golf,” said Beth Barnett of Coldwell Banker in Lakewood Ranch. “Primarily between $450,000 and close to $1 million.” Sarasota Sarasota is the magnet that brings countless newcomers to the area for its sandy beaches, water sports in Sarasota Bay or the Gulf of Mexico, pristine golf courses and an arts scene that includes the respected Sarasota Opera, the Asolo Theater and the Sarasota Ballet of Florida. “Sarasota is a small community where you know your neighbors, yet you have all the attributes of a much larger city,” said Michael Saunders of Michael Saunders & Company. Second- and third-home buyers are a force in all price ranges. “Second-home buyers are adventuresome,” added Ms. Saunders. “They may have a vineyard in France, they may have something in the Hamptons, they have something in Sarasota. So it’s not unusual. It’s the same group.” An ever-increasing variety of people from around the world are discovering Sarasota, and have been doing so since Bertha Palmer, a Chicago socialite, built a winter home here about 1910. John Ringling, the circus magnate, led the development boom of the 1920’s, and established the city as the winter quarters for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1927. Ringling died bankrupt in 1936, and the circus left for Venice 25 years later, but Sarasota’s image as the Circus City has faded only slowly. Upon Ringling’s death, the state of Florida inherited his museum (now the official state art museum) and his 22,000-square-foot Venetian palazzo on Sarasota Bay, Ca’ d’Zan. Sarasota has a booming downtown with new condo towers dramatically altering the skyline. The Saturday morning Farmer’s Market on Lemon Avenue at Main Street is the place to be seen. Crescent Beach (Siesta Public Beach) has fine white sand, like powdered sugar. Sarasota has been described by Money magazine as the “best small city in America,” and by Fortune as the most romantic city for well-off older singles. It is difficult to find a new downtown condominium priced below $600,000, but some units, needing to be rehabbed, in older buildings along Gulf Stream Avenue can be had for about $400,000. South of downtown, the area known as “West of the Trail” is much sought-after, with bayfront neighborhoods, like Harbor Acres and Cherokee Park, among the most prestigious. Between the bayfront at St. Armands Key is Bird Key, an island dredged and filled by Arvida in 1960. It has some of the most opulent new waterfront mansions in town, listed at $9.5 million. East of Sarasota, the Founders Club is a new upscale golf community of 262 homes, averaging $1.5 million to $2 million, with a top-rated course by Robert Trent Jones Jr. Longboat Key/Lido Key/St Armands These barrier islands are the prime locations for Gulf-front real estate. Longboat Key has a combination of elite estate homes and condominiums on both the beach and the bay shore. On Longboat, there is not much on the market below $1 million. New condo projects are being built where hotels or estate homes have been torn down. One of them is Positano, where the Holiday Inn once stood; luxury units are priced from about $3 million. Realtors estimate that 80 percent of the Longboat market is made up of part-time residents — second- or third-home buyers or sellers. “It’s staggering the few people who are here in the summer,” said Cheryl Loeffler, a broker who lives on Longboat year-round. “Almost everybody goes some other place. Come out here at night and you’ll see my light and two others.” Lido Key is the better key for beach-going and shopping. Lido Beach, offering hard-packed sand for joggers and brilliant sunsets, is close to downtown Sarasota and has plenty of free parking, while the adjacent St. Armands Key offers the Met spa, Hemingway’s and the Columbia restaurants, many upscale boutiques and a number of T-shirt shops. Lido Beach Toward South Lido Park, wealthy second-home shoppers will find two new points of interest: the Ritz-Carlton’s Beach Residences and U.S. Assets Group’s Orchid Beach Club, priced from $1.7 million. They stand alongside a number of older condo towers, including L’Elegance. Siesta Key Settlement of this large barrier island started in earnest around 1910, when boats were the major mode of transportation on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Known as Sarasota Key at the time, the name became Siesta when the island established a reputation as a place to go to rest and relax. Over the years, artists and writers, including the painter Syd Solomon and John D. McDonald, the novelist, made the key into something of a colony for the creative. While the north end of the island is strictly single-family, with prices in the $500,000’s for canal-front homes and well into the millions on the beach and bay, condominiums line Crescent Beach both north and south of the village. Casey Key Connected to the mainland by an ancient, one-lane, steel swing bridge, Casey Key is an enclave for the very wealthy. A single road, barely wide enough for two cars to pass safely, winds past grand estate homes of 10,000 square feet or more and a few remaining beach cottages. The key is skinny as a snake, but it is fairly high, so it has largely survived the pounding from the passing tropical storms. The most coveted estates cross the island from Gulf to bay, and prices of $3 million, $5 million and more are common; the record sale is $9 million. Stephen King and Martina Navratilova have homes here. Off the key in Osprey, the Oaks Club on U.S. 41 offers elegant, upscale living and a first-rate golf course to go with a stately Georgian clubhouse. It was South County’s first high-end golf-course community, and remains one of the most prestigious in the region. Prices in the millions are common. Venice Downtown Venice is known as “island of Venice” because it is separated from the rest of the mainland by a man-made canal that is part of the Intracoastal Waterway. It is a delightful place for strolling because of John Nolen’s 1920’s, pedestrian-friendly street layout. The island has shops and restaurants, and lacks the pretension that can be felt in other wealthy towns along the Gulf Coast. Venice Avenue is the main street and as it gets closer to the Gulf, it becomes a divided boulevard separated by a park for walkers and joggers. The city has mandated that downtown buildings be built in the Mediterranean revival style. Once considered a place for value-priced real estate, the island has seen home prices soar in recent years. Off the island and east of town, Venetian Golf & River Club offers new homes priced from $400,000 to $900,000. Manasota Key This long barrier island draws people who want seclusion in a natural setting with abundant wildlife. “It’s about the only place left on the west coast that resembles the Old Florida and the way that it used to be back in the 1940’s and 1950’s — the trees and the way people have kept things natural,” said Nelda Thompson, a longtime key resident who is also a real estate broker. “There are not so many mega-mansions, which we love. It makes it very private and makes it very special.” The northern half is almost exclusively dotted with houses on large sites, some with Gulf-to-bay views, priced from $1.5 million to $7.5 million. Zoning prohibits condominiums. There are many homes on the market just south of the public beach.. “There’s no rhyme or reason to that,” said Mrs. Thompson. “That will happen from time to time. There’s no unusual beach erosion there or any negative things going on in the neighborhood that would cause people to want to sell.” The rules are much less strict on the south end in Charlotte County, where condos and rental lodging are plentiful. With several low-rise condominiums and beach rentals, it’s closer to the mainland town of Englewood and has a family-friendly atmosphere with casual shops and restaurants. Manasota Key is also home to the Hermitage, an artists’ retreat housed in vintage cottages. International artists are invited to live, work and share with the local community for months at a time. Englewood This is traditional coastal Florida, with relatively low waterfront prices to boot. Here there are two waterways, Lemon Bay and the Myakka River, that are excellent for fishing, and Dearborn Street, a charming area devoid of chain stores. West of Dearborn Street is a village-like cluster of older ranch homes. Some of them are on the shore of Lemon Bay with barrier-island views. Currently a home on the market here is listed for $1.1 million. “Englewood is still that Old Florida. It’s more laid-back. In old Englewood, your views are probably the biggest views on the Intracoastal for miles,” said Kim Tritschler of Re/Max Effort Realty. “People don’t just stumble across it. You’ve got to get off the beaten path to find it, and once you do, it’s charming.” Charlotte County/Punta Gorda With its elderly population — 33 percent are 65 or older — and modest housing stock, Charlotte County has always had a reputation as a haven for retirees on fixed incomes. But prices are rising as riverfront and canal-front areas are redeveloped. The pace of redevelopment has quickened since Hurricane Charley in 2004, with the modest older waterfront houses being replaced by more expensive new ones. Unincorporated Port Charlotte, north of Charlotte Harbor, is growing, but plenty of empty lots are still available, left over from the 1960’s development boom. But with its strip-mall lined U.S. 41, it lacks the charm of Punta Gorda, the county seat. On the south side of the Peace River, Punta Gorda has a delightful historic district along Marion Avenue just west of downtown. Residents enjoy the parks along the river on either side of U.S. 41. The wide, shallow Charlotte Harbor, still lined with plenty of undeveloped shoreline, is renowned as a magnet for sport fishermen. Boca Grande In Florida, few towns are more secluded and unchanging than Boca Grande. At the mouth of Charlotte Harbor, Boca Grande is on remote Gasparilla Island. Wealthy people go to Boca Grande to be themselves, and the locals let them. No gawkers, no paparazzi, just the elite riding around on golf carts. Although the island has seen development on the south and north ends, the historic town of Boca Grande remains firmly in the past — a very rich past. Privacy is highly valued. For visitors, the century-old Gasparilla Inn is a vintage hotel with guest cottages and a reputation for attracting aristocratic guests. But it speaks to the seasonal nature of the community that the Inn is closed during the summer tarpon season. Boca Grande’s deep-water pass is home to “The World’s Richest” tarpon tournament in June. Boca Grande real estate prices are among the region’s highest north of Charlotte Harbor. Its not unusual to find a $6 million listing on the Gulf; the top of the market is $16 million. Even the old wooden cottages in the historic downtown district have been rebuilt virtually board by board and are selling for a half-million dollars. With condos from $700,000 to $1.7 million and houses from $600,000 to $6.5 million, an oft-heard lament is, “The billionaires are chasing off the millionaires.” The other big problem on the island: What to do about the iguanas, once a charming oddity when few in number, but now a nuisance. Fort Myers/Fort Myers Beach/Sanibel Located 15 miles inland from Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island, Fort Myers is not a major second-home market, said Michael Munn, a broker with Pretium Realty Group. “About 10 to 15 percent of the market is second-home buyers,” he said. But Lee County is catching up, especially at the towns in the south county, Estero and Bonita Springs, where high-rise condos and high-end country-club communities are sprouting. Still, “there is only one Fort Myers, and 90 million people are going to find out,” said its most famous former resident, Thomas Edison. The city’s Festival of Light, in January and February, celebrates his invention of the light bulb. The Edison and Henry Ford winter estates, on royal palm-lined McGregor Boulevard, have long been Fort Myers’ main tourist attractions, but Sanibel Island ranks a close second. Ecotourism is the main attraction, with the J. N. (Ding) Darling National Wildlife Preserve taking up much of the island. The population of 6,000 swells to 20,000 during the high season. Sanibel has a mix of houses, many of them in the luxury category, priced from $1 million to $4 million, and condos, in the $500,000’s and up. Cape Coral, on the north side of the Caloosahatchee, is a little-known option for second-home buyers. It has 400 miles of canals that connect to the Intracoastal Waterway, and the best-located lots are being redeveloped (the old 1960’s ranch houses are being torn down) with large new houses. In the best locations on the river, homes are listed from $1 million to $4 million. Fort Myers Beach also has a mix of houses and condominiums, with condo-hotels now entering the market. The Times Square shopping area is a draw when people tire of the beach. But traffic onto the island can back up well onto the mainland. The island attracts many German tourists; direct flights bring them from Dusseldorf to Fort Myers. German restaurants and delis are common in the area. Estero/Bonita Beach/Bonita Springs Ten years ago, Bonita Springs and Estero were known for the greyhound racing track and tomato fields. Now, the 2,400-acre, master-planned Bonita Bay development typifies the upscale golf communities that have been built in south Lee and Collier Counties. Bonita Bay, developed by The Lutgert Companies, has a mix of housing choices, from small condos to villas, and from large houses to luxury units in high-rises facing the bay. Bonita Bay’s condos look across the Intracoastal Waterway to Bonita Beach, 10 minutes away by car. It has older condos on the beach. Estero is a centrally located bedroom community for people who work in Fort Myers and Naples. “A lot of second-home people live here,” said Jack Mancini of Gulfcoast Premier Realty. “Primary residents are younger families with children; the majority of properties purchased last year were investors,” who have now flooded the market with homes for sale. Just off Interstate 75 in Estero is the Miromar Outlet Mall, which attracts several million shoppers a year, and the International Design Center, which is a superstore for interior designers. Other big malls include the Gulf Coast Town Center and the mammoth, under-construction Coconut Pointe. Naples Naples is among the nation’s wealthiest winter retreats, largely because of its outstanding golf courses, restaurants, shopping and cultural amenities. Median home price of about $500,000 are the highest in Florida, but inventory is growing and buyers have plenty of choices. In a county full of prestigious neighborhoods, four stand out. For condominiums, the Lutgert Companies’ Park Shore collection overlooks the Gulf on the north side of town, while further north is Pelican Bay and Bay Colony, separated from the beach by a mangrove preserve. For single-family homes, Gordon Drive South is lined with impressive estates on the Gulf, some valued at $20 million or more, while nearby, seasonal Port Royal features estate homes on fingers of land, giving almost every house, including modernist architect Richard Meier’s famed Neugebauer House, a water view. Off the water, Collier County has dozens of luxury golf-course communities with courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Robert Trent Jones Jr. and other notables. The county is said to have more golf holes per capita than any city in America. “The number one thing is golf — country clubs that make life so easy,” said Doris Reynolds, a local historian who moved to Naples 54 years ago. Many buyers choose Naples for its people. “It seems like Naples and the surrounding area is a more Midwest mentality,” said Steve Reimer, who lives in Racine, Wis., in the summers with his wife, Sue, and winters in Naples. “We have more people from the Midwest. We’re New Yorkers, but we had been living in the Midwest for the last 25 years, and the Midwest type of attitudes we found to be exceedingly pleasant. It’s a totally different way of life from the east coast ...The difference between being aggressive and being assertive.” Marco Island In the 1960’s, the Army Corps of Engineers allowed the Deltona Corporation to create a dream city, 16 miles south of Naples, out of 6,800 acres of pristine coastal environment by dredging and filling. In the early 1970’s, dredge-and-fill operations by developers were severely curtailed because of their negative environmental impact. Most of Marco’s apartments and houses are on canals or open water. Crescent Beach is lined with luxury high-rises (the island has more than 100 condo buildings), and the view from the upper floors is spectacular — the Gulf water below is a captivating shade of turquoise on sunny mornings. Tigertail Beach attracts birders and shell collectors. Although inland homes on Marco can be found for $400,000 or so, prices here tend to be among the region’s most expensive. Recently on the market was a $12.9 million mansion on open water at the south end of the island, overlooking the chain of mangroves known as the Ten Thousand Islands.
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