In 2017, Unique Homes is traveling the U.S. to find the dominant stories in each region of the country — This issue covers the South.

By Camilla McLaughlin

Courtesy Arquitectonica

Not too long ago, the siren call of the South was fun in the sun. Miles of coastline might translate into some of the most desirable second home and resort locations in the county, but more than fun in the sun is creating vibrant real estate markets. Instead, catalysts are strong fundamentals, new job opportunities and investments in infrastructure. Cities are reorganizing, and a number, such as Atlanta, Nashville and Charleston, have risen to new prominence, nationally. Fledgling tech hubs are being incubated, and no matter where you look, new neighborhoods and master-planned communities are on the rise.

Ten years ago, a few prognosticators speculated it could possibly take more than a decade, if ever, for Florida properties to recover from the recession. Today, real estate is thriving in cities across the South from Florida to Texas. Coming out of the recession, Dallas, Houston and Austin set the pace with some of the country’s best real estate markets. Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Nashville, Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte all number in Urban Land Institute’s top 10 markets to watch and are believed to have excellent overall prospects for real estate in 2017.


Boom times may not quite be back, but Florida markets have racked up an impressive record in recent years. July marked the 68th month of increases in median prices statewide with single-family prices up 7.1 percent and condo and townhouse prices up 6.8 percent. Florida’s economy is expected to grow faster than the national economy with the gross state product reaching $1.074 trillion by 2019, according to a forecast from the Institute for Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida. Based on current rankings by the World Bank, that number today would make Florida’s economy the 16th largest in the world.

Seven of the top 10 fastest growing cities in the U.S. are in the Sunshine State. Orlando is booming, ranking at the top of Forbes cities with the highest projected job growth, boosted by a growing technology sector as well as innovative strategies such as Creative Village, which integrates education and high tech in a single setting. It also will be one of the largest transit-oriented developments in central Florida.

Orlando recently placed second in the nation for single-family home sales. “It is definitely Orlando’s time, and it’s a confluence of many different factors,” observes Jessi Blakley, director of communications and public relations for Tavistock Development Company, the developer of Lake Nona, one of the fastest growing communities in the U.S.

New projects in the pipeline for Lake Nona include a $400 million training and innovation center for KPMG and an Amazon high-tech fulfillment center. Also on the drawing board is a mixed-use luxury development that includes an 11-acre Crystal Lagoon, dynamic town center, art installations and a hotel designed by Miami’s Arquitectonica. The location adjacent to Lake Nona’s Medical City, a 650-acre health and life science park comprised of several hospitals, academic institutions and bioscience facilities, underscores a growing emphasis on wellness. “We consider ourselves to be a living lab, so you are going to see innovation across the entire community. And that’s going to be everything from our healthy homes to a partnership with Delos,” says Blakley.

Nowhere is the luxury story quite like that of Miami’s, where a legion of international starchitects have remade the skyline with visionary new towers, including residential projects from luxury brands such as Porsche Design, Armani and Fendi. Condo construction is now a multi-billion-dollar industry. Since 2011, 86 new towers, and 8,749 units have been completed east of I-95 in Miami Dade County.

Mega projects including the Brickell Center, Miami Worldcenter, and City Place Doral are reviving sections of the city and enhancing Miami’s status as a retail hub for the Americas.

This year, Miami’s ultra market moved from sizzle to simmer. “The year of the buyer” is how Ben Brissi, an agent with EWM Realty International in Miami, characterizes 2017. “With the third quarter underway, we are still seeing a high supply of inventory, which provides great opportunities for buyers,” he says.

Sellers are taking notice. They are “becoming more realistic with pricing, especially at the top of the market,” shares Coral Gables Realtor and Chair of the Miami Association of Realtors Christopher Zoller. New construction is excluded from Miami Realtor data, but sales of existing luxury condos surged in July, and overall single-family home prices have increased for 68 consecutive months. Prices for sales of existing condos have increased for 71 of the last 74 months.

Although “the season” still holds sway in enclaves like Palm Beach, Manalapan, Miami Beach and Naples, many brokers see fundamental shifts underway. Summer is usually quiet, but this year Florida Realtors say they have been busy. “There was a definite pickup this summer. From a purchase standpoint, I am seeing a shift from a seasonal to year-round. People look in the early season, but they come back in the summer to buy,” says Tade Bua-Bell, a broker associate at John R. Wood Properties in Naples. “More people are lengthening their stay, often to eight months. We’re also finding lots of kids coming in the summer.”

Courtesy The Fite Group Luxury Homes ERA Powered and ©

“The season is elongating. Now it’s starting out in October, and many are not leaving until late spring or early June. It is much busier in the summer,” says David Fite, principal of The Fite Group Luxury Homes ERA Powered in Palm Beach. 

“We really don’t have a season anymore,” says Brenda Donnelly, a Luxury Collection specialist with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Knight & Gardner Realty in Key West. “Every month we have a festival of some sort; we are really a year-round vacation resort.” Donnelly, who also owns Historic Key West Vacation Rentals, says the market is booming, with a limited inventory and so many renovations that it can take six to eight months to get a builder. The potential for long-term rentals, here and in other resort settings, is becoming an added incentive to purchase.

Bua-Bell says, “We had a lot of big sales this summer over $10 million. People are purchasing a little more.” The reason, she says, is simple: “People just want to live their lives. People aren’t just buying real estate, they are buying lifestyle. There are only so many warm places where people can go.”

Another shift in the Sunshine State is toward year-round communities. “Our impression is there are many people now moving to Palm Beach County full time, who 10 to 15 years ago would have been snowbirds,” says Fite. More than $2 billion in development and 1,000 residential units downtown are expected to come online in West Palm Beach.

Most Expensive Listings

Palm Beach area: $195 million compound in Manalapan.
Miami: $150 million for 4 waterfront lots on exclusive Indian Creek Island; a $65 million estate on Star Island is available for the first time in 30 years.
Orlando: $7.588 million in Golden Oak at Walt Disney World Resort, with access to the Four Seasons Resort Orlando.
Naples: $65 million estate on 4.08 beachfront acres.
Also notable: $26.5 million estate on Longboat Key. 

Design Miami

“Right now, the condo market in Miami has really taken a swing; it is much more modern. Lobbies are sparser,” with many more amenities, says Kevin Gray, owner of Kevin Gray Design. Hotel services are popular although Gray finds clients often see that as an invasion of privacy.   

“Architecture is becoming cleaner,” he observes. The preference for kitchens is white lacquer cabinets that open upwards. Additionally, in both New York and Miami, homeowners want ecofriendly materials. “For a while everyone loved the white marble floors or terra cotta. Today, people are doing composite materials, and you can hardly tell the difference,” says Gray.

Lighting has become important in the upscale market, and instead of the fixture the focus is on the lighting itself. “People are more aware of the quality of the lighting and of good lights, he says, pointing to new LEDs. Also “taking off like wildfire” are square recessed lights. “No one wants round anymore,” he says. On the horizon, look for more casings lined with black instead of white. 

Courtesy The Fite Group Luxury Homes ERA Powered


The story here is population growth as existing companies add new jobs and the promise of top talent from Georgia Tech and Emory University lure new enterprises to the area. Recently, Atlanta was celebrated as the top city for making movies, and the film business adds to both state coffers and the city’s luxury cachet.

An old nickname for Atlanta was “The City of Love,” and newcomers here are finding a lot more to love thanks to infrastructure enhancements and an urban revitalization that promises to roll from midtown to downtown. Buckhead remains the city’s prime luxury enclave, but many other areas are acquiring a luxury persona. “Midtown is on fire,” says Christa Huffstickler, owner of Engel & Völkers Atlanta, pointing to new luxury towers, sidewalk cafes and restaurants, even a food and wine festive. “Finally, it feels like a real city. We are going to see a shift, and, in the next 10 to 15 years, downtown will be as vibrant as midtown is now.”

Another big transformation is the development of the Beltline, which is similar to New York’s High Line. Even though only several miles are complete, residents can already see how it will change the city. “We are seeing developers gravitating to the Beltline. It’s going to become as important of a draw for consumers as Buckhead. And our city has been starving for that connectivity.”

Atlanta has been a city of suburbs and those markets are still in demand, but new condo offerings beckon people back to town. “When our real estate cycle came back, we saw a shift in the condo market and a transition in what that product offered. There was more thoughtful design, smaller boutique-sized buildings, and more square footage. Rather than first-time buyers, they were oriented toward a move-up market as well as downsizers.”

Most expensive listing in Atlanta: $15.8 million Mediterranean estate in Buckhead.

South Carolina   

Stop in any small-town coffee shop along coastal South Carolina, and there is a good chance you will encounter newcomers meeting with real estate agents, and there is no better testimony to vibrancy of real estate in coastal resort locales as well as farther inland. Home values in South Carolina increased by 5.5 percent over the last year, and predictions call for an additional 3.5-percent rise next year. New resort developments such as Palmetto Bluff and classics like Hilton Head bring vacation buyers and full-time residents. Master-planned communities are in the works statewide, but the biggest news for upscale real estate has got to be how much Charleston’s star has risen in the luxury firmament.

Charleston has always been a top southern destination, but the city’s ascendancy to the luxury elite this year is undeniable. From Top Chef to Travel + Leisure, it seems to be on everyone’s list of top markets, including Unique Homes’ annual “Markets to Watch.” Christie’s ranks Charleston fifth, ahead of Paris; Portland, Oregon; and Sydney on its Luxury Thermometer, a gauge based on demand and growth. Austin and San Francisco outpaced Charleston at fourth and third.

“Charleston has always stayed ahead of most areas just because of how desirable it is. When other areas are depressed, Charleston comes along at a decent pace, because of the draw of history, beaches and the overall charm of the Lowcountry,” says Michael Robert Smith with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Carolina Sun Real Estate. Lower taxes are another incentive for businesses to relocate here, and a growing tech section is bringing more millennials to the area. From antique residences along The Battery to oceanfront at Kiawah Island, the range of luxury housing here is amazing.

There is a lot of new construction, particularly away from the water. But the big news for some perspective residents, according to Smith, is “the Low Country is still affordable. West of Charleston you might be able to get a mansion for $500,000.”

Charlotte, North Carolina

Although Raleigh-Durham has been the epicenter for growth in the Carolinas, the push now is to revitalize uptown Charlotte with new cultural venues, educational institutions, parks, walkable streets, new housing, and retail.

The light rail added in 2007 led to a boom of apartments and retail in the South End that is expected to be replicated in NoDa and the University area as the rail expands north of Uptown. Charlotte also aligns with a national trend in developing cities, in which luxury rentals are offering a huge range of amenities, pet perks and a high level of design within individual units.

Also included in the remake of city center Charlotte are a number of parks, including Romare Beardon Park, adjacent to a new minor league baseball park and the Carolina Panthers football stadium. Jump starting the refurbishment of nearby Stonewall Street is Crescent Communities’ new mixed-use development, Stonewall Station. Plans call for two hotels, a Whole Foods Market and upscale apartments.

Most expensive listing in Charlotte: $6.3 million set on 20 acres in South Charlotte.

Cinnamon Shore, Texas

New resorts are a rarity these days, but a well-established vacation community for Texans along the gulf holds the promise of rivaling those in Florida and the Carolinas. Located on Port Aransas and Mustang Island, an 18-mile island near Corpus Christi, Cinnamon Shore is slated for a $1.3 billion, two-phase expansion, which in the next decade will include new two-to-five-bedroom vacation homes, an upscale boutique hotel and a 10-acre lake ringed by a mile-long boardwalk.

Plans call for approximately 3,300 of beachfront, triple the size of the current beach at Cinnamon Shore, as well as a town center with retail, dining and entertainment. Organized around the concept of New Urbanism, the community will be the kind of place where front porches energize connections and kids can be kids.

Courtesy of Toll Brothers

New Home Designs in Texas

For Texas homeowners, particularly downsizers, collected interiors that include items with a personal meaning or story are important. “We do see a yearning from people wanting that authenticity,” says Kate Brennan, director of accounts at Mary Cook Associates, a Chicago architecture and design firm that works with homebuilders nationally. For empty nesters, it might be something acquired on a trip or a collection. “It is often something that has a story that relates to them,” says Brennan. In the Lone Star State, rustic elements are also desired, but, Brennan adds, with clean lines so the end result is “sophisticated and collected.” The indoor-outdoor connection is important in Texas and it continues to be refined. Look for more seamless applications of finishes to connect the two spaces.

Both downsizers and Millennials like single-level floor plans. “People downsizing are looking for a place that will promote health and wellness,” she says. Boomers are looking ahead and they want homes that will support future transitions. Millennials also like single-level floor plans because they are easy to maintain. But they want flexible open plans that can be adapted to their individual lifestyle.