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SMar 21, 2004

Can You Say Boom?

Scott Burns
FORT MYERS, Florida. It doesn't matter where you go in Florida these days, it's all going boom as some baby boomers front run their peers and rush to this warm state, buying houses for their eventual retirement.

Housing prices here are soaring. The most recent National Association of Realtors figures show the median Sarasota home price up 26.1 percent (to $222,100); the Miami median is up 22.9 percent (to $236,900); the West Palm Beach area is up 19.2 percent (to $252,900); and the Fort Myers/Cape Coral area is up 12.8 percent (to $156,500). (See table)

You can get an idea of the self-renewing heat this kind of appreciation creates by considering a simple example. Suppose you earn $60,000 a year and stretch to buy a house at 4 times your income, or $240,000. Your net income after payroll and income taxes might be about $48,000. That's about what your house will "earn", tax-free, if it appreciates 20 percent.

So there are areas of Florida where homeowners are making more money by where they choose to live than by where they work. In an era of squeezed payrolls and when millions fear losing their jobs and eke out small wage gains, your future is where you live, not the work you do.

The Sunday edition of the Fort Myers News Press is a good indication of the pressures in this market. The paper offers not one Real Estate section but five, clocking in with a total of 56 pages. That's 7 times as large as the employment pages, a single section of 8 pages.

While most Florida home prices have soared, the national median home price rose a healthy 6.6 percent during the same period. Home prices in workaholic Dallas drifted a sluggish 0.4 percent. Spunky Denver rose only 4.0 percent. But Florida is the Land of the Soaring Walkers. New construction is everywhere.

Indeed, just driving between Fort Myers and Naples is a major task. Driving down Route 41, the old highway that connects the two areas, you see the shift in retailing that occurs when most of the population is over 60.   One store is called "Budget Mobility," and offers walkers and electric carts of different kinds. Another roadside store sells oxygen.

One evening, I made the mistake of trying to return to Fort Myers from Naples--- at the commuter hour. Older people were eagerly lined up outside the restaurants that dot the highway. The combination of their early dinner hour driving and normal commuting brought traffic to a standstill.

Starting in Fort Myers an endless strip of pawnshops and paycheck loan storefronts slowly transmutes into manicured upscale malls as you approach Naples. Naples itself is reputed to have more millionaires on a per capita basis than any other community of its size in the United States. It's two areas of very upscale shopping, 5th Avenue and 3rd Avenue, are regularly referred to as "Rodeo Drive, East."

We've got a new kind of boom here. This isn't the soaring real estate that happens in Manhattan after a few good years in the stock market. It isn't the wild appreciation that hit San Francisco in the Bubble Years, when freshly minted Internet millionaires bid against each other to buy houses best described as threats to public health. It isn't like the Dallas telecom surge or the Boston biotech boom.

This is pure demographic boom. It is entirely fueled by people, by a simple, raw flood of aging humanity. In other booms people throng to job opportunities, hoping to make their fortunes. What drives this boom is people who bring their own supply of money.   They are here to buy their Last Home. Unlike other booms, this one runs on known numbers, to the Baby Boom of the last century.

  
Say Boom: Florida Homes vs. the National Median
Metropolitan Area

Year End 2003 Median Home Price

Annual % Change

United States

171.6

6.6%

Major Florida Areas:

  

  

Bradenton, FL

186.1

18.7%

Daytona Beach, FL

113.7

13.0%

Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood/Pompano Beach, FL

236.3

15.4%

Ft. Myers/Cape Coral, FL

156.5

12.8%

Gainesville, FL

150.0

15.4%

Melbourne/Titusville/Palm Bay, FL

132.0

11.9%

Jacksonville, FL

132.8

9.8%

Miami/Hialeah, FL

236.9

22.9%

Orlando, FL

151.5

8.5%

Pensacola, FL

117.1

3.4%

Sarasota, FL

222.1

26.1%

Tallahassee, FL

139.5

-0.4%

Tampa/St. Petersburg/Clearwater, FL

147.0

7.4%

W. Palm Beach/Boca Raton/Delray Beach, FL

252.9

19.2%

Source: National Association of Realtors

  

  

  

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Filed Under: Medicare & Generational Storm, Mortgages, Financial Crisis