Leading Question

By Hannah Wallace November 30, 2004

"I get asked about that a lot," says Tom Stone of Michael Saunders & Company who lists and sells on Casey Key.

It's a reasonable question, and a frequent topic of discussion at local business meetings and social events. Locally, the hurricanes caused evacuations along the water, flooding and mold, uprooted trees, ruined docks and boats, damaged seawalls and yards, and destroyed a few homes. And we were fortunate: the storms largely bypassed Sarasota and Manatee.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] estimates more than 250,000 residences were damaged statewide. The Insurance Information Institute estimates the total for insured claims will exceed the $21 billion paid out for Hurricane Andrew [in today's dollars]. Florida already has the third highest insurance rates in the country, according to the Florida Insurance Council, in part because 55 percent of all paid hurricane claims are to Florida clients. After Andrew, insurance premiums doubled across the state, tripling in some areas.

So, with that in mind, will waterfront property become less desirable? Stone believes there will not be a noticeable drop in value. Some people will be motivated to sell, but he reasons these will be few and the inventory for anything priced at less than $5 million is low enough that the market can absorb these additional properties. Steve Dutoit of Keller Williams Realty agrees. He says the limited amount of damage in our local markets doesn't create a great increase in motivation to sell.

On the demand side, Stone says sales pick up when winter residents and visitors arrive. By then, the storm's frightening images will be less vivid. What he expects is a shift in tastes toward new construction, because the houses built to modern codes withstood the storms well. This shift in tastes might actually improve the values of waterfront properties that meet current codes, according to Dutoit. Older waterfront homes may hold their value because pricing often is driven by the land value, and many buyers tear down what exists to construct a new house.

Peter Laughlin, waterfront developer and broker for Laughlin Luxury Lifestyles, has "talked to many people in the business here and we don't believe there is going to be any effect, in the sense of a slowing of the market." He observed residents have a sense of being on a protected coast here, and that "after Andrew there was a huge boom in Miami." Dutoit cites demographics for his confidence in demand remaining high. With the baby boomer generation approaching retirement and seeking warmth, he expects the number of people moving here to increase, strengthening demand for elite properties.

David Kelly, director for graduate studies in economics at the University of Miami, says expectations are integral to property values, so for hurricane activity to hurt property values, the damage would have to be worse than anticipated. And thankfully, it was not; we escaped the worst destruction. The threat he sees now is insurance rates going higher than anticipated, as after Andrew.

But maybe the outlook isn't gloomy there either. Scott Johnson, executive vice president of the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, says key factors in the rate hikes following Andrew are "measurably different" in today's market where insurers have the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, higher deductibles and realistic coverage limits. Most importantly, he says, insurance rates are already priced rationally, based on new predictive technology, so the recent hurricane damage should not exceed expectations, and thus should not result in rate hikes comparable to those after Andrew.

The consensus is that, though the weather tried its best, waterfront property values will remain strong. 

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