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The rich are paying big bucks to buy Tampa Bay houses just to knock them down

The 6,900-square-foot bayfront home that sold this month in Tampa's Culbreath Isles might seem like any other palatial abode but with one key difference — the buyer paid $4.5 million to knock it down.

That could be the most expensive teardown ever in the Tampa Bay area, according to Realtors who specialize in luxury properties. They say, though, that more and more well-heeled buyers are razing places that most of us could happily live in for the rest of our lives.

"I think this is a pretty big trend," said Martha Thorn, a Coldwell Banker agent. "I have six that I can verify (as teardowns)" — including a house on Clearwater Bay that went for $1.2 million in July.

In Thorn's view, the overall increase in luxury sales is helping to fuel the teardown craze. When buyers see places selling for more than $6 million — as several have this year — they figure they can buy an older home on a prime waterfront lot, tear down the house and build exactly what they want for less.

"They just want to build their own thing," Thorn said.

That clearly was the case with the 90-year-old house on the north end of Clearwater Beach. With just 1,600 square feet, scuffed wood floors and pink-and-green bathroom tile, it might have been a handyman's special, but for the location — right on the beach with wide open gulf views. In July, it sold for $1.5 million as a teardown.

Bigger but almost as old was the house in Dunedin where Dr. Jack Mease, founder of Mease hospital, and his descendants had lived for decades. Though the home was in poor condition, it sat on a double lot on a red-bricked, palm-lined street and looked out on St. Joseph Sound.

"It was meant for some who wanted to build a dream waterfront house and live in Dunedin," said listing agent Peggy Mateer of Coastal Properties Group. "There's a beautiful view there, and everybody is charmed with Dunedin at the moment."

As soon as the house hit the market this year, a couple from Pittsburgh snapped it up for the full $2 million asking price. They plan a new home with a "Florida feel," Mateer said.

Contributing to the teardown trend is the so-called "50 percent rule," which limits how much houses in flood-prone areas can be improved. If a home's lowest habitable level is below the current base flood level, repairs and reconstruction cannot exceed 50 percent of assessed value. Thus a home worth, say, $400,000, could undergo no more than $200,000 in improvements — not enough to make all of the upgrades a high-end buyer might want.

"If you're paying $2 million for a lot, obviously you're going to put a lot into the bricks and mortar," Mateer said.

In today's market, though, even spectacular places can be doomed.

Though built in 1974, the bayfront home in Tampa's Culbreath Isles had been "taken down to the studs" in 2007, the listing said, and was virtually new inside and out. Among the many amenities of the five-bedroom, five-bath home were an outdoor kitchen and entertainment bar, two wine cellars and a wood-paneled library.

This month, Bruce Thomas Lucas, CEO of Heritage Insurance Holdings, paid $4.5 million for the house, which he plans to tear down. Why?

"He just wanted a bigger home," said broker Toni Everett, whose company had the listing.

Although Everett said the house was in "beautiful condition" and attracted interest from several other people, she's not surprised by its fate. "Things change," she said, "and everybody has their own taste."

The day after Lucas closed on his Tampa teardown, Sonia Raymund, ex-wife of former Tech Data CEO Steve Raymund, bought what the listing called a "gorgeous waterfront estate" in St. Petersburg's Snell Isle. It certainly sounded like that, what with a Symphony slate roof, copper downspouts, cathedral beamed ceilings, gourmet kitchen and double-side fireplace.

Raymund paid $2.85 million for the place and will knock it down.

"She liked the location, but she didn't like the house," listing agent Bonnie Strickland said.

Since 2013, builders have been snapping up many smaller, older homes near downtown St. Petersburg and razing them for big, new ones. In May, Tampa-based Devonshire Custom Homes paid nearly $1 million for a house and lot on Coffee Pot Bayou.

"Brand new construction is a very good investment," Strickland said, "and it's the way the market is going."

As pricey as some Tampa Bay teardowns may seem, they have nothing on the Palm Beach estate that Donald Trump sold six years ago to a Russian billionaire.

Since then, the 61,744-square-foot French provincial home has sat empty, the New York Times reported. The current owner recently won Town Council approval to knock down the house, subdivide the property and sell off the lots.

Even in Palm Beach, that's an expensive teardown — $95 million.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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