Nudistreal estate resilient
While mainstream property values have cooled, a growing niche and savvy marketing keep nudist colonies afloat.
By CHUIN-WEI YAP
Published July 16, 2006
The winds of a cooling property market, it seems, whip past those basking in a growing empire of the sun.
George and Judi Emrich bought a two-bedroom townhome in Lutz's Paradise Lakes nudist resort in 1990 for $79,000.
When the resort put 39 new condominium units up for sale last year, the Emrichs placed the townhome on sale for $259,000 and snapped up two condos for $250,000 each.
They were even willing to put up the 20 percent down payment to hold the units.
"They don't fool around," George Emrich said. "It's a niche market, and more and more people are coming into this lifestyle."
Due for completion in October, 36 of the units have been sold in the last nine months.
Propelled by savvy marketing and a clientele less inclined to flip their purchases, nudist real estate is proving its resilience in a broader market that's enduring its first chills after years of growth.
"The slowdown really didn't worry us," said Joe Lettelleir, Paradise Lakes' owner. "We are fortunate that we are somewhat insulated from the mainstream market. Pricing-wise, we didn't get caught up with the market tendency to start jacking prices up."
This is an industry that nearly doubled in size through the 1990s, spending $400-million in 2003, according to the American Association for Nude Recreation.
Paradise Lakes, Caliente and Lake Como are the three big nudist resorts in Pasco County, joined by an ebb and flow of several smaller players.
Together, they are Pasco's second-largest taxpayers in the bed-and-breakfast sector, after Saddlebrook Resort.
The county's reputation as the mecca for North American nudism also means a wide, national base of buyers for its real estate.
"We have, throughout the U.S., 5-million customers to choose from," said Chuck Foster, co-founder and vice president of Caliente, off U.S. 41.
Caliente, the ritziest of the Big Three, is planning to sell 250 more units, a mix of condominiums and townhomes, in January.
"We already have nine pages of people on the waiting list," Foster said. "That's about 300, nearly 400 people."
The market's resilience defies even those who think big machines shouldn't mix with naked bodies.
The Woods, Caliente's new next-door neighbor, caters to nudists with outsize recreation vehicles. It recently sold out its first phase of 35 lots in just three weeks - each lot costs upward of $60,000 - before construction even starts this fall at the upscale 75-lot subdivision, owner Jim Sweasy said.
"Think about the appeal: There's no hurricane premium, no property taxes," Sweasy said. "You own your lot ... and we actually have landscape minimums. These are people with $500,000-and-up RVs. This is not your father's RV park."
Farther south, there has been only one resale in the 4-year-old, 28-home gated community of the Oasis, northeast of State Road 54 and U.S. 41. It closed two months ago. Sale price for the 1,800-square-foot home: $360,000.
At Paradise Lakes, 1,167-square-foot units in the Fountains subdivision sell for $200,000. They cost $135,000 when built two years ago.
Last summer, the resort began turning its 56 poolside hotel rooms into condos.
They are small rooms, about 200 square feet each. They sell for $50,000 to $60,000, said Toby Caroline, manager of Paradise Lakes Realty. Only three or four are left, said Pete Williams, the resort's marketing director.
Part of the market's resilience comes from innovative marketing, which leverages on everything including strip poker and laser hair removal.
On this count, Paradise Lakes has been a juggernaut of ideas.
In September, Williams, who is also a freelance sportswriter, came up with the idea for a nude radio show. It got on the air within a month, complete with a catchy title: The Fitness Buff Show With Pete Williams.
The resort also began an internship program at the University of South Florida to woo college-age members.
In January, a college-age strip poker event drew a crush of media cameras, both local and national. But Williams, fearing an uncontrolled barrage of image-taking, turned them away.
The campaigns - or stunts, if you prefer - don't always work out. The under-25 crowd still numbers less than 5 percent of the resort's membership, Williams said.
But they do catch some important eyes.
In 2004, the 20th anniversary of the movie Terminator, Paradise Lakes tried to rope Arnold Schwarzenegger into making an appearance at the resort.
Schwarzenegger, by then California's governor, was the star of Terminator and famously made his first appearance in the movie - you guessed it - naked.
The "Governator" didn't agree to attend, but the effort reaped a windfall of publicity, Williams said.
It translated into keeping nudism in the public eye, which feeds the strength of nudist real estate, industry watchers say.
The resilience also comes from a niche clientele less inclined to flip properties for cash, owners say.
Many are like Debra Fredericks, who bought a house in Paradise Lakes in April for $250,000.
"I don't know how much it's worth now," she said. "I saw it, I liked it, I got my old man to get it."
"They're not caught up in the whirlwind of the speculation market," said Lettelleir, who is not a naturist. "They are not going to speculate in a nudist resort. They'll want to use it periodically or live in it."
Just look at MiraVista, Paradise Lakes' new venture in Tucson, Ariz., where 90 of 105 available units have been reserved, Lettelleir said.
Properties with price tags of $200,000 sell easily in two to three weeks at Lake Como.
"If something goes up for sale, it goes pretty fast," said Jerry Brown, Lake Como's marketing manager.
As Pasco's mainstream residential market shows signs of wobbling, nudists may pause to remember that theirs is a niche that has already weathered the worst storm in recent memory.
"Even after 9/11, we held steady," said Carolyn Hawkins, spokeswoman for the American Association for Nude Recreation. "None of our clubs really took a big hit. People didn't travel as much, but they found resorts in their back yard."
Chuin-Wei Yap covers growth and development in Pasco County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4613.
$400-million Amount spent by nudist real estate industry in 2003
3 Top area nudist resorts: Paradise Lakes, Caliente and Lake Como
300 to 400 Number of people on the waiting list for a unit at Caliente
[Last modified July 15, 2006, 22:04:23]
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