WHEN ultrarich Americans go house-hunting outside the United States, they’ve got a Caribbean soul they can barely control, to paraphrase Jimmy Buffett.
Those were the findings of the Candy GPS Report, which focused on the home-buying habits of high net-worth individuals around the world — those with more than $30 million in assets — ranking the top 20 places where they buy additional luxury homes for leisure use.
The roster, not surprisingly, included Lake Como in Italy, the Côte d’Azur in France and Aspen and Vail in the United States, as well as a few places that might not readily come to mind, like the Seychelles, the Maldives and Emirates Hills in Dubai.
But for American buyers looking for property abroad, the roughly eight-square-mile island of St. Barts in the French West Indies, where the typical five-bedroom property changes hands for $14 million, topped the chart. In general, American buyers casting outside the United States favor homes in the Caribbean, the report found. (Although “the majority of ultra-high-net-worth Americans hold their property in the U.S.A., in excess of 80 percent,“ according to Yolande Barnes, director of Savills World Research, part of the global real estate firm Savills.
One example of a luxury property on St. Barts that is drawing American interest is Villa Au Soleil, a four-bedroom hillside villa that the actor Steve Martin put on the market last year for 7.95 million euros, or $10.75 million. Mr. Martin bought the home, which perches on the hillside in Lurin, above St. Jean Bay, as a private retreat in 2008. It had been listed for $9 million before he bought it.
Last year, St. Barts experienced a significant rise in sales volumes, according to the Caribbean Prime Residential Insight 2014 report by the real estate consulting firm Knight Frank. Market activity remained strongest below €10 million, or $13.6 million, but 2013 also saw an uptick in the number of transactions above that threshold. Buyers from the United States were the top nationality picking up properties, followed by purchasers from Britain and elsewhere in Western Europe, Knight Frank found.
For property buyers looking to stay on American soil, Virgin Islands destinations like St. Thomas and St. John, as well as Puerto Rico, remain popular. But Americans are also drawn to non-American Caribbean places like Barbados, the British Virgin Islands, Mustique, Jumby Bay and the up-and-coming Canouan, part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, where properties average $6 million for a five-bedroom villa. Major improvements to Canouan’s airport have brought more of the global wealthy within its reach, according to a report by Savills.
Meantime, the Bahamas are far from passé. Proximity to the United States makes property there high on the shopping lists of wealthy American buyers, according to Savills. A favorite is Harbour Island — a chic hangout famed for its pink sandy beaches.
And the cachet of owning a private island is picking up. Some of those most sought by American buyers are the islands in the Exuma Cays, a cluster of over 360 islands in the Bahamas, according to Chris Krolow, chief executive of Private Islands, which operates online island sales sites. In the last several years, properties have been sold to the producer/director Tyler Perry and the country singers Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. They join earlier trailblazers like the magician David Copperfield and John C. Malone, the billionaire chairman of the cable and telecommunications giant Liberty Global.
Properties in the Exumas market include 554-acre Darby Island, listed at $40 million, and Saddleback Cay, a private 47-acre island that includes a 3,000-foot airstrip and seven white sand beaches. Its price is $15.6 million. And there is also the seven-acre Goat Cay, priced at $4.8 million.
“Island sales have picked up, and it’s a buyer’s market right now,” said Mr. Krolow, who fields close to 200 inquiries a day. “Not all translate into clients who actually visit the properties, though.”
Anyone shopping for an island needs to understand that it’s not always smooth sailing. Some clients buy an island, and then put the “for sale” sign back up a year later because it is found to be difficult to maintain, or just too isolated, Mr. Krolow said. Also, landing development permission for an undeveloped island can take far longer than expected.
For many people, though, buying an island is not about the cost. “They want to be steward of their own little piece of the world,” Mr. Krolow explained. “They become so emotionally attached to the idea of owning an island. It’s not simply a luxury purchase. It’s a very passionate one.”
Other warm climes where affluent buyers are dipping their toes include the emerging areas of the Southern Zone in Costa Rica and the Pacific Riviera, along Nicaragua’s southern Pacific coast. “In Costa Rica’s Southern Zone, you can buy an ocean view lot for $90,000-100,000 and build a custom home for $100 per square foot,” said Margaret Summerfield, a global real estate expert who reports on real estate trends for InternationalLiving.com and The Pathfinder Alert. “In Nicaragua, you can buy a large ocean view lot in a private community for $90,000-100,000 and build a custom home.”
Ambergris Caye, the largest island in Belize, is another undervalued market that is drawing prosperous Americans, according to Kathleen Peddicord, publisher of Live and Invest Overseas and author of “How to Buy Real Estate Overseas.” “Belize is easy to get to from the U.S., has the Caribbean soft white sands and azure water, and is less developed than other Caribbean markets,” she said. “Plus, there’s a friendly community of expats.“
Elsewhere, a yearning for the old sod has been luring deep-pocketed buyers to Ireland and Scotland. An increasing number of Americans with Irish roots are buying castles and manor houses at rock-bottom prices — with cash. “We’ve had a surge of Americans looking to buy historic homes in Ireland in the last year,” said Roseanne De Vere Hunt, head of residential and country properties at Ganly Walters in Dublin. In Ireland, many of the homes are changing hands for roughly a third of 2007 levels because of fire sales by developers, many of which failed when the market crumpled.
And a growing number of Americans are shopping for Parisian townhouses and centuries-old chateaus in the French countryside. “It’s the first time in years that prices have come down, and sellers are truly willing to negotiate directly with buyers,” Ms. Peddicord said.
“You don’t buy a French chateau, however, because you’re sensible,” said Elizabeth Bonner, 57, a resident of Gulf Stream, Fla., who owns the 18th-century Château de Courtomer, initially purchased for about $2.6 million in 2005.
The chateau is in Courtomer, a village in the Normandy countryside about 100 miles northwest of Paris. Mrs. Bonner has spent the last eight years renovating it slowly, making the 38 rooms and about 17,500 square feet livable.
Mrs. Bonner couldn’t estimate how much she has spent to renovate. “The purchase of a chateau in need of renovation is just the beginning — you need deep pockets,” she said.
“I don’t think an investment in a chateau in France is a very good investment. You have to want to be there,” said Mrs. Bonner, who will spend three months there this year.
Chateaus currently on the market generally range from €1.5 million, or around $2 million, to more than €3.7 million, or roughly $5 million, according to Patricia Hawkes, a Paris-based real estate agent and co-owner of the Philip Hawkes Agency, which specializes in historical French high-end properties.
Mrs. Hawkes and her husband have operated an agency for nearly 40 years and sold hundreds of chateaus along the way, she estimated. They even own one themselves, the 14th- and 18th-century Château de Missery in Burgundy.
“In the last year, we’ve seen a definite increase in interest from American buyers,” Mrs. Hawkes said. “Of course, Americans have always had a love affair with France, but right now the French are in a real muddle, mostly with the tax situation, and many owners are eager to sell.” As a result, prices have slipped, sometimes strikingly, from the pie-in-the-sky levels of years past.
“Many of these chateaus have been on the market for quite some time,” Mrs. Hawkes said. “It’s not unusual to be able to negotiate for at least 20 percent off the original asking price, and some are down by half.”
The appeal isn’t surprising, she said. “A chateau is a work of art,” Mrs. Hawkes said. “The only thing is, you can’t move it.”
There are some financial considerations, of course. In addition to property tax, nonresidents pay an annual wealth tax on a property, unless they are exempt under a tax treaty. Rates are progressive, from 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent, according to Deloitte.
While buyers are picking up prestige properties for sentimental reasons, many certainly see the business side of renting them out when they are not in residence.
Mr. Martin, for instance, has rented his St. Barts villa for $28,000 a week in the past. Mrs. Bonner rents her castle for weddings and family retreats.
The price for renting Mr. Copperfield’s 700-acre private-island compound in the Exuma Islands, which sleeps 24? It’s $39,000 a night.
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