SARASOTA, FL. July is not the fashionable time to be in Sarasota. Some of the restaurants close. Many of the year-round residents book flights to the north. With the exception of fashionable St. Armands Circle, you needn’t worry about crowds.
It’s also difficult to go anywhere without getting wet. This year the usual summer monsoon season— a daily pattern of sparkling mornings and short, drenching late afternoon rains— has somehow transmuted into rain that is random or just plain unrelenting. It is so unrelenting, in fact, that a waitress complains. The constant rain, she says, has made customers (and tips) scarce at the Bearded Clam Waterfront Restaurant and Tiki bar.
Mostly a bar and reluctantly a grill, the establishment sits like a gantlet of $4.25 well drinks at the end of the dock where the Sea Gypsy, the boat I am staying on, is berthed. The price of the well drinks usually works to draw a crowd of regulars: the group has more teeth than tattoos, but is dressed so the tattoos can easily be counted.
Your columnist is aboard the 42-foot trawler as deck hand, cook and friend of the owner and captain. The captain is hoping the weather will clear enough for a shakedown cruise following some repairs and replacements.
For me, it’s also an opportunity to do a spot check on the real estate market along the Florida gulf coast. The online view from real estate websites is encouraging. Like the rest of the country, sales are up. Prices are firming. Inventories are down. There are fewer distress sales.
The old adage about waterfront— that they aren’t making any more of it, so you ought to buy some— has never been totally true in Florida because the state has manufactured more waterfront with bulkheads and canals than most entire nations receive from nature. Even so, one clear message is that anything waterfront/waterview is back.
The residue of the Big Real Estate Bust is inland. There, you can still find some houses, townhouses and condos priced dirt-cheap. They are mostly older units doomed by their lack of granite counters. But the operative word is some.
I experience the most powerful evidence of recovery further south. Cape Coral and Fort Myers were widely seen as one of the worst hit areas of the country, on par with Las Vegas, Nevada. In 2008 some friends took me to a dinner party at Shell Point, the third largest Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) in Florida. Located on an enormous piece of land and backed by miles of protected mangroves, even many of the older, more modestly priced units have stunning water views. Shell Point’s website is another virtue: It is direct and informative, complete with floor plans, pricing and details.
Back then, I was told that Shell Point had the first vacancies in its history after decades of having a long waiting list. The waiting list existed in spite of a six figure up-front fee to guarantee lifetime care, with smooth on-site transitions from independent living, to assisted living, to nursing care. The ongoing monthly fee and minimum income requirement are also more than most retirees have.
But that was history. As the real estate bust started, this upscale community— large enough to have a golf course, a small marina and four restaurants— started to have vacancies for the first time, a cause of great concern to some of the residents.
Why were they concerned? They had friends on the waiting list.
The friends wanted to move in. But they couldn’t. They had to sell their homes first, but in the dismal market of 2008 there were no buyers.
On this trip, I arrive at a small Iona subdivision as a friend in his late eighties finishes his regular tennis game. He takes me to the Shell Point sales office. He and his wife have made a reservation deposit. They know many people who already live there.
Debra Lepore, the sales agent, jokes with my friend, “Still undecided?”
I ask her: “If a bus load of people arrived, all wanting to live here, would you have places for them?”
Ms. Lepore picks up a clipboard. She holds it high. She scans it up and down.
“Well, we’ve got 1,200 units and—,” she pauses, “—21 vacancies.”
Maybe the people at the front of the bus could move in. But everyone else would be out of luck.