Ah, where to begin with Frank McKinney?

Is it his claim of being, not a custom homebuilder, but a "real estate artist"?

Is it his Fabio hair and tight-jeans, rock-star persona — the get-rich-with-real-estate author who travels around the country promoting his books in a Greyhound-sized bus adorned with blowups of his face?

Is it his apparent ability to please the ultrawealthy, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars for his spec homes?

Ah, where to begin with Frank McKinney?

Is it his claim of being, not a custom homebuilder, but a "real estate artist"?

Is it his Fabio hair and tight-jeans, rock-star persona — the get-rich-with-real-estate author who travels around the country promoting his books in a Greyhound-sized bus adorned with blowups of his face?

Is it his apparent ability to please the ultrawealthy, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars for his spec homes?

Or is it, instead, his devotion to improving the standard of living in Haiti, where a charity he founded has constructed 11 villages — all of them turned to rubble by the Jan. 12 earthquake?

McKinney would prefer to begin with Haiti, explaining in an interview last week that he had returned days earlier from a relief mission that he and his foundation had organized immediately after the quake.

"Both my heart and my head are in Haiti," says McKinney, a Delray Beach, Fla., builder who went to the disaster area with a search-and-rescue group that worked alongside teams from Peru, Jordan and Nicaragua. He says the team succeeded in pulling two survivors from the debris, and medical staff that accompanied them provided emergency care.

McKinney had been a frequent visitor to Haiti since 2003, when he began to construct the 11 enclaves, which he describes as "self-sufficient — 50 homes, a school for 800 kids, a clinic, and a micro-finance lending building."

The organization, Caring House Project Foundation, also has completed projects in Brazil, Honduras, Nicaragua, Uganda and Ghana. He had planned to construct three more Haitian villages in 2010, though he said Caring House would focus first on recovery efforts.

In the meantime, he said, he was struggling to get his mind back to U.S. real estate — specifically, a $24.3 million oceanfront spec home in Manalapan, in Palm Beach County, Fla.

"I live such a dichotomous existence, providing homes for the world’s most wealthy people and for the world’s poorest," he said. "I have unsold inventory that I have to sell, or there is no charity." …CONTINUED

McKinney is something of a phenomenon in South Florida real estate, having built and sold several dozen million-dollar-plus homes since 1990, many of them with his signature over-the-top marketing style.

He once staged a mock pirate battle on the rooftop of one of his homes as the entertainment at its grand-opening party.

More recently, after an eight-year court battle with local government officials over an elaborate treehouse (it includes a shower, toilet, air conditioning and a suspension bridge) at his home that was built without proper permitting, McKinney agreed to move the structure to another spot on his property.

In characteristic fashion, though, he invited the public to pay $25 each to watch a crane lift and relocate the tree house — with him chained to it. The money went to his foundation, he said.

After being hoisted across the property by crane, he thanked his paying spectators and excused himself to leave immediately for the Haiti rescue mission.

All in a day’s work for the self-described "real estate artist."

"I’ve never considered myself a builder," McKinney said. "I can’t drive a nail straight.

"The artistry is associated with a vision to create a $50,000 fixer-upper (his first foray into building), all the way up to those $50 million mansions. If you’re in this line of work, you have to consider yourself an artist," he said.

At the moment, the artwork he’s trying to sell is "Acqua Liana," which he describes at "the world’s largest and most expensive certified green home." He says the furnished mansion, all 15,000 square feet of it, has received green certifications from the U.S. Green Building Council and the Florida Green Building Council.

At $24.3 million, it’s not a quick sell in the Florida marketplace these days, but he’s confident the mega-mansion niche will recover.

"Since the Roman era, there has always been the ultrawealthy class of buyer — that doesn’t change," McKinney said. "Our price point, $10 million and up, has seen some pretty significant sales since December. …CONTINUED

"By my count, in the last six months of the year there were seven sales in excess of $30 million in New York, California and Florida," he said.

The most recent of his five books, "Burst This: Frank McKinney’s Bubble-Proof Real Estate Strategy," is his analysis of six economic downturns, with advice on how others can prosper through them.

He’s a long way from the Indiana banker’s son who says he was kicked out of three high schools before finally managing to graduate from a fourth. Now 46, McKinney says at 22 he founded a real estate investment company and rehabbed a $50,000 home, flipping it later for a $7,000 profit.

Since then, he’s built 36 oceanfront homes in South Florida, at an average price of $14 million, and when he finds a buyer for Acqua Liana, he’ll move ahead with plans for a $30 million spec home.

"It’s not an unwise move," he says. "I want to get ahead of the market recovery."

McKinney has said he’s into "extreme everything" in his life. His idea of recreation is driving in demolition derbies — a skill that he says came in handy in post-quake Haiti.

But not everything is rock ‘n’ roll. He professes a spiritual side, and explains his beliefs in an inspirational book, called "The Tap."

All of his charity efforts, he said, stem from the biblical admonition that to whom much is entrusted, much is expected.

"The Tap," he said, is about life-changing opportunities.

"By Thursday at 7 a.m. (three days after the earthquake), I was on the ground with a search-and-rescue team," McKinney said. "That was one of life’s great ‘tap’ moments — when God taps you on the shoulder."

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.

***

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