The Search for the Last Affordable Beach House
Surf, sand, salt air, cedar shingles, a price under $500,000. Believe it or not, you can still find it all in these special places. So pack the sunscreen and the sand pails--quickly.
(MONEY Magazine) – Making fast friends over sand castles...lying in the surf as the waves wash over you...trying to keep up with Mom or Dad as you comb the shoreline for shells. There's something about the beach that makes childhood memories fonder.
For many people, those mental snapshots are more than just happy moments. They're personal touchstones--symbols of what good financial planning and a little luck might someday afford them. For the one thing that so many of us want most in life (at least in the material realm) is a home on the beach.
You know the one. It's a cedar-shingled cottage built high on white sandy dunes. There's a weathered walkway to the shore, an outdoor shower on the landing. It's a place where the ocean's sounds waft through open bedroom windows. It's a retreat for family and friends--where Mom and Dad might someday retire. Above all, it's where children and grandchildren can make sweet memories of their own.
Trouble is, too many people have the same dream. Nearly two-thirds of vacation-home shoppers say they'd like to be near an ocean beach, according to EscapeHomes.com. Combine that demand with a fixed supply of coastline, and the result has been beach house prices that are truly stratospheric. "We're nearing the point where the dream of owning a beachfront home is simply not achievable for an average upper-middle-class American," says Van Davis, a onetime vacation home broker who now heads the East Coast realtor Foxtons. Actually, we're well past that point in most locales. In Destin, Fla., for instance, the average asking price for homes on the beach is $2.1 million, according to data compiled for MONEY by Realtor.com. It's $3 million in Bar Harbor, Maine, and $6 million in Malibu, Calif. "We get calls all the time from people saying that all they want is a little house on the beach, nothing too fancy," says Patty Slater, an agent with Kinlin Grover GMAC Real Estate in Cape Cod, Mass. "It's heartbreaking, but the problem is that even those homes come with a fancy price tag."
Is the great American beach house dream truly dead? MONEY spent several weeks scouring North America for what at first seemed an oxymoron--an affordable beach house (our definition of affordable: under $500,000). We consulted with dozens of brokers, as well as noted beach expert Stephen Leatherman, an environmental studies professor at Florida International University and author of America's Best Beaches. We narrowed our search to five regions that on paper offered the best beach for the buck: the Oregon Coast, North Carolina's Outer Banks, Florida's "Forgotten Coast," the south coast of Texas and Canada's Prince Edward Island. (We passed on Mexico, where homes north of Puerto Vallarta can go for $300,000 to $400,000, because foreigners legally can't own coastal land there; the property must be purchased through a Mexican bank trust, which is renewable every 50 years.) Then we traveled to each area, and we're happy to report that you needn't be a CEO or a cardiologist to afford a home on the ocean. We saw beachfront houses, townhouses and condos priced from $100,000 to $500,000. While you won't find perfection in this price range, you can still find a good enough home base to start digging for sand crabs and making future family memories.
PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND
Peak season lasts just eight weeks. Ahh, but what a glorious eight weeks they are.
Find Canada's Prince Edward Island on a map--in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 180 miles northeast of Maine--and "beach vacation" won't be the first thing that comes to mind. But don't let P.E.I.'s northern latitude fool you. Come summertime, the shallow waters around the island are among the warmest north of New Jersey, says Leatherman. And the island itself is a rustic throwback to what Cape Cod and the Hamptons used to be, before big bucks and megatourism cashed in on paradise.
Home prices are a throwback too. "For $500,000, you could have pretty much anything you want," says Century 21's Scott Miller, president of the P.E.I. Real Estate Association. He isn't kidding. Beach home prices typically start at $100,000, while premium properties fetch between $250,000 and $400,000. A three-bedroom, 1.5-bathroom home on a 1.2-acre peninsula in the seal-watching haven of Montague is on the market for $246,000. In Seaview, a town along P.E.I.'s most desirable stretch of beach, a three-bedroom chalet is listed at $370,000. Realtor Michael Poczynek says Americans are so astonished by P.E.I. prices that he's even had a few buy homes solely from photos on his website. "They think it's too good to be true," he says.
The island does have drawbacks. First off, it's remote. (There is an airport, with most flights from the U.S. connecting through Toronto or Halifax.) The peak beach season is only eight weeks long. And there are ownership restrictions that officially limit non-P.E.I. residents to 165 feet of beachfront. Waivers, however, are fairly easy to arrange, locals report--so long as you're not a landlubber developer looking to put up 100 beachfront condos.
PRO 73°F Average water temperature in early August
CON 10°F Average low (air temperature) in January
CHEAPEST BEACH HOUSE Three bed, one bath in relatively remote Nail Pond. Asking: $88,000. Broker: Michael Poczynek at michaelshomes.com.
THE OUTER BANKS
The risks? Hurricanes and nor'easters. The reward? You can live this close to the ocean.
North Carolina's outer banks is a 100-mile string of barrier islands extending from the Virginia border southward to the resort town of Okracoke. Primarily a summer resort--with the usual array of minigolf, kite shops and charter boats--the area also offers great beach weather in May (average high temp: 76°F) and September (81°F).
A lot of homes sit 50 feet or less from the high-tide line, making it possible to literally roll out of bed and onto the beach. Of course, proximity to the water has its downside: Every time a violent hurricane or nor'easter chugs up or down the eastern seaboard, many homeowners don't know whether their houses will be standing come morning. (Flood insurance is a must; see the box at right for details.) Indeed, Mike and Linda Powers of ReMax Ocean Realty had a dozen properties in the $215,000 to $540,000 range to show in late April. In most cases, homes one lot back from the beach cost more than those directly on it. "Fear of beach erosion," Mike explains.
Still, if you understand the risks--some of them inherent to owning a beach house anywhere--the Outer Banks can offer terrific properties for under $500,000. The best we saw: a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Kitty Hawk listed for $439,000, its beachside decks offering unobstructed views of the Atlantic.
PRO 8 Number of months a year that average high temperature tops 60°F
CON 5 feet Average amount of beach lost annually to erosion in recent years
CHEAPEST BEACH HOUSE One bed, one bath in Kitty Hawk; 400 sq. ft. of space. Asking: $215,000. Broker: Mike and Linda Powers at obxperts.com.
THE FORGOTTEN COAST
The housing deals can be sweet on this largely underdeveloped strip of the Gulf
The 50-mile Gulf coast stretch from Port St. Joe to Carrabelle has about as much in common with Miami or Fort Lauderdale as it does with Paris. There are no glam discos or high-rises--just lovely beaches and very cheap real estate, at least by Florida standards. Locals call it the Forgotten Coast. The onetime reason: an old paper mill that used to smell as bad as it looked. "Nobody wanted to come on vacation and look at a paper mill," says local broker Diane Peevy of Port Realty.
Well, the mill closed in 1999, and home prices have been rising ever since. Among the nicer, still affordable homes is a two-bedroom condo in Barrier Dunes, a gated community on Cape San Blas. Steps from the beach, the Gulf-view unit is listed at $425,000. Just below the Cape, where the beach is less susceptible to erosion, a two-bedroom townhouse lists for $475,000.
But the area's undiscovered gem is Dog Island, an 1,800-acre barrier island three miles from Carrabelle. The island is accessible only by boat or small airplane. (A pair of local captains operate ad hoc ferries.) Pam Housholder, Dog Island's resident realtor, believes today's prices will be recalled as bargains. She's probably right. Most of the island is owned by the Nature Conservancy and cannot be developed--a big draw for both nature lovers and supply-conscious investors. Dog Island's dirt roads look more like hiking trails, and the beaches are just about perfect. (Yes, there are phones and electricity, but most people use water-purification systems to compensate for so-so drinking water.) Gulf-front houses start at $650,000, but interior lots--all with beach rights--sell for $225,000 to $275,000. Another $200,000 could build you the cozy getaway of your dreams.
PRO 35% Annual beachfront price increase in recent years
CON $50 Cost of a one-way boat ride to Dog Island
CHEAPEST BEACH HOUSE Two-bed, 2.5-bath townhouse in Cape San Blas. Asking: $295,000. Broker: Diane Peevy at dianepeevy.com.
NORTH PADRE ISLAND
North of South Padre Island's college kid tackiness are America's best beach values
Connected to Corpus Christi by bridge and causeway, North Padre and Mustang islands offer nine months of beach season (average highs are 69°F in February and 93°F in August). Think Florida without the summer downpours. The beaches are great. So are the bird watching and fishing. And there's less of the spring break rowdiness that fouls South Padre Island.
Beachfront condos at the low-rise El Constante on North Padre start at $210,000 for two-bedroom units, says Kim Erwin of Realty World. At the more upscale Mayan Princess, two-bedroom condos start at $225,000 and three-bedroom penthouses sell for $350,000. Ahoy, boaters: Canal-front two-bedroom condos with docks go for $200,000.
Mustang's Beachwalk and Royal Sands are the best bets for single-family homes. The architecturally charming subdivisions offer private boardwalks to the beach. At Royal Sands, three-bedroom houses sell for $300,000 and four-bedrooms can be had for $400,000. At ritzier Beachwalk, a 2,100-square-footer cost $355,000 in late April. Also: a 0.2-acre lot for $149,000; for another $250,000 you could build a lovely 2,200-square-foot spread. Based on curb appeal, weather and beach quality, Beachwalk and Royal Sands may offer the best beach for the buck in North America.
PRO 32 in. Average annual rainfall (vs. 45 inches in Tampa)
CON 80°F Average low temperature in August
CHEAPEST BEACH HOUSE Two-bed, 2.5 bath condo at El Constante on North Padre Island. Asking: $210,000. Broker: Kim Erwin at kimerwin.com.
Surf's up! A rare stretch of Pacific shorefront where prices don't start at $1 million.
Known for beautiful terrain and temperate weather--average highs are 69°F in August and 51°F in February--the area from Cannon Beach to Newport is popular with surfers, as well as hikers, birders and whale watchers. Swimmers? No way, dude. Even in the summer, ocean temperatures don't rise above 60°F. "Not a place for swimming," says beach expert Leatherman. "With the riptides and the occasional log in the waves, it can be quite dangerous." That's not a big enough drawback to prevent a surge in demand for homes on the beach. "If only you'd been here last year," says realtor Leslie Green, noting that the selection under $500,000 was better just months earlier. Nicer three-bedroom homes on the beach now start at $600,000, but a cute one-bedroom beachfront cottage in Newport listed for $389,000. In Lincoln City, two-bedroom condos in the four-story Waters Edge complex sell for $220,000--furnished.
Best deal: a three-bedroom, 2.5-bath townhouse in Pacific City's Shorepine Village for $429,000. Annual dues: $865. Net rental income: $22,000. Enough, perhaps, to help pay for a heated pool.
PRO 100% Estimated increase in beachfront prices over the past four years
CON $185 Cost of a basic wet suit at Cannon Beach's Cleanline Surf Shop
CHEAPEST BEACH HOME Furnished two-bed, one-bath condo in Lincoln City. Asking: $220,000. Broker: Leslie Green at johnlscott.com.