The Last Frontier

By staff October 1, 2003

When a Lido Shores home on the Gulf of Mexico sold for a record $11 million in Sarasota last spring, it was time for the landlocked among us to face facts. We will never sip margaritas at sunset from our own dock on the Sarasota waterfront. An overreaction? This past July, there were only six listings on all of Siesta Key under $400,000 and they weren't even on the water. On Bird Key, the cheapest canal home was $1.5 million. Even in little Venice, the least expensive waterfront listing was $761,000 for a small home built in 1964.

"Waterfront property has gone up pretty much across the board," says Jeff Zipper of the Florida Association of Realtors, looking back at the last three years. "It's nuts."

But if you're a bargain hunter set on living on the water in Southwest Florida, don't give up. Just 50 miles south in Charlotte County, waterfront lots can still be found for under $300,000. (Yes, for all you latecomers to the world of Florida real estate, that's cheap.) Get in line, though. Sleepy Charlotte County, with a population of 150,000 and the distinction of leading the nation in its percentage of folks over 65, has been discovered.

"Every area has its time and this is ours," says Don Atwell, a realtor for Five Star Realty in Punta Gorda.

Life was slow when Money Magazine named the Punta Gorda MSA (Charlotte County) as one of the top five places to live in the country for four years, starting in 1996. Then, in April 2001, Florida Trend ranked Punta Gorda as one of Florida's "Small Town Gems." About the same time, Forbes placed Punta Gorda on its "best small place for business and career" in 2001 and 2002. The publicity had an effect.

"It put us on the radar screen," says Julie Mathis, the executive director of the Charlotte County Chamber of Commerce.

It didn't take long for real estate buyers to react. The buyers, however, were not the typical Northern snowbirds. They were Floridians, folks hailing from Tampa down to Naples and along the East Coast, looking for a good deal and a setting where traffic lights were few and far between. After Sept. 11 and the stock market collapse, groups of investors and speculators-often forming limited liability corporations and bringing their own out-of-town realtors-pounced on what they viewed as the last place in Southwest Florida to get a great deal on the water. As a result, prices started to rise.

"Prices have doubled and tripled in the last three years," says Kathy Damewood of Re/Max Bayside Properties. Damewood, who bought a $250,000 home on the water in Cape Haze three years ago, says she could easily sell it for $500,000 now.

Atwell, who has lived in the area since 1975, says some out-of-town buyers are actually angry about the appreciation. "People still think we are the Kmart community, the blue light special. They still thought we were bargain basement. Well, we're not that anymore." That's not to say you can't get a deal relative to the rest of Florida's west coast, he adds. It just won't be the deal of two years or even six months ago.

So where should you look? Although Charlotte County has very little Gulf-front, it has a tremendous amount of shoreline. The Peace River and the Myakka flow through Charlotte and empty into the 129 square miles of beautiful Charlotte Harbor, an estuary considered one of the most unpolluted bodies of water in the state. The harbor is also unique because the state purchased so much of the shoreline and mangroves, giving the area a pristine feel. There are few mega-mega homes of the 10,000-square-foot variety and almost no gated communities. Residents aren't peering between towering structures to get a glimpse of water. Yes, there are million-dollar properties; 95 homes are valued at $1 million plus-most on Boca Grande and Manasota Key-up from 10 such properties five years ago, says Charlotte's Property Appraiser Frank Desguin. But the lack of big homes and towering condos gives the entire sprawling county a cherished small-town feeling, say residents-although city types might add that this small-town atmosphere is really a vast sea of homogenous modest ranch homes, and it's a bit, well, b-o-r-I-n-g.

Charlotte Harbor eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico. That means Charlotte offers miles of riverfront, canalfront, harborfront and a bit of Gulf-front (along south Manasota Key and north Gasparilla.) "We don't have much beach so we're not a tourist destination like Sarasota or Naples," says Atwell. (The keys don't offer any deals, anyway, say realtors, especially on Boca Grande, where the refrain "The billionaires are chasing out the millionaires" is common.) And while latecomers to Charlotte might be wringing their hands over missing the best deals of three years ago, Lyn Bevis of Re/Max Harbor Realty leaves them with the Florida realtors' time-honored advice: "You can't go wrong on the waterfront." He should also add that they'd better hurry. The prices of today are bound to go up tomorrow.

Here's a tour of waterfront neighborhoods.

Punta Gorda's Retta Esplanade

West of U.S. 41 and east of Fishermens Village along the south bank of the Peace River.

The first impression as drivers depart I-75 at Exit 164 to head into Punta Gorda is one of rural Florida. There are no gas stations, no Ramada Inns, not even a familiar Taco Bell where a driver can swing off the Interstate for a bean burrito. Instead, you follow two-lane Marion Avenue, which passes the three-story Charlotte Regional Medical Center before it ends up only three miles later in Punta Gorda, a tiny city of brick streets and quaint, brightly painted homes with big front porches and only 15,000 residents. Don't blink or you'll miss the center of the city, which covers only a couple of blocks. The town is so old-fashioned and friendly that residents still volunteer to re-brick the streets after work crews repair water lines. Every Thursday night, guitar players pick and strum the night away down at Gilchrist Park on Punta Gorda's waterfront.

Another unique aspect is Punta Gorda's strict regulation of building heights. Single-family homes and commercial structures can only be 35 feet (although first floors actually begin five to six feet above the ground because of FEMA's flood regulations so are really 40 to 41 feet high); multi-family structures only 40 (starting from the flood elevation). The condo canyons that many in Sarasota gripe about are, so far, forbidden in Punta Gorda.

But there are signs that civilization has found the city. Jeane and James Roland opened up The Perfect Caper, a gourmet restaurant specializing in contemporary, fusion food downtown, after their corporate jobs dried up in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Business has been good, Roland says, and so has their real estate investment. They bought their home on the Peace River for $150,000 five years ago and say someone just down the street recently paid more than $300,000 for a similar lot.

Soon afterwards, Doug Amaral, a restaurateur from Naples (he owns Mangrove Café and Diva Martini on Fifth Avenue in Naples), came to Charlotte in 2002 to invest in waterfront property just like everyone else. He ended up selling his investments ("I quadrupled my money in six months," he asserts) and opening River City Grill after he concluded Marion Avenue was as charming as Fifth Avenue in Naples. "I thought, 'What am I doing building houses?'" While friends warned him there was no market for a trendy restaurant in Charlotte County, Amaral says the restaurant is doing so well that he and his partner Charles Wallace are opening an Italian restaurant down the street and a lobster shack around the corner. Amaral also convinced the owner of The Turtle Club in Naples to open in Punta Gorda. "We want to make this a dining destination," he says.

For most visitors, waterfront in downtown Punta Gorda is love at first sight. The homes aren't directly on the Peace River; they're across a park-like setting along Retta Esplande, the street that winds along the waterfront. The homes, both new and old, often offer second-story balconies, metal roofs and wide, wraparound porches. Prices here-if you can find something for sale-range from $350,000 to close to $1 million.

Punta Gorda Isles and Burnt Store Isles

West of U.S. 41, bounded by Charlotte Harbor to the north and Alligator Creek to the south.

The hottest areas in Charlotte County right now are the sister communities of deed-restricted Punta Gorda Isles (about 5,500 homesites) and Burnt Store Isles (1,476 sites) with their 60 miles of deep-water canals. Because of Punta Gorda Isles' access to deep and open water, it's the closest neighborhood Charlotte County has to Bird Key, but the prices are much lower. While 15 of the 34 active listings-all homes-on Bird Key last summer were more than $2 million, reaching to $4.7 million, prices for a vacant lot in PGI and BSI ranged from $150,000 to $600,000. Both communities were developed by Punta Gorda Isles Company-PGI in 1958 and BSI a decade or so later. Most homes in both communities are still one-story ranch-style residences with tile roofs, although there is evidence of teardowns and remodels and plenty of new construction. A canal-front yellow ranch with green trim in Punta Gorda Isles was listed at $375,000 this summer. The average price of a vacant 80-by-120-foot lot is $275,000, Atwell says. (Take a breath: Three years ago, you could have bought one for $70,000.) In PGI, the rare remaining lots on Jamaica Way, the only street in the community that is right on Charlotte Harbor, run as high as $600,000. A two-bedroom condominium right on the harbor in the mint-green Jamaica Way complex is about $325,000. The newer homes on Jamaica Way are larger, more glamorous and pricier, reaching $2.2 million. Atwell says buyers love these neighborhoods for their homogenous, manicured feel, the city-maintained seawalls and the access to open Charlotte Harbor.

Along the Banks of the Peace River

East of I-75 along Riverside Drive on the south bank and Peace River Drive and Harbour Drive on the north bank.

Travelers coming from Sarasota crossing the Peace River on I-75 often exclaim about the riverbank's untouched beauty and the few houses peeking from the heavily wooded shores on both the north and south sides of the Interstate. Once off the highway, however, and driving along the south bank, first-timers will find no less than three trailer parks along the river and some ordinary ranchettes across the street. Still, it's almost virgin territory compared to the heavily developed shorelines in most of Sarasota County-and it's surprisingly close to town and the Interstate. The south side is definitely more desirable than the north. The lots are deep and run to an acre or more and many of them still have trees. There are some big new homes there-quite a few owned by local doctors, says Atwell-but there's also a surprising amount of undeveloped land. One 96-by-416-foot lot was listed at $329,000 last summer. Bevis says prices in this area doubled in the last two years. "Three and a half years ago, we would never have sold anything for more than $250,000," he says. Last winter, 11 acres on Riverside Drive, which winds along the south bank, were purchased for $950,000 and the investor immediately divided the acreage into five lots and sold the first for $405,000 in the blink of an eye. Now they're listed for $459,000 to $500,000. A 10-year-old, four-bedroom home with a pool on the river-the only listing that is not a teardown, says Bevis-is listed for $750,000.

The north bank, by contrast, is more densely developed east of the Interstate. The neighborhood is known as Harbour Heights-and it's definitely not for people who want deed restrictions. Cars languish on lawns, boats fill the driveways and most of the homes, built in the '50s through the '70s, need a paint job and some landscaping. Plus, they don't have that "PG [Punta Gorda] address," says one resident. Right now, the north riverfront lots along Peace River Drive and Harbor Drive are shallow and the homes are smallish '60s and '70s ranches. The prices, by comparison to the prices of the deep lots and space on the south side, seem steep. Still, the view is just as beautiful from the north side. Half-acre lots, if you can find any, start at $200,000, says Atwell. Older homes on the river can be found for $250,000, but one listing-a bigger, newer home-was $750,000. Ouch.

Port Charlotte and Port Charlotte Beach

East of King's Highway on both the north and south sides of Edgewater Drive.

Port Charlotte is west of the Interstate and was developed by General Development Corporation.

For the most part, it looks like an endless line of strip malls along U.S. 41 surrounded by thousands of tidy but featureless ranch homes, a perfect poster child for the ills of suburban sprawl. Edgewater Drive is the main east-west road, dividing the area into Port Charlotte on the north and Port Charlotte Beach on the south. Most of the homes in this area are on a network of canals rather than open river or harborfront; many are ranches with tar and gravel roofs built in the '60s, about 800 to 1,000 square feet in size. Atwell says canalfront listings in these areas last summer ranged from $139,900 to $899,000, but a quick trip up and down the dozens of roads didn't produce anything under $250,000, according to the real estate flyers out front. On the south side, closer to open water, they'll be more expensive.

Grassy Point, Charlotte's most glamorous community-it actually has a guard gate!-is located in this area. The homes are large and stunning-the kind Sarasotans are used to seeing along prime waterfront-and most are set on wide-open water. There's no deal here: Waterfront lots in this development are more than a million and, last summer, one home was listed at $2.7 million.

Grove City

Along 775 on Lemon Bay, south of 776 (McCall Road).

Across the harbor and the Cape Haze Peninsula, just off 775 below Englewood is a little waterfront community called Grove City, where all the streets are named after U.S. states. The neighborhood is right on Lemon Bay and all the properties are on canals, some of them quite wide. Like all the other Charlotte County communities on the water, this one is exploding in value; and while prices aren't what you'd consider a great deal, they're definitely lower than what you'll find on Longboat Key. Most of the homes are older ranches from the '70s on smallish lots. There's very little for sale on these streets. "A little bitty house will be more than $300,000 in this area," says Damewood. Last summer, a small white concrete block house with blue trim on an extremely wide canal on Georgia Street was listed at $635,000.

Gulf Cove

West of 776 along the Myakka River.

On the east side of the Cape Haze Peninsula are the communities of Gulf Cove and South Gulf Cove. Gulf Cove is located right on the Myakka River and the views right on the waterfront are magnificent. The sign at the entrance of Gulf Cove boasts that the development is "A Boating and Fishing Community," and many of the homes face canals (although these are not deepwater canals and residents must use a system of locks to get out to open water.) The houses are of a younger generation than those of Port Charlotte, but still look like retirees' homes; many of the lawns sport ornaments like dolphins and Grecian statues, birdbaths and cute manatee mailboxes. Few homes are for sale on the canal streets leading to the river. Some lots are still available. A canal lot was listed for $134,000 last summer and riverfront lots ranged from $254,900 to $525,000 for 140 feet on the water (divided, each lot was priced at $250,000 and $359,000).

South Gulf Cove

Along Charlotte Harbor, south of 776 (McCall Road) and just off 771.

Well, this may be the deal everyone's looking for. South Gulf Cove is a massive community of 14,000 lots located on Charlotte Harbor off 771. Developed in the early '70s by General Development Corporation, it has a system of saltwater canals-many with seawalls-running through the community. Maybe a third to a half of all lots are on water. Once you get over the fact that it's a bit confusing to find and spooky to drive through, you'll be fine. County maps show a dense network of streets right off 771 but when visitors head north up the highway there is not a gas station, convenience store, Subway shop or home for miles. Finally, a small sign alerts visitors they've arrived at the community. Still, there are no homes along the front; in fact, almost no homes for two miles inside the entrance-just streets that look like they were platted years ago and then abandoned. Scattered homes pop up the closer you get to the water, which in this case is Charlotte Harbor. A word of caution for boaters, however. Getting to the Gulf of Mexico is not a straight shot. Boaters must go through a system of locks before they reach the harbor and then it's 28 miles to the Gulf of Mexico, says Gary Miner, a realtor with South Gulf Cove Realty. While there are acres of empty lots, the county finally installed water and sewer, and property owners are starting to build, say realtors.

Miner says the community is changing-almost too fast. Three years ago, you could have purchased a waterfront lot for $6,000. Today, that lot is $70,000. He says blocks of investors from Naples and as far as away as St. Petersburg have come in and purchased 15 to 20 lots at a time and then flipped them. Prices have sometimes gone up $20,000 in three weeks. A fairly new, two-bedroom, two-bath home on wide Zephyr Waterway offered 1,826 square feet, a boat lift, dock and pool for $349,900 last summer. Miner says young families can buy homes on the water for between $150,000 to $200,000 and retirees are sometimes spending up to $500,000. Not bad when you think about Sarasota's waterfront prices. True, there's no symphony, opera, ballet, cinema, trendy restaurants, Saks Fifth Avenue or plastic surgeon within many miles, but it's waterfront-and, compared to the rest of Southwest Florida, it's affordable.

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