A World of Water

By Ilene Denton Photography by Matt McCourtney December 1, 2009

asset_upload_file384_30347.jpgWhether you’re a first-time tourist or a longtime resident, chances are what brought you to this beautiful part of Florida was our waterways—not just the Gulf of Mexico, which meanders Along 35 miles of sugar-white beaches from north Longboat to Manasota key, but also the Intracoastal Waterway and our bays, the numerous tributaries that flow from them, and the hundreds of canals that wind through pretty neighborhoods.

Now, more than ever, the choices in waterfront properties are bountiful, and the prices are unbelievable. But before you dive in, do a little soul searching. Do you want lots of beach time and long, golden sunset walks? Go for Gulf-front property. Boating and fishing waters? A canal-front or riverfront home is probably your top choice. Beautiful water views and city vistas, without all that sand in your shoes? That’s the joy of bayfront living.  

Linda Page of Prudential Palms Realty is admittedly biased; she’s lived on the downtown Sarasota bayfront for nine years and sells lots of mainland bayfront properties.

“The bayfront offers a very different feeling than the Gulf of Mexico; neither is better, they’re just different,” she says. “The view is constantly changing, every day and all day long—boat traffic in the Intracoastal, even in the evening; manatees; dolphins; all the seabirds. The pelicans hug the buildings; they may fly within three or four feet of you if you’re on your balcony. You can watch them dive headfirst almost in unison. Even the storms are beautiful. When you’re on the mainland, you can watch a storm start over north Longboat Key and travel all along to the south end; by the time it’s over St. Armands there’s usually a rainbow.”   

Sounds romantic, and it is, but there’s also a practical side, Page says, with excellent values in bayfront homes right now up and down the Intracoastal, with some now as low as just over $1 million. One great deal: a 4,100-square-foot, single-family Bird Key residence on direct bayfront, with four bedrooms and four baths, listed at press time at $2.7 million after an original list price of $3,495,000. “And that’s typical,” she says. “A few years ago you couldn’t even look at anything on direct bayfront for under $3.5 million minimum.”

Condo prices on the bayfront swing widely, from $400,000 for a home in an older building on Golden Gate Point to $659,000 for a 1,700-square-foot, two-bedroom home in need of some updating at Lawrence Pointe, where “every single room except the bathroom looks out on the bay,” she says. At swank, newer Beau Ciel, Page recently sold a 15th-floor condo with more than 4,000 square feet of living space and a 1,000-square-foot terrace for $1.9 million—“$600,000 or $800,000 less than [it would have commanded] in a more normal market,” she says.

Moving on to the Gulf of Mexico, longtime waterfront specialist Debra Pitell, a broker/realtor with Michael Saunders & Company, sold the most expensive Gulf-front property in Sarasota County in 2006—a Mediterranean Revival mansion in Lido Shores for $13 million to a New York couple. She subsequently sold the adjacent vacant Gulf-front lot for $4.6 million to the same buyer. (They’ve kept it undeveloped for the privacy it affords them.)

“I can’t talk about values anymore because everything is so skewed from short sales and foreclosures,” Pitell says. “But I can say values are still tremendous; and that waterfront, out of all the properties, still holds its value really, really well.” That old adage about waterfront property still rings true, she says: They’re not making any more of it.

“There are some great selections in Gulf-front right now in Sarasota and Manatee counties, from Anna Maria and south to Manasota Key,” says Pitell. At press time, prices ranged from a little under $2 million up to $18 million or $20 million. But if it’s much under $2 million, she says, you’re buying it for the value of the land alone.

The typical Gulf-front single-family home buyer nowadays, Pitell says, is a professional couple in their 40s or 50s who plan to use it as a vacation home. “It seems rare that it’s a permanent resident,” she says, “and fewer buyers are setting down roots six months of the year. Many do have children and grandchildren; they use it for large family gatherings.”

Most buyers of single-family Gulf-front homes want to make improvements, Pitell says, and any Gulf-front construction project comes with all sorts of rules and regulations. “It’s complex,” she cautions. “The agent is not qualified to answer these questions, but we can put them in touch with experts: an architect who understands the building restrictions and what it means to be seaward of the coastal construction line, how and what you can build in a velocity zone, and a waterfront home builder who understands the significance of that.”

An avid scuba diver and boater, Devon Davis of Signature Sotheby’s International Realty grew up on the Gulf of Mexico on Anna Maria Island, and now lives on the bayside in a home with “amazing views of the Skyway Bridge.” Her real estate specialty is properties along the mile-wide Manatee River, which runs from charming old Riverview Boulevard all the way out to Arcadia, and north to Palmetto, Ellenton and Parrish. Riverfront properties, she says, especially appeal to boaters, fishing enthusiasts, and, because they offer protected harbors, those who are storm-wary.

Davis recently sold a home in Hawk Island, an enclave of custom-built luxury homes on the Manatee River, to “wannabe boaters” who searched for six months. They bought it because “there’s so much to see,” she says. The property has two docks: one right on the river for “pleasure—to sit and enjoy your glass of wine,” and another true deepwater dock that can accommodate a 40-foot craft on the protected harbor that meanders through the community. Homes in this development, which was built in the last five years, originally were marketed for $2 million to $3 million. Now, she says, you can snag one for $1 million to $2 million. That’s typical of the values buyers will find right now, Davis adds.  

In fact, she says, “You can buy something on the waterfront right now for $200,000. You’ll probably have to do major work to it, or even tear it down. But it can be done.”

The trick for smooth sailing, Davis says, is that waterfront has so many meanings. “Everybody’s different,” she says. “You really have to figure out the client’s real needs and match them to the right property.” z

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