It's About Value

By staff October 1, 2003

You may think we editors sit around discussing left-wing, liberal politics, but lately we've been talking about real estate. It's finally dawned on us that while we've been covering the Medieval Fair and arguing over comma splices, smarter minds were out there flipping West-of-the-Trail bungalows and watching their waterfront holdings quadruple in value.

So when Susan Burns started working on a story about the last great waterfront buys in Southwest Florida (page XX in this issue), we all pricked up our ears. And after she announced that people were forsaking Naples for affordable estates along the Peace River and that one realtor had assured her that "beautiful" canal-front homes could be found "for $100,000-hell, for $80,000!" we decided we'd heard enough. With mortgage rates plummeting and our 40lKs starting to revive, even journalists could get into the game, we decided; and a week later, five of us piled into Susan's big red van and headed south.

On the way down, we studied the map, calculated rental incomes and noted the commute time-just in case we, like those Naples buyers, might decide to relocate to a riverfront bargain. By the time we crossed the Peace River bridge on I-75, the only thing we hadn't resolved was who had dibs on the first $80,000 canal-front beauty.

I cross that bridge frequently, and I'm always struck by the shimmering beauty of the wide Peace River and the idyllic seclusion of the homes nestled into green woods along the banks. But once we exited from the interstate and started driving up and down those riverfront roads, we didn't see a lot of idyllic seclusion. Instead of a winding trail through primeval forests, we drove down an ordinary two-lane road flanked by trailer parks and run-down little houses. Somewhere past the Last Chance Saloon, we started seeing the riverfront lots-deep, almost one-acre sites, they were definitely a bargain by Sarasota standards, where a teardown on the bay can now cost half a million or more. We saw one lot for around $350,000, and a tract of four for $800,000. Some held dated, ranch-style homes; from a few rose grand, post-FEMA structures; and an occasional charmer hid in hammocks of oaks and palms. But many of the lots had been cleared of trees and vegetation, and maybe because of that, or because of the ramshackle homes right across the road, we never got the sense of a lush, inviting neighborhood.

A little subdued now, we headed to the developed neighborhoods-Punta Gorda Isles, Harbour Heights and other communities built around the network of wide canals that crisscrosses the county and leads out to Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf.

But I'm sorry to report that after an entire day of exploring those neighborhoods, we didn't see a single $80,000-or $100,000-canal home. We did see a few in the $200,000-range, more for $300,000 and many, including some spiffy new Mediterranean-style structures, for $400,000 or more. We also saw an endless succession of canals, so many that I could envision getting forever lost trying to find mine after taking a boat out to Charlotte Harbor.

Judging from the no-nonsense appearance of the tidy homes lining those canals, that wouldn't be a problem for these people. It looked like organized, efficient citizens had settled here, retired middle managers and entrepreneurs who study nautical charts, take their American flags down promptly at sunset, eschew modern architecture and prefer manicured bushes to messy fruit and shade trees. And they have the good sense to travel North or stay inside during the blistering summer season; we saw only three real, live people in all those neighborhoods, including a determined-looking senior with a bristling crewcut who was mowing his lawn.

We also saw hardly any stores, no nightlife except for a few karaoke bars, and one urban center-downtown Punta Gorda, where we stopped for a sensational lunch at The Perfect Caper (the young owners bought their riverfront house for $150,000 four years ago). With its old-Florida homes and little shops, the town is as cute as can be, but it only lasts for a few blocks-not enough for any of us.

Peace, quiet and pretty water views, we started to realize, were not enough for us restless, attention-deficit journalists. Even with cable TV and a Cabin Cruiser, we'd go crazy living along these quiet canals. We needed urban energy and diversity-cool stores, ethnic restaurants, art film houses, thrift shops, live music and theater and the sense that whether we tapped into it or not, a whole city full of events and opportunities was right at our feet. Yes, you can buy a Charlotte waterfront property for $100,000 or so less than in Sarasota; but there's a reason for that. You get what you pay for, and though Charlotte does have some cultural life (more about that in Susan's story), in Sarasota, you're getting a world of variety and activities that just doesn't exist to the south. For some people, that may be all the more reason to head to placid, pastoral Charlotte. But as we drove back that afternoon, we agreed that as far as we're concerned, there really is no place like home. 

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