As coronavirus rages, Tampa Bay’s high-end real estate, boat, RV sales are booming

More million-dollar-plus homes were sold in Pinellas and Hillsborough County by the end of October than all of 2019, according to Multiple Listing Service data.
MarineMax CEO Brett McGill stands on a 2021 32-foot Aviara luxury boat on Wednesday at  the company's Clearwater location. Despite persisting unemployment and financial uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic, some luxury industries have been booming.
MarineMax CEO Brett McGill stands on a 2021 32-foot Aviara luxury boat on Wednesday at the company's Clearwater location. Despite persisting unemployment and financial uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic, some luxury industries have been booming. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 12, 2020|Updated Nov. 12, 2020

When the pandemic brought a pall of uncertainty over Florida’s real estate market this April and May, sales of homes of all price ranges slowed down. But starting in June, sales bounced back with one price range leading the charge: $1 million and up.

And even into the summer and fall, sales statistics show high-end homes are still where the market’s heat is most concentrated.

“Something that’s happened during this horrific period for our globe is people’s renewed appreciation for the four corners of our home,” said Jay Phillip Parker, CEO of Douglas Elliman Real Estate’s Florida brokerage. “So anyone that could was willing to make the move into a bigger, better property, or maybe a newer, more exciting location. Obviously, with respect to the wealthy, they can make the moves much easier if you have the ability to quickly pivot and leave a multi-million-dollar property in another market and come here."

The luxury real estate market’s success in both Tampa Bay and Florida as a whole is just one major example of how some industries that rely on people with disposable income have been flourishing during the pandemic. That’s true even as the broader economy still struggles to shake off its effects and unemployment still remains at historic highs.

Sales of boats and recreational vehicles have also been through the roof, as local salespeople describe a sustained rush that has them, at times, struggling to keep their inventory stocked.

“I tell my friends that if you see a boat you like, you’d better buy it because it’s going to go quick,” said Brett McGill, CEO of Clearwater-based MarineMax, which has 70 store locations across the country. The company closed out its most recent quarter with nearly $400 million in revenue, which was 33 percent increase in sales over the same period last year, according to its investor filings.

When the pandemic first set in, it wasn’t immediately clear that such success was in store. As businesses in the state first started locking down in the spring, McGill, like every other business owner, worried what it would mean for his company.

But fairly quickly, MarineMax noticed higher traffic on its website.

“It didn’t take too much longer until there was a wave of people interested and actively looking at boats,” McGill said. Since then, it’s been a frenzy of customers, many of whom were already thinking about a boat and were now speeding up the shopping process to ensure they got it faster. The demand has been for boats across all categories, whether they’re small pleasure cruise vessels or 200-foot yachts.

A yacht is stored on the showroom floor on Wednesday at the MarineMax location in Clearwater.
A yacht is stored on the showroom floor on Wednesday at the MarineMax location in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

All provide a unique opportunity in COVID-19 times: the ability to take your family or pandemic pod out on the water to buzz around without the risk of encountering a crowd.

“Take away some distractions from folks, like European travel or all day at the baseball field, and they can get back to boating," McGill added.

Matt Marlatt, a sales manager at RV General in Dover, has had a similar experience. RV General, which has 13 stores across the country, had to close other stores up north under state orders. “We were wondering week to week, ‘Are we going to be working next week?’” he said.

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The answer came in a steady stream at first, then all at once. Now, it’s become a banner year for recreational vehicle sales. For example, there were 31 percent more shipments of recreational vehicles this September than the same month last year, according to a report from the RV Industry Association.

“People were looking for different ways to enjoy springtime,” he said, “and they don’t necessarily want to get on a cruise or an airplane.”

Marlatt and his salesmen have seen the demand go up on everything from modest-priced pop-up campers to $750,000 Class A motorhomes. Trade-ins usually sell the day they’re put up for sale on the lot. RV sales have performed well nationwide, but Marlatt said Florida and Tampa Bay have always had an edge above other regions, in part because weather allows for year-round camping.

Richard Buttimer, dean of the University of North Florida’s Coggin College of Business said the flourishing of luxury industries is just one piece of evidence that supports a fact that’s become increasingly obvious: the pandemic has not impacted everyone equally.

“I think that it’s pretty widely accepted as true that folks who were high-earners, broadly speaking, had more capacity to work from home, so their incomes weren’t disrupted in the same way (as it was) for more people in lower income brackets,” he said.

When it comes to real estate, Jennifer Zales, a Tampa real estate agent with Coldwell Banker who specializes in luxury homes, said she’s heard from some buyers who had been thinking about retiring in Florida in a few years, but moved up their timetables.

“I’ve been showing 3 million, 6 million dollar homes,” she said. “Some families have found the need to increase the size of their homes to get more office space and a place for kids to do their school work ... but I’m also seeing continued flight from higher tax states in the Northeast and now California.”

Multiple Listing Service data shows that more million-dollar-plus homes were sold in Pinellas and Hillsborough by the end of October this year than through the entirety of 2019.

Parker, of Douglas Elliman, agreed the pandemic has driven more out-of-state buyers from places like Chicago and New York, who he said also are fleeing these cold, dense cities for Florida’s more pandemic-friendly sprawl.

“People woke up and said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be trapped in my apartment for an endless amount of time. I’m getting out of here,'" he said. “I think we’re in for the gold rush in real estate.”

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