The Second Home Phenomenon

By staff December 1, 2002

The love story begins with a passionate three-day weekend. Parting is tearful, but plans are made to get back together for two weeks, maybe three. Soon visits last a month, even two. Regular vacations are followed by entire seasons spent together; but still, it is not enough. Finally, when you can no longer stand the separation, you spring for a vacation home of your own in Sarasota. Ahhhh. Have the mail forwarded and order another set of stationery with your second address. For a glorious portion of the year, Sarasota is home.

Few can resist Sarasota's siren song, particularly when winter bites hard. But lately her appeal has gone global, thanks to a congruence of factors. Realtors and home builders agree that the new Ritz-Carlton called Sarasota to the attention of visitors from around the world who hadn't realized what they were missing. At the same time, security and a safe, small-town atmosphere became an important priority for vacation homebuyers. And as the Dow tanked and the S & P plummeted, financial advisors began whispering "real estate" to clients with investment dollars to spend. What better way to protect and grow assets than a vacation home in a beautiful and interesting city?

Who Are They?

Vacation home buyers in the United States have an average age of 46 and pay a median price of $162,000 for their second home, according to statistics from the National Board of Realtors. Seventy-two percent of second homes are purchased by married couples, and vacation homes sales make up a mere five percent of real estate sales.

But Sarasota does not fit the national average. One-third of all properties here are second homes, and buyers usually pay more for them than they did for their primary residence. Still, insists Michael Saunders, head of Sarasota's Michael Saunders & Company, there are plenty of affordable opportunities. "You do not have to be a millionaire to own a beautiful second home in Sarasota," she insists. "But you can still enjoy a million-dollar lifestyle. Right now there are gorgeous golf villas in country club communities listed at under $250,000, offering access to all of the cultural amenities and beaches within a 15-minute drive."

The stereotypical image of winter residents as retirees on the shuffleboard court shifted some years ago. Sarasota's new second-home buyers became couples in their 50s or 60s. They're physically active, well-traveled, professional and not necessarily working full time up North but still connected to a business in some manner, perhaps as chairman of the board or consultant.

"We're selling second homes to Baby Boomers looking for a lifestyle," says Saunders. "Perhaps they grew up in Sarasota or vacationed here as children and they want to come back. Those focused on investment realize that Sarasota is still a solid buy."

Gary Roberts of Bamboo Homes says 50 percent of all his new homes are designed as second residences. Increasingly, Roberts finds himself working with 35-year-olds with young children, creating vacation homes for families who divide their time between major urban cities and Sarasota and spend between $500,000 and $5 million to create that perfect getaway place. "There have always been young people with a great deal of money," explains Roberts, "but our area did not attract them before. We have been discovered."

Candy Swick says she's seeing the same trend. Swick is currently searching for a perfect vacation home for a 28-year-old event planner who maintains her primary residence in Washington, D.C. This savvy singleton built a business, sold a business and can now afford to own a second residence, says Swick. She prefers a private home within a gated country club community with lush landscaping and space for her beloved pets. Ideally, she'll spend a significant amount of time in Sarasota and wants a place that feels like home. Her budget? Somewhere around $500,000.

Another of Swick's clients is retiring from Disney at the ripe old age of 42 and wants to live in Orlando but vacation in Sarasota. A beachfront condominium on Longboat Key seems exactly right, and he's willing pay up to $1.3 million. "He already owns a condominium in Sarasota but would like something larger since the family will be spending more time here," says Swick.

Designer Gwendolyn Sears says she's spotted another trend in vacation home owners: 40-somethings who have inherited their parents' beachfront condominiums. "The new owners love the locations but are not thrilled with the lime green and yellow and all that wicker," explains Sears. "So we redo the interiors with updated furnishings and a fresh, more contemporary look." 

Why Sarasota?

Mr. and Mrs. Bill Karter of Maine and Ohio discovered their dream vacation home at The Oaks and paid over $1 million to enjoy the residence for three or four months every year. The Karters chose Sarasota because of the arts community, golf courses and interesting mix of people, says realtor Sandy Strom. Strom simultaneously helped Mr. and Mrs. Rich Jun of Ohio find a condominium on Siesta Key because they love the beach and the low-key lifestyle of the island. She also found an ideal second home for clients who love sailing. The Russ Gesmes of Michigan now spend six months each year in Sarasota at their $2 million walled estate on Freeling Drive, enjoying a deep water dock, magnificent pool and patio overlooking the bay. "The Gesmes were searching for that right combination of water and weather," says Strom. "Sarasota simply has it all."

Sarasota is competitive with other vacation home destinations such as Aspen, Tahoe and Santa Barbara, says builder Roberts, because of more favorable tax laws, a lower cost of living and superior water. "You cannot find better boating water than Florida's west coast," he asserts. "Less congestion, calmer water and a mellower coastline create an environment that's advantageous to boaters year-round.."

Michael Saunders agrees, adding that Sarasota sells itself. "Where else can you find tennis and boating and golf along with the opera, the theater, the ballet and the museums?" she asks. "This is a special place with a heart for volunteerism and an easily penetrable social structure. Here, one gains acceptance through contribution." Saunders believes prospective buyers should look all over the state with a list of comparables held tightly in one fist. "I welcome clients to compare us with Naples, Palm Beach and Miami," she says. "Sarasota is still undervalued and has more to offer." 

A Variety of Styles 

Sarasota vacation homes range from quaint cottages on the beach to elegantly furnished penthouse apartments overlooking a sparkling city skyline. Interior designer Sears recently completed a Siesta Key home for clients who live in Pennsylvania and split vacation time between their Maryland lake house and Sarasota. The house features tropical landscaping and an island theme, with bright colors and tropical colors. Sears restored the home's original terrazzo floors to a gleaming finish and then covered them with sisal rugs. "They wanted to kick off their shoes and feel at home," she said. "This is their secluded island getaway."

At the same time, Sears also designed a formal penthouse on Longboat Key for Chicago clients who get to Sarasota two or three months out of the year. She is currently working on a second home in Bay Isles for a New Jersey couple who wants their vacation place to reflect its waterfront surroundings. "We're using light and airy neutral tones for a cool background," explains Sears, "and then accenting with many hues of teal and aquamarine to play on the colors of the bay. Hand-painted tiles in the kitchen also play on the colors of the natural flora and fauna."

Judy Graham also drew on nature for inspiration in a condominium on Longboat Key, pulling in all the different colors of the Gulf of Mexico through fabrics and pillows and creating an interior that looks like the water on a lovely day. "We used a thick piece of green glass for their bar and filled a very large crystal bowl with blue and green glass balls used by Portuguese fisherman on their nets," describes Graham. "They are all shades of water and reflect beautifully with exterior light. The room really works with the view."

Another client from the Midwest chose golf course living and asked Graham to help design a comfortable space for entertaining and everyday living. She's also working on a second home on Lido Key for an urban couple who escapes to the beach whenever possible. "That is the wonderful part of where we live," says Graham. "Sarasota allows people to design a vacation retreat perfectly suited to their personal lifestyle." 

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