Once offering their owners a place with an entirely different feel than their primary residence, secondary properties are now serving a broader purpose and enjoying longer periods of use.
By Cynthia Lescalleet
There’s no place like home—except, it seems, a second home. Recently, demand has been strong across the country due to a confluence of circumstances, from historically low mortgage rates to disruptive global health challenges that have transformed how and where we can (or must) work, live, learn and relax.
Buyer activity this year has been piqued and prompted by more than prevailing interest rates or lingering dreams for a retirement nest. Some second home shoppers seek a reprieve from crowded urban centers now that telecommuting has opened up more options for remote living, while others have found that they need additional space, privacy or both, after spending more time than usual at their primary residence.
But a time-honored reason still prevails for buyers wanting to find just the right home away from home: “The No. 1 reason is it’s where the kids—and their kids—will visit,” observes Patrick Dunn, Sea Island Properties’ top producing agent. “A lot of clients choose their property search parameters based on the needs of their children and grandkids.”
The Time is Now
One big shift in buyer behavior is in the timing of their second home purchases, notes Lewis Glenn, vice president of real estate brokerage at Sea Island Properties. In the past, second home buyers have tended to be patient with the process because their hunt for the right property often took a year or two, unlike with a primary residence, he explains. This year, however, clients who had been thinking about purchasing Sea Island property “someday” have adjusted their timeline. “‘Someday’ is now,” he says. Dunn agrees that buyers are moving very quickly. That approach helps explain a rise in sales volume of more than 40% in the first half of the year over the same period a year ago.
There has also been a noticeable shift in the buyers themselves. Many of today’s second home shoppers are a bit younger—often in their 40s and 50s—than those who have previously typified the market.
Low inventory and rising listing prices have also added some fuel to the decision making period. Earlier this year, Golden Isles Association of Realtors and MLS Inc. looked at 2020 luxury property listings and sales of $1 million and up in that market to compare the first seven months of 2020 with the same period in the previous six years. Activity could be characterized as a “pronounced surge,” says Bradley Jones, GIAR’s MLS director. The market reached two milestones: Luxury home inventory is at a historic low and the percentage of luxury sales versus the inventory is at a historic high. And while the data cannot determine whether sales were second homes, luxury properties are often popular picks for secondary residences.
The rental market is also helping to shift buyers who are teetering on their decision to buy a bit earlier than expected: If they do not use the property much initially, rentals are also in demand, meaning that income can help new owners fund operating expenses, dues, insurance, property taxes and improvements.
Real estate agents have noticed that turnkey residences are trending. If it’s a short-stay property, many are reluctant to devote their time at it to fixing it up or to managing renovations from afar.
A pronounced new ask from buyers is expecting en suite bathrooms in all bedrooms. Open floor plans are still in demand, but there are more requests for having a bonus room that can be closed off for use as an office, workout room or learning space. Porches remain popular as ways to extend the living space.
In summer 2020, real estate website Zillow looked into how home design is changing in response to people spending more time at home and wanting to reconsider features to better suit that. Respondents to its survey with The Harris Poll suggest a need for both space and privacy. Toward that, rooms—as in, places with doors—could be making a comeback after so many years of high demand for open-concept layouts. Other features include better insulation for noise control, mudrooms as transition spaces for getting clean before entering a home and floor plans with several suites to further separate people staying in a home or visiting it, poll respondents noted.
In designing custom homes for resort island clients, “Trends in play before COVID-19 hit have been amplified and requested more frequently,” says Gregory Palmer, principal architect at Harrison Design, which has a St. Simons Island office. “Clients have realized they will be spending more time in their second home than before. They’ve realized that remote work works.”
In line with Zillow’s research, he has found that open-concept floor plans are adding floating walls, pocket doors, barn doors and so forth to add some privacy, as well as enable rooms to have dual functions.
When square footage restrictions are in play, which is common with island properties, clients are having to be mindful and judicious in how they envision using space, Palmer says. However, there is an underlying consideration: “These are view-oriented properties,” he says. And, they’re mostly second homes, so the designs already tend to be more creative and flexible in room use.
“People want a different living experience than that of their primary homes,” he says. “That could mean more entertaining, more company and more generations sharing spaces.” In other words, more and larger common areas, bunk rooms, maybe a guest house that could have an alternative use should anyone need care, a private sitting area for the primary bedroom so the owners “can retreat or have their coffee before greeting the hoards,” and storage, especially for outdoor activity equipment.
But while many are looking for different amenities in their second homes, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are seeking something larger. “We are beginning to see an interesting trend where buyers who live and work in major cities want to downsize their primary residence,” Glenn explains. They are focusing on designing their second home as their dream home.
With families coming together being such a significant part of Sea Island’s traditions, Palmer asks for input from all generations when starting a custom project. “You have to consider how a house is used by a couple and by a crowd in terms of circulation and flow,” he says. “There need to be several paths through rooms.” Flexible-use desires extend to outdoor spaces as well, such as a poolscape catering to several age groups (from walk-in to water sports), quiet areas to relax, perhaps a fire pit, and porches or loggias.
Kitchens continue to merge into family rooms and vice versa, so much so that designs are adding a back-of-house prep kitchen to accommodate the appliances and work spaces so that the main kitchen remains a beautiful space.
As a builder of custom homes and related renovations on the islands, Chip Evans, co-owner of Evans & Varnadoe Construction, has been busy this year. “The number of projects has taken off” as sales have mushroomed, he says.
Beyond aesthetics, some features in high demand include more power, more automation and more technical underpinnings for remote work, networking and household monitoring. Guest accommodations remain must-haves, and outside spaces are gaining enhanced amenities.
Eyes on the Islands
Zillow research by way of census-based data in the 2014-2018 American Community Survey found 7.2% of U.S homes are second homes. In Glynn County, which includes the coastal communities of Sea Island, St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island, the rate is about three times higher.
Whether buyers come from Atlanta, Chicago, New York or Nashville, Dunn says that most who purchase Sea Island properties have a history here. “Maybe they came as children, or honeymooned here, or came to a conference and returned to vacation,” he says. “They appreciate the feel here.”
This year, that visit might have included hunkering down for several weeks instead of several days, discovering the relaxed, amenity-loaded lifestyle, and wanting to pursue ownership, Glenn says. The resort’s fully loaded lodgings and tradition of cottage rentals also help drive future sales, he adds. By the end of August, the number of Sea Island Properties closed sales had exceeded closed sales for the same time period in 2019 by 45%, according to Glenn. At that time there were 13 cottages listed for sale on the Island, compared to 48 at the same time last year.
It’s no wonder that more people are being drawn to the area. The community’s lifestyle continues to offer its hallmarks of gentility and activity, says novelist and nonfiction author William Rawlings, whose family has owned a house at Sea Island for decades. “It’s a wonderful spot. A salve,” he says, pointing out the miles of beaches, the varied histories to explore, the elegant homes, the excellent services and the scenic setting.
“There is a promise the experience here will be pleasing,” he says. “This is a place to discover. You don’t know what you are seeking until you find it here.”
Judging by the rising tide of new owners, more people are doing just that.
Trying Out Island Life
The cottage rental program at Sea Island allows visitors to immerse themselves in the Island lifestyle.
Guests who might have previously stayed at one of the resort properties for a brief getaway, an event, a special occasion or even a house-hunting trip often return to experience one of the 150 rental cottages (about 700 rooms), says Alex Pomiechowski, general manager of Sea Island’s cottage rentals and owner services program. Some return to the same property year after year, and come to think of their pick as “their cottage,” he says. As rental guests, access to all resort amenities and programs is included. However, on-site amenities at the cottages themselves differ, from having a pool or waterfront access to private chef privileges. “These are not cookie-cutter homes,” Pomiechowski says. For help picking and planning, the website covers the entire menu of dining and activity options, and a pre-trip personal concierge is also available to provide assistance.
Cottage rentals are also a convenient option for groups of families and friends seeking to share a roof for a multigenerational vacation or milestone events, such as weddings and reunions. The Tucker family of Texas is an example. Having visited, they were drawn back by the wide range of activities, which ensure that there is something for everyone to enjoy: the beach, bingo, biking, boating and, as exclaimed by young mother Jenny Tucker, babysitters.
Given the local history, available excursions and the possibility of dressing up a bit for a romantic dinner out, the Tuckers are planning a multigenerational gathering in the future. “We plan to go every single summer for the rest of our lives,” she says. And if Sea Island were closer to their home, they’d likely consider buying a second home there.
Cottage rental demand has been on the rise, Pomiechowski says, noting that several travel trends in the national rental market are also playing out on Sea Island. First, the season has expanded from its more traditional summer-and-holidays calendar with the few weeks before and after summer’s peak growing stronger. Interest in the smaller cottages, meaning three or four bedrooms, are particularly in demand. Second, the length of stay has also crept up this year, from five-day respites to visits lasting a week to 10 days, possibly due to new telecommuting options for work and school.
Cottage owners in the rental program have responded to renter preferences for informal, updated interiors with bright colors, a beachy feel and spacious common rooms for gathering. However, with a range of properties from modest to mansion, there is quite literally something for everyone, Pomiechoswki says.