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A frenzied Palm Beach home market has buyers bidding sight unseen

People walk on a sandy beach
Beachgoers enjoy a day on the sand in Palm Beach, Fla., in September 2020.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Just weeks after lawyer Amy Bahl and her husband sold their Palm Beach home for $7.3 million, the Florida house was back on the market in December for $8.2 million.

Meanwhile, the Bahls and their three children moved to a house they purchased across the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach, where they’ll stay while they build a new place on a waterfront lot in North Palm Beach.

“We’d been talking about it for two to three years, but this market encouraged us to go ahead and list it,” Bahl said.

So goes the Palm Beach real estate market, pandemic and all.

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Although the last year brought leaps in home sales and prices in major city suburbs and resort areas internationally, the activity in Florida’s Palm Beach County, from Boca Raton to Jupiter, has maintained a particularly breakneck pace.

The exclusive town of Palm Beach, a sliver of an island that’s home to billionaires and soon-to-be-former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, has been ground zero for some of the most frenzied buying.

“Anyone with money is fleeing New York and coming here,” said Guy Clark, an agent with Douglas Elliman Real Estate. “It’s a seller’s market like I’ve never experienced.”

Some buyers have entered the market because of job relocation, as Wall Street firms and hedge funds set up bases in the Sunshine State. Others are pandemic refugees looking to flee COVID-19 hotspots or take advantage of Florida’s lack of a state income tax.

And some are billionaires increasing their footprints, such as former casino magnate Steve Wynn’s purchase of an additional Palm Beach home for $18.4 million in December, or private equity executive Robert F. Smith’s $48.2-million acquisition of two properties in North Palm Beach.

Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

The Palm Beach County clerk’s office recorded more than 20 home sales last year exceeding $20 million, compared with 10 in 2019, according to the Palm Beach Daily News. A home on North Ocean Boulevard is scheduled to go on the market in early February for $75 million, fully furnished by designer Sara McCann with everything from chaise longues to frying pans.

Unlike the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, which brought a glut of supply and sharp price decreases, there’s now very little in the way of offerings to show potential buyers.

“We’ve gone from anxiety buying to there’s no inventory and what am I going to do?” said Liza Pulitzer, senior associate at Brown Harris Stevens. “We’ve even had people buy an interim house when they couldn’t find a rental.”

Jeff Bezos, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg all fueled Southern California’s luxury market to a historic year that saw multiple sales of over $100 million.

One couple learned a house had gone under contract just as they arrived at the property for a showing, said John Cregan, an agent at Sotheby’s International Realty. Artist Camilla Webster has received several notes on her front door asking her to sell her first-floor condominium with outdoor space.

Many homes are now being rented and sold in off-market, private deals. Older homes are being torn down, with many of the one-story cottages in the island’s North End neighborhood being replaced in a building boom that’s “probably the biggest annoyance” on the island, Pulitzer said. Speculators, flippers and homeowners alike are seeing huge returns.

In July, New Yorkers Marilyn Rosee and Sandra Siegal turned down an offer of $530,000 for the South End condominium they’d paid $326,000 for less than three years ago. Then a broker called just before Christmas with a buyer who hadn’t seen the unit but was willing to pay $650,000.

“It’s a very COVID-y story,” said Rosee, who with Siegal also has an apartment in New York and a house in East Hampton, N.Y.

For their next Palm Beach home, which they found through a tip from a friend, the couple upsized so they can both have offices to do their New York jobs remotely. Their $1.16-million apartment has a wraparound terrace.

To accommodate pandemic migrants, Jack Coppola, a concierge for high-end clients, has equipped homes and boats with towels, sound systems and board games. At McCann’s Hive Home, Gift & Garden store in West Palm Beach, decorators and homeowners have been clearing out inventory.

Clark, the real estate agent who’s also an interior designer, goes the distance to make sure clients can just arrive with a toothbrush and hang up their clothes. To help a broker close a six-month rental for $1 million, he called in favors around town to find 30 pieces of outdoor furniture, gym equipment, two refrigerators and 13 new televisions.

“It’s trickle-down theory; they come, everybody wins,” Clark said. “The wallpaper hanger wins, the painter wins, the guy doing the upholstery. I had to pay double to the upholsterer to get it done quick.”


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