The Last Great Deals

By staff October 1, 2001

Anyone who's been saving his money with a dream of living on the water in Sarasota must have screamed in horror last spring when Stephen King paid a record $8.9 million for a Casey Key Gulf-front home. Just a few years ago, a million-dollar price tag was a shocker in Sarasota; now prime waterfront properties routinely fetch far more than that. And these escalating prices aren't just limited to waterfront. Property everywhere in the county is getting more expensive. King's high-profile purchase just made the reality obvious: Sarasota's real estate market is being inflated by people who want what they want and will pay top dollar to get it.

And as Sarasota continues to get glowing national press, as it did when Money Magazine named it the country's best small city last year, it's attracting more buyers from states whose even higher real estate prices make us still look like a bargain. Flush with the proceeds of selling their Northern or West Coast home, these newcomers happily pay Sarasota asking prices, which drives the market up even more.

That's great for Sarasota realtors and sellers-but what about buyers who are looking for exactly what's made this market famous: a good house in a nice neighborhood at a wonderfully affordable price? We decided we'd go on a quest to see if our city still offered great deals in residential real estate, and we started by asking some well-known realtors and investors where they thought today's best bargains are. Their response wasn't encouraging. Many of them burst out laughing, and most of them insisted that we were asking for something that no longer exists. As Sarasota realtor and investor Craig Adams puts it, if you want something affordable, "Go to Iowa. You can buy half the state for $9 million."

Nonetheless, we persevered. We canvassed many more realtors, appraisers and investors, and we spent long afternoons driving around neighborhoods from southern Manatee County to Venice. And after more than a month of scouring the county, we did indeed discover some bargains-or at least very good buys-in a number of Sarasota neighborhoods.

How do we define a bargain? Basically, we looked for places-often just pockets in a larger neighborhood-that offer some special amenities, such as well-built homes, or maybe a golf course, proximity to water or a great, central location, and that seem undervalued compared to similar neighborhoods. As you might expect, all the places on our list are in established neighborhoods, which means the houses there probably need updating. Nothing's a steal, but you might find a good deal. Here are some of our picks, starting north of the Sarasota County line and heading down to Venice.

Sarasotans have often viewed the Manatee County subdivisions to the north of the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport as the poor, noisy cousins of the pricier upper-class neighborhoods only a half mile south along Sapphire Shores. But take a second look at these Manatee County Cinderellas, many of which have far less noise and inconvenience than people assume and are actually prettier than some of the areas just south. Some parts of the communities north of the airport offer beautiful homes, big trees, waterfront properties or a golf course, and houses there are often much cheaper. Plus, point out realtors, they have the added benefit of Manatee County's lower property taxes and utility rates.

Sara Bay Country Club

The 'Hood: East of U.S. 41 is a neighborhood surrounding Sara Bay Country Club in Whitfield Estates. Yes, this area is in the dreaded zone north of the airport. But, points out Mike Holderness Jr. of SaraBay Realty, who also lives in the neighborhood, "In 90 percent of the area, you don't hear the planes." Particularly picturesque is Magellan Drive, a shady, winding road that hugs the north side of Sara Bay Golf Course, a 1920s-built course designed by Donald Ross. With only 270 members, there is no wait for tee times at this club, and the course is so pretty that it attracts world-class golfer Paul Azinger when he's in town. Sara Bay also lies along part of Bowlees Creek, attracting the boating crowd.

The Homes: The homes, from classic Spanish Mediterranean styles to larger, two-story, creek-front houses, range from those built in the '20s to the just-completed, but most are concrete block ranches built in the '60s and '70s that run a little under 2,000 square feet in size. This is definitely Midwestern retiree country, but Holderness says many of those people, who've lived here for 30 years, are now selling; and a younger crowd-as evidenced by the basketball hoops replacing the golf carts in the driveways-is coming in and remodeling. Some of these new residents have children at Bradenton's IMG David Leadbetter Golf Academy and appreciate the proximity to the academy and the greens.

The Prices: Prices stay low because of the airport, but realtors caution that they have been rising in the last couple of years. The golf-course homes are extremely reasonable. A three-bedroom, two-bath ranch overlooking a drop-dead gorgeous fairway on Magellan Drive was listed at $159,000 last summer. Another two-bedroom on the water sold for $145,000. Property records for 11 sales along Magellan Drive during the last 12 months show prices ranging from $101,000 for a two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,216-square-foot home to $249,900 for a three-bedroom, three-bath home of 2,533 square feet.

Average sale price on Magellan Drive from 6/1/2000 to 6/1/2001

2 bedroom $127,000

3 bedroom $192,139

Whitfield Estates/Ballantine Manor

The 'Hood: On the west side of U.S. 41, directly across from the Sara Bay neighborhood, lie the bayfront sister neighborhoods of Whitfield Estates and Ballantine Manor. From U.S. 41, the first impression of Whitfield Estates is scary; vacant lots line the highway and you can see more on the interior roads, evidence of the airport's buyout and bulldozing of houses that were under the flight path in the '80s. Once you're inside the community, however, the vacant lots with their large, leafy trees offer a wide, green buffer from the busy Trail and give Whitfield a pleasant, park-like feeling. And driving along the streets gives an impression of manicured and settled suburban tranquility. Mike Holderness Sr., also at SaraBay Realty, has been living in Whitfield Estates since 1978. "I could live anywhere," he says, "but you can't beat this neighborhood." He loves that no two houses are the same and that people actually walk in this neighborhood and get to know one another. "It's a very friendly place," he adds.

The Homes: Homes here range from the modest 1,200-square-foot ranches built on small lots in the '50s and '60s to the bigger and more beautiful structures on lovely, lush lots on streets with names like Broughton, Westmoreland and Longbay Boulevard. On a landlocked street such as Broughton, buyers will find small three-bedroom, two-bath homes for as little as $120,000 as well as grand old Spanish homes for $500,000. What's wonderfully surprising is that many of the homes along the bay, which have a priceless view across Sarasota Bay to Longboat Key (the same water wealthy Longboat Key residents are gazing at), are modest ranches on huge, deep lots. The entire area is reminiscent of Sarasota's waterfront neighborhoods of 20 and more years ago, before the megahomes began erupting. Realtors say prices have been increasing rapidly in the last couple of years, and it's really only a matter of time before these streets also see the explosion of huge three-story mansions. The 10,000-square-foot, glass, $4-million Guy Peterson-designed home on Longbay Boulevard is an example of what's bound to happen.

The Prices: Home sales in the last year ranged from a $93,000, two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,200-square-foot house on Cypress Wood Lane to a $775,000, 3,589-square-foot waterfront house on Longbay Boulevard. The waterfront homes in particular seem like bargains compared with houses on the same bayfront in Sarasota. Within the last 12 months, a bayfront house on Westmoreland Drive sold for $600,000. On Holly Drive, a two-story waterfront house with a pool, four bedrooms and four baths sold for $575,000. This house in Sarasota County would be hundreds of thousands of dollars more, says Holderness Sr. "This area is the biggest sleeper in the world," he says. "We have a Sarasota County address with Manatee County taxes; and, unlike Sarasota, we'll have plenty of water in the future."

Average sale price in Whitfield Estates/Ballantine Manor from 6/5/00 to 6/5/01

2 bedroom $135,000

3 bedroom $158,833

4 bedroom $383,437

The Uplands

The 'Hood: Just south of Whitfield Estates and Ballantine Manor and north of USF and New College of Florida is the Uplands, a tiny neighborhood of three streets leading to the bay and a couple of cross streets. From U.S. 41, this neighborhood can look pretty junky-there's a rundown former Howard Johnson motel being used by the college and a couple of shabby rentals at the entrance. But further west, the inquisitive will find homes along a charming, spring-fed lake with a wooden bridge and a long, peaceful park along the bay. This bayfront parcel was originally owned by the Uplands Neighborhood Association, but was deeded to the University of South Florida to maintain and is now owned by the state, says Kafi Benz, president of the association and a resident along the lake. (However, its status may change if the state ever decides to sell it to a private developer-an action Benz says the Uplands Association would fight. Homes could be built within 500 feet of the water, blocking much of the access of Uplands' residents.)

The subdivision dates back to 1950, and residents are a mix of the original inhabitants (Uplands developer Herb Braren still lives here in a beautiful home), their children and young people who liked the lower prices.

Most of the homes sit on three lots, and Benz says preserving the character of the neighborhood and its homes is a priority for members of the association, which is applying to make the area a conservation district. "If you built a monster here it would so change the nature of the neighborhood," she says. The Uplands is right across U.S. 41 from the airport, and while the big jets don't fly directly overhead, private Lear jets are becoming a nuisance as they become more numerous, says Benz.

The Homes: The homes are well-designed, well-constructed, classic single-story Florida ranches built from 1950 to 1952. Almost all are concrete block, and they have the era's low, rectangular shape and clean lines. Most are two- and three-bedroom homes of about 1,200 square feet, and the floors are the high-quality terrazzo that everyone is so crazy about now.

The Prices: Michael Saunders & Company realtor Debra Pitell says a three-bedroom home with a pool off the water probably averages $170,000. If you want something on the lake, you're going to pay closer to $200,000.

Recent sales have ranged from $52,000 for a 1,008-square-foot home near the Trail to an unprecedented $275,000 for a 1,896-square-foot home overlooking the park and bay; and prices are starting to increase closer to the water.

Average sale price in the Uplands from 7/17/00 to 7/17/01

2 bedroom $211,666

(This price is higher than most two bedroom sales because of two recent record high sales.)

3 bedroom $132,000

4 bedroom $146,750

Cocoanut Avenue District

The 'Hood: Once considered dodgy, Cocoanut Avenue and its surrounding streets are undergoing significant changes, making the area attractive for those who love the idea of fixer-uppers in an old neighborhood. The area has an abundance of parks and is also one of the few ethnically mixed areas in the county, a matter of pride to many people who live there. It's bordered approximately by 10th Street to the south, Martin Luther King to the north, Central Avenue to the east and U.S. 41 to the west. Cocoanut Avenue runs down the middle like a spine.

Because of its proximity to downtown, the decreasing crime rate and the ongoing development of North Tamiami Trial, this area is becoming attractive to investors, says Marianne LeBar, a realtor with Laughlin's Luxury Lifestyles. Two years ago she sold a two-bedroom home to a couple for $42,000; after improvements, they recently sold it for $85,000. This appreciation doesn't always please residents. Artist and resident Leslie Lerner, who teaches at the Ringling School of Art and Design, says the higher prices may force renters out and keep middle-income people away. "At neighborhood meetings the talk used to be about the tension of crime," says Lerner. "Now it's the tension of development."

The Homes: There are a few fine historic homes of Spanish Mediterranean design, and several two-story Florida homesteads (a couple of which are on the National Historic Register), but the majority of the housing is small, single-story Florida cottages of no consistent style; they're charming, but usually need serious repair and updating.

The Prices: Prices really are low here compared to the rest of Sarasota's housing stock, reflecting the smaller size and quality of the homes, and hesitation about living in what had long been a crime-ridden area. Nonetheless, they are higher than the $42,000 price tags of only a few years ago. Of the four sales recorded, all were two-bedroom between 1,064 to 1,449 square feet.

Average sales price in Cocoanut Avenue area from 6/4/00 to 6/4/01

2 bedroom $69,500


The 'Hood: A classic neighborhood of Florida ranches on generous lots, many elevated and gently sloping down to the street, Southgate attracted hordes of Northern retirees during the '60s and '70s. Much of the landscaping that first generation planted-including citrus trees in what seems like every yard-is now mature and inviting, and many of those older residents are giving way to younger buyers who appreciate the convenient location, near shopping, schools and close to downtown, and affordable prices.

One factor that has kept those prices affordable is the neighborhood's location on the east side of U.S. 41. If you've lived in Sarasota for a few months, you know the phrase "west of the Trail" can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars more for a home. In the neighborhoods around Sarasota Memorial Hospital and Southside Village, for example, simple bungalows can sell for $500,000. A spacious three-bedroom, two-bath home on Bougainvillea Street west of the Trail sold for $679,000 this past year. In the same period, a three-bedroom, two-bath home on the east side of Bougainvillea sold for $130,000. This price differential is why realtors are saying the east side is such a bargain. "What's the difference if you're turning right or left from the Trail?" asks Susan Mitchell, a realtor with Michael Saunders & Company.

The Homes: You'll find street after street of concrete-block ranch-style homes, and many have all the increasingly valued original features-terrazzo floors, big living rooms and bathrooms with pink and aqua tiles. Some houses have been updated inside, but outside most fit the classic mold. The area is homogeneous and placid with a mix of younger families, empty nesters and senior citizens; on most streets, there's little through traffic and you'll often see residents out for their morning or evening walks.

The Prices: Seventy-four homes sold within a recent 12-month period, ranging in price from $220,000 for a 2,095-square-foot two-bedroom to $84,500 for another two-bedroom, 1,126-square-foot home. All of the homes sold were between 1,126 and 2,800 square feet.

Average sale price from 6/12/00 to 6/12/01

2 bedroom $124,973

3 bedroom $155,671

4 bedroom $157,270

Forest Lakes

The 'Hood: If you want a good deal in a deed-restricted community in a central location, look no further than the golf course community of Forest Lakes. Located off Beneva Road, north of Webber, Forest Lakes offers a recently improved golf course and good-sized, landscaped lots. Retirees can be found in abundance here but, as in many of these older subdivisions, the original residents are moving out and younger families are taking over. Forest Lakes was built for safe, suburban living, and judging from its quiet streets and well-maintained lawns, it fits the bill exactly.

The Homes: Forest Lakes was built with the same Northern retirees in mind that Southgate attracted, but because it's newer than Southgate, the homes are slightly larger and more upscale in design. Most homes are 25 to 35 years old, single-story, with the lower ceilings and old floor plans of the era, and every house has a tile roof. Like many of Sarasota's homes built in the '60s and '70s, Forest Lakes' homes are not visually exciting, but they are well-built and often overlook fairways.

The Prices: Thirty-five homes sold here in a recent 12-month period, ranging in price from $119,000 for a two-bedroom, 1,396-square-foot home to $400,000 for a four-bedroom home with 2,965 square feet.

Average sale prices 6/1/00 to 6/1/01

2 bedroom $138,408

3 bedroom $176,260

4 bedroom $260,155

The Sorrento Subdivisions

The 'Hood: Sorrento Shores and Sorrento South are side-by-side subdivisions on the bay and canals in Nokomis and Osprey, while Sorrento East is located across U.S. 41 to the east. For the most part, these communities lack the expensive landscaping and imposing architecture of luxury subdivisions, but they offer large lots (huge by today's standards) and many homes enjoy expansive water views and access to deep sailboat water. They are also close to the beaches, Sarasota Square Mall, Pine View School for the Gifted and Venice. Once retirement havens, today these safe, quiet streets are attracting many younger families with kids.

The Homes: Most of the homes in Sorrento Shores and Sorrento South are similar-looking, single-story ranches, even those on properties with wide bayfronts. Think Bird Key before its tear-down phase. "This is very good value for waterfront," says Gerry Raasch, broker/salesman with Century 21 Sorrento Realty. Built in the late '60s, the homes are usually 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath ranches in the popular split plan (master bedroom on one side of the house and the other bedrooms located on the opposite end). The homes are solid but in need of updating. For example, the ceilings are only eight feet high. Already, those along the bay and canals are being torn down or remodeled into the large homes we're used to seeing along the water.

Sorrento East was developed in the '70s, and offers villas, condos and single-family homes. The single-family homes tend to be larger two- and three-bedroom ranches on bigger lots; a few are on the community's pleasant lakes.

The Prices: You can find canal-front properties in the mid-$300s to mid-$400s, says Raasch. Just to compare, there is nothing available in that range on Bird Key and Siesta Key canal-fronts. The most expensive sale in a recent 12-month period was a three-bedroom bayfront home in Sorrento Shores that sold for $735,000. Raasch predicts that Sorrento Shores will be "unrecognizable" in 10 years as people finish bulldozing those vintage '60s and '70s ranches for the megahomes of today. "The value of the dirt is exceeding the bricks and mortar," he says. Homes aren't as pricey on the east side because they don't offer the waterfront. A three-bedroom, two-bath home with a pool usually ranges from the mid-$140s to $170s, Raasch says.

Average sale price from 5/31/00 to 5/31/01

Sorrento Shores and Sorrento South

2 bedroom $206,835

3 bedroom $331,590

4 bedroom $314,200

Sorrento East

2 bedroom $133,291

3 bedroom $172,935

Sarasota Golf Club

The 'Hood: If you're looking for an unpretentious golf course community out east, Sarasota Golf Club-right next to pricey, gated Laurel Oak Country Club-is a good buy, say realtors. It's close to Doctors Hospital and I-75, and offers a good, public, 18-hole course with bunkered greens and rolling fairways. Unlike Laurel Oak, there are no gates to the more moderately priced Sarasota Golf Club. Still, the area is secluded (downright hard to find, in fact) and suburban, with a lot of big trees and open space, and the basketball hoops, bicycles and playground equipment in the yards show that this is a family-friendly neighborhood. "The pace seems to be slower here, like it was 20 years ago," says Regina Smiley, a realtor with Realty Executives. "Neighbors know one another and help each other out." Sarasota Golf Club also offers lots that are some of the largest in the county, some almost a half acre on the golf course.

The Homes: Almost every home style from the past several decades seems to be represented here, from the standard Florida ranch of the '60s to newer Spanish-Mediterranean homes with arches to contemporary two-story homes of wood. Lots are still selling as well, and the homes on these lots will be larger and grander. Given the generous lot sizes, Smiley says homes are easily-and frequently-renovated at the Sarasota Golf Club.

The Prices: Fifteen homes sold within a recent 12-month period. Most homes were three-bedrooms of between 1,700 and 2,500 square feet. Only one sale was a four-bedroom, 2,335-square-foot home with a pool.

Average sale prices from 5/30/00 to 5/30/01

3 bedroom $145,257

4 bedroom $185,000

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