RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico -- Rio Mar, a 475-acre condominium community situated by the Atlantic Ocean and featuring an 18-hole golf course and 13 tennis courts, has sold more than half of 96 new units in its recently opened Villa Las Brisas development.
In this summer of severe Puerto Rican drought and economic woes around the globe that have dried up vacation home markets, there's reason for its good fortune. The immaculate Mediterranean-style white structures with red clay tile floors are traditional selling points for buyers here, along with the island's year-round warm temperatures.
But owners and would-be owners are most excited about recent ground-breaking of a 600-room Westin Hotel with gaming casino scheduled to open in the summer of 1996.
"The new hotel is expected to boost vacation home prices here 10 percent annually, as more visitors come and get the idea to buy a vacation home," explained Carlota Illera, sales manager for Villa Las Brisas, whose prices start at $195,000.
Tourists. No good vacation home market can get enough of them. That's because they often decide to stay on as owners. Economic stress has shooed away many time-honored visitors who once frequented vacation spots, the Americans and Japanese most notably. Since people don't buy what they don't see, it's a buyer's market for second homes. Those who do buy pinch pennies.
"We find low-end properties around $100,000 sell quickest these days, while the high end of $700,000 to $1 million is slow," observed Bea Taylor, general manager for Trans Indies Realty & Investment in Puerto Rico, a division of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate.
Buying vacation properties, particularly in leisure areas such as the Caribbean, isn't like back home. Taylor points out there isn't the extensive multiple listing service to which Americans are accustomed, so you're more dependent on your real estate agent's knowledge. In addition, public record-keeping isn't what it is back in the states, so you'd better get title insurance and a good attorney to make sure there aren't prior unrecorded claims on the property you're buying.
A depressed vacation home market means opportunity.
"The market is currently traumatic, with, for example, depressed values in the Caribbean and Bahamas because of economic difficulties in the U.S.," explained John Moran, president of the Boston-based Moran International real estate consulting firm. "Meanwhile, in Mexico there's worry about buying due to political instability."
The Hawaiian market was hammered by withdrawal of the Japanese; negative publicity about violence in Florida has dampened enthusiasm of potential German and British buyers; and some other U.S. markets continue to be weak, exemplified by the 30 percent loss in value of New Hampshire vacation homes since 1988, Moran noted.
"The market is quite spotty and broad, varying from community to community and region to region, with easy availability of transportation an even more important factor than in the past," said Clinton Burr, director of the 4,000-member Resort Property Owners Association in Northbrook, Ill., and co-author of several travel books published by Prentice Hall.
Among the best values in vacation home areas in terms of predicted price appreciation, according to Burr, are:
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; Taos, N.M.; Nantucket, Mass.; Brunswick County, N.C.; Destin, Fla.; Park City, Utah; Whistler, British Columbia; Bend, Ore.; Traverse City, Mich.; Killington, Vt.; Branson, Mo.; Amelia Island, Fla.; and Padre Island, Texas.
"Montana is growing beyond just areas such as Big Sky and Whitefish, as a lot of people choose the hunting and fishing lifestyle," added George Pelton, director of special markets for Coldwell Banker Corp. "Lake Tahoe has firmed up after a dry spell, Las Vegas has remained healthy and Phoenix has come back."
Some popular vacation real estate towns and their median home prices, according to Coldwell Banker, are:
Sedona, Ariz., $157,000; Flagstaff, Ariz., $108,000; South Lake Tahoe, Calif., $131,000; Santa Barbara, Calif., $285,000; Vail, Colo., $141,000; Branson, Mo., $75,000; Cocoa Beach, Fla., $105,000; Atlantic Beach, N.C., $75,000; Hilton Head, S.C., $100,000; Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, $100,000; Vancouver, British Columbia, $231,000; and Thunder Bay, Ontario, $103,000.
"With the aging of the baby boomers, demographics for the second-home market are healthier," said Sanford Goodkin, a San Diego real estate consultant.
Baby boomers doubled or tripled the value of real estate in the various segments of the market they've touched over the years, according to American Demographics magazine, which predicted a vacation home boom in the 1990s is likely.
When considering a vacation home, carefully study the locale through visits, talk at length with current owners and real estate agents, and research the political and economic climate.
Take your time. There's really no need to rush.