As metro areas go, Tampa Bay has a lot in common with the neighboring Sarasota-Bradenton-North Port region.
Both have beautiful beaches, fine restaurants, high-end retailers and impressive offerings of art and culture. Both also have multitudes of gorgeous homes — but there, the similarities end.
Living in luxury costs a lot more south of the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
Since January, 13 homes in the Sarasota-Bradenton area have sold for more than $5 million. In the much larger Tampa Bay area — none. Of homes priced from $2 million to $5 million, 131 have sold in Sarasota-Bradenton this year compared with 67 in Tampa Bay.
Of course, the vast majority of residents on Florida's Gulf Coast can't afford anything approaching those amounts. But why luxury home buyers choose one area over the other reveals a lot about how each area is perceived in terms of more down-to-earth metrics like transportation, entertainment and general livability.
Since the 1920s, when circus baron John Ringling and the Fields of department store fame made Sarasota their winter home, that city has continued to draw well-heeled retirees, celebrities and corporate tycoons.
"It's like when you go to Naples and Palm Beach, you have these pockets (of wealth) that started a long time ago," said Realtor Alex Jansen, CEO of Coastal Properties Group in Pinellas County. "Sarasota has been ahead of our market for a long time as far as luxury properties go."
Jansen has found that high-end buyers tend to perceive Sarasota as much more of a cultural mecca than Tampa Bay even though the latter has more museums and performing arts centers. One reason the bay area suffers in comparison could be that its amenities are far more scattered, making it a considerable trek for, say, a resident of Tarpon Springs to see a play at the Straz Center in Tampa or visit the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg.
In Sarasota, the three major cultural venues — the Ringling Museum of Art, the Asolo Theater and the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center — are within a few minutes of one another on the same relatively uncrowded highway.
"I think we are a little less urban in terms of feeling like a big city," said Deborah Beacham, an agent with Michael Saunders & Co. in Sarasota.
While that quiet, small-town vibe helps draw wealthy buyers, it also has contributed to Sarasota's big-time cultural reputation.
"When people come from New York or other very big cities where they're accustomed to the finest opera, the finest theater, the finest orchestra, they can't believe it's all here," Beacham said. "It's here because people from those areas demand it."
A major draw of any coastal Florida community is the water, and there the Sarasota-Bradenton area trumps Tampa Bay in one key aspect.
Although both areas boast miles of gulf beaches, those south of the Skyway tend to be less commercially developed and offer bigger lots for buyers able to pay top dollar.
On Longboat Key, a skinny island half in Sarasota County and half in Manatee, fashion designer Michael Kors is building a two-story, 6,300-square-foot contemporary home estimated to cost more than $8 million.
Kors' gulffront spread will be far enough from condos, hotels and stores to ensure a good measure of privacy. The only nearby structures are other private houses like Ohana, a gulffront estate owned, but never lived in, by the CEO of a Canadian real estate company.
Beacham is the listing agent on the estate, which encompasses three open-air pavilions evocative of a South Seas resort. The $22 million price tag makes it by far the most expensive property currently on the market north of Naples.
"It's quite one of a kind in terms of the land, 3 acres on the Gulf of Mexico," Beacham said. "It took about five years of conceiving, permitting, design and building."
At the southern end of Sarasota County lies Casey Key, another narrow island that offers even greater privacy for famous residents, including author Stephen King. Three of the nine Sarasota County homes that have sold for more than $5 million are on Casey Key.
Realtors say out-of-state buyers interested in Florida's Gulf Coast tend to look in three metro areas: Naples, Sarasota-Bradenton and Tampa Bay. Many start out in Naples, gasp at the waterfront prices and move on to Sarasota. And with values there rapidly escalating, more are continuing on to the bay area.
"Forever and ever, people have been told, 'Sarasota is where you want to retire,' but people are now starting to see the price difference. And if they go just a little further, they can get something for half as much," said Jennifer Zales, a Coldwell Banker agent. "Very heavily in the last six months, I've had the Sarasota brokerages bringing people to our area because they are priced out down there."
One increasingly popular spot is Apollo Beach in southern Hillsborough County, just a 20-minute drive up Interstate 75 from Sarasota.
"I'm selling it as one of the best waterfront values in the Tampa Bay area," Zales said. "If they come just that far, they can get something in the low ones ($1 million) that beats anything in Sarasota."
Such are the price differentials that Sarasota magazine featured one of Zales' Hillsborough listings, the private Dickman Island in Ruskin, as a "property of the month." Listed at $5 million-plus, it was at the high end of Tampa Bay prices, but the magazine's editors felt there was nothing comparable in the Sarasota market "anywhere near our price, so they wanted to expose it to their readers," Zales said.
To companies seeking to relocate, affordability is definitely a selling point for the Tampa Bay area where the median home price — $146,7000 — is among the lowest in the state. Another plus is Tampa International Airport, which has nonstop flights to 80 cities. The Sarasota-Bradenton airport has nonstops to nine.
"I personally have not lost people to Tampa Bay yet, but I do have customers who think they want to be in Tampa or St. Pete because they can't get a direct flight (from Sarasota)," said Beacham, the Michael Saunders agent.
Accustomed to dealing with older clients, agents of that Sarasota-based company are "having to adjust our thinking," Beacham said, about how to serve young families and young entrepreneurs looking to buy on the gulf.
"A lot of them will probably end up in St. Pete, which has a younger vibrancy for that age group," she said.
Realtors say prices in desirable parts of the Tampa Bay area have nowhere to go but up, given that values remain so much lower than on Florida's east coast and south of the Skyway. Jansen of Coastal Properties thinks that will be especially true in the Clearwater Beach area, where mom-and-pop motels have given way to luxury townhomes and four-star hotels, some now under construction.
"Clearwater Beach was always the blue-collar vacation area, and that is slowly but surely changing," he said. "Once you get a lot more of those fine-type hotels, you'll get a lot more high-end tourists who will buy properties and drive prices up."
For now, though, the bay area's relative affordability is the key to hooking buyers like the New York couple whose house hunting along the Gulf Coast finally led them to north Pinellas.
"What they wanted to buy in Naples was $2 million, what they liked in Sarasota was $1.5 million and what they purchased here was just under $1 million," Jansen said. "They really didn't care where they ended up; they just wanted a nice place with a nice view, so it all came down to price."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.