EAST SISTER ROCK ISLAND -- For a property with a $12 million price tag, you would probably expect luxury â€” even in the pricey Florida Keys. Think again.
Owner Bob Williford describes his 1.4-acre estate with a three-bedroom, two-bath Bahamian style home and one-bedroom guesthouse as â€œa rustic vacation place where you can come and charge up your batteries. Itâ€™s not fancy like staying at Trump Plaza, but it is a place where you can get away from everything.â€
Actress Delta Burke has stayed there. Nineteen Cubans in a yellow banana boat have landed there. Visiting manatees, spiny lobsters, nurse sharks and four iguanas find it paradise.
And even though the Monroe County Property Appraiser determined the propertyâ€™s total market value for 2011 was only $1,017,392, Realtor Marvin Arrieta with Century 21 Premier Elite Realty in Coral Gables said $12 million is the â€œright price to start on this sell.â€ The main reason: Itâ€™s a private island.
â€œThe ocean is all around you,â€ Arrieta said of East Sister Rock Island, which is a three-minute boat ride from Marathon. â€œThis is a very unique property. We need a unique buyer.â€
Chris Krolow, CEO of Toronto-based Private Islands Inc., said there are only about 550 private islands for sale around the world right now, and only 60 percent of them can be purchased outright. The others are in the â€œleasehold categoryâ€ â€” which means a buyer purchases permission to use an island from the government.
â€œBut that does not fit in with the typical island buyer who wants an island to show off,â€ Krolow said. â€œThis is my island.â€
Most island buyers are entrepreneurs and Americans, Krolow said. But Patricia Delinois, CEO of Century 21 Premier Elite Realty and 2012 President of the Miami Association of Realtors, said East Sister Rock Island has been receiving a lot of interest internationally. Inquiries have come from people in China, India, Europe and South America.
Island inventory always is at a premium. There are 1,700-plus islands that make up the Florida Keys, but most are pristine. And with todayâ€™s strict environmental laws, new development permits are unlikely for most. Only 34 offshore properties have houses; nine of those have just one house, says Monroe County Property Appraiser Karl Borglum.
The worldwide recession took a toll on the private island market, but a rebound is now taking place, Krolow said. In the Keys, eight private islands are now on the market. Asking prices range from $995,000 for tiny Dolphin Jump Key or even tinier Charlieâ€™s Island to $18.5 million for a property that comprises 14.5 acres on four islands in the Lower Keys.
Charlieâ€™s Island, all .32 acres of it, doesnâ€™t have a house but comes with a 38-foot Holiday Mansion seaworthy houseboat that sleeps 4-5 people. Sea Shell Key, also known as Pretty Joe Rock, is even smaller at .25 acres, but has a quaint house and is a favorite of migrating birds. It is going for $1.35 million.
The 1.7-acre Fanny Key, just offshore of Marathon, is for sale for $8 million by Thomas Palumbo, founder and CEO of Satellite Beach-based Islands International Realty. In 1987, Palumboâ€™s New York-based real estate development company, Mascar Holding Corp., bought the island from a lobster fisherman for $500,000. A few years later, he personally paid $1 million to own it and make it his homestead.
The main building was just a shell when Palumbo turned it into a five-bedroom, 3Â½-bath home with a pool and roof deck that has 360-degree views of the Gulf of Mexico. And unlike most private islands, he is hooked up to city water and electricity. Heâ€™s in the process of getting hooked up to the city sewer.
â€œIf somebody came along and wrote a check for $4 million, I might take it,â€ he said. â€œBut I donâ€™t have to sell it. I love the place. Itâ€™s my home. Iâ€™ve got Jet skis and boats and a big catamaran.â€
A lot of extra effort and logistics goes into developing a property that is not accessible by road. One man bought a $200,000 barge just to transport building supplies. Island owners tend to figure the added aggravation into their asking prices, Krolow said. â€œStill, at the end of the day, there are a lot of overpriced islands, â€œ he said. â€œBut we once sold an island to a man who bought it sight unseen because it had the name of his wife. It is an interesting business.â€
To show Ragged Key # 3 â€” an island southeast of Miami that takes 45 minutes to reach by boat and was once used by the CIA to monitor Fidel Castro â€” Miami broker Audrey Ross had to rent a boat and captain.
The island with a four bedroom, four bathroom house had been part of a package with a grand mainland house, also used by the CIA, for $22 million. But the island eventually was listed by itself for $5 million and sold before the house in July 2009 for $1,770,000 to Dayne and Angela Tomasetti.
After all, who hasnâ€™t fantasized about living on their own tropical island? No noisy or nosey neighbors. Just a tranquil place to relax, swinging in a hammock on a breeze-cooled veranda with spectacular views of sunrises and sunsets over turquoise and dark blue waters.
In advertising, Century 21 Premier Elite Realty has touted East Sister Rock Island as â€œthe perfect gift for Valentineâ€™s: A symbol of feelings deeper than words can convey.â€
A few months ago, rumors swirled that singer BeyoncÃ© Knowles was going to get just such a gift. Rapper and record producer Jay-Z, who has a net worth of about $450 million, was said to have paid $20 million to buy the 12.5-acre Hopkins Island offshore of Big Pine Key for his wife. It was the same island Gloria Estefan once was reported to have toured.
The sale hasnâ€™t occurred. Over the past 10 years, only eight private islands in the Keys sold for more than $1 million, Borglum said.
The highest price paid was $2.55 million by then-single rock star Nick Hexum of the alternative rock band 311. He bought Money Key with its octagonal wood house in 2003, after renting it for a vacation. He legally changed its name to Melody Key. Then, along came the real estate craze, with prices skyrocketing to absurd prices in the Keys during the mid 2000s. While he didnâ€™t really want to sell, he was willing to part with it for $10â€‰million.
Realtor Brett Newman of Coldwell Banker Schmitt Real Estate said he thought it was a â€œno-brainerâ€ to take on the listing. But after years of effort and â€œ$12,000 just in Google ad work,â€ Newman said he thinks he â€œmaybeâ€ broke even on the sale last year to Jason Kennedy of England. The Brit bought it sight unseen for $2.3 million.
â€œEven with the recession and the BP oil spill, I was surprised it took so long to sell,â€ Newman said. â€œI looked at a lot of islands for sale and thought it was the crown jewel of the Keys. But a lot of high-end buyers came to look and thought it was too rustic for them.â€
He figured some were turned off by the sanitary system which used peat moss. â€œSomebody has to go in and stir it to activate it,â€ Newman said. â€œThatâ€™s not what somebody wants to do for $10 million.â€
And there also was the issue of where to dock those 100-foot yachts. The waters around the island are too shallow.
Hexum became a motivated seller once he got married and became a dad, Newman said.
Williford and his wife, Elena, still love their island, which was a regularly used vacation home when their four kids were young. But the family doesnâ€™t use it much these days now that the children are busy with high school and college on the mainland. Now, the island mostly is used as rental income â€” starting at $5,000 per week.
Williford bought the place for $715,000 in 1995 from Klaus Meckler, a gastroenterologist from New Jersey. Meckler built the island by digging a moat from the coral rock and creating a 15-foot-high plateau. The concrete poured house rests on 75 pilings drilled into the coral rock â€” done in the â€™70s before strict environmental laws were put in place.
Williford has made the place green, with solar panels and a wind turbine. Water is supplied by captured rainwater that is filtered before being stored in a large cistern. The main house has 19 sliding glass doors to showcase the view and spacious veranda. Thereâ€™s an above-ground pool, helicopter launch pad, two docks and a boat for making the quarter mile trip to and from mainland Marathon. And, unlike most offshore islands, it does not have a mosquito problem.
However, it can get hit by storms, such as 2005â€™s Hurricane Wilma. â€œWe lost part of our roof,â€ he said. â€œBut itâ€™s just a price you have to pay for owning an island.â€