AgentMarkets & Economy

Irma spared some islands in Florida Keys and savaged others

But don't believe the rumors that the Florida Keys is flattened and never coming back
  • They may be working remotely, but Florida Keys agents are keeping an eye on their properties and preparing to rebuild in time for the buying and selling season.

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A reported 90 percent of homes in the Florida Keys suffered damage and a quarter of homes on this group of once-paradisal islands have been destroyed.

But don’t believe the rumors that the Florida Keys is flattened and never coming back, said prominent Realtors in the market this week. Some islands just needed a clean up of trees and roofs replaced; others need to start from scratch.

As with the path of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, certain real estate markets had lucky escapes while others got it straight in the neck.

The state of the Keys post-Irma

Stacy Stahl

Stacy Stahl, president of the Key West Association of Realtors, will be working closely with the other Florida Keys boards, the Florida Keys Board of Directors and the Marathon and Lower Keys Association of Realtors, to bring the real estate markets back to some kind of normality.

“It’s going to be a coordinated effort through the Florida Association of Realtors,” she said. “Our community is so strong; we do have to rely on each other,” Stahl added, later saying: “We are still a world-class destination that everybody admires and everybody will pick up and do what they need to do.”

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Luckily, September is a quiet time in the market, said the association president. The peak time frame for buying and selling in the Keys market is November to February, said Stahl, who is currently based in Orlando.

“We start to pick up around the holidays in November, so the quicker as Realtors we can come together, the quicker we can get our feet under us and start welcoming people back in,” she said.

The better the recovery, the better the desirability level of the market, Stahl added.

The best way to see your house is on the NOAA website

Most agents were relying on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website to see how their homes had fared.

Key West actually got something of a break because Cuba took some of Irma’s force away before it tracked over to the Keys.

Key Largo residents some of the first back in

Lorie Leal, president of the Florida Keys Board of Realtors, was back in her Key Largo home Wednesday, as residents of the largest Keys’ island were some of the first to be allowed to return.

Leal’s house, built in the 1970s, has a concrete foundation and a concrete roof and was largely intact. All homes are built on a bed of coral rock in the Keys, she said.

“Homes here are so strong. We probably have some of the strongest codes in the country and they work. A lot of people don’t realize that about the island — the water comes up and goes right back out, there is no standing water anywhere that I can see,” Leal said.

The majority of storm damage in Key Largo has been to trees, boats, cars and mobile homes that have been tossed around, said Leal, who said she would be meeting and talking with other real estate leaders about recovery in the coming days.

Florida Keys residents are well aware of what climate change is doing to the islands, but it won’t stop them from living there, she said.

“You can’t argue that; there are signs and the evidence is real and not made up,” Leal said. “Most people in the Keys are very aware of our environment and we are concerned and always have been.

“You don’t live here because it’s cheaper. Nobody gets transferred here. You live here because you really want to be here, and that’s true now more than ever. You see our community and everyone is stepping up to help. It’s not just a beautiful place, but it has beautiful people. You would have to drag me out of here.”

Leal anticipates the market will stay strong. “We’ll be shipshape before you know it,” she said.

But Marathon and the Lower Keys, including Cadjoe Key and Big Pine Quay, were less lucky. Florida Keys Real Estate Company’s Kristen Brenner, a Duck Quay resident on the board of directors of the Marathon and Lower Keys Association of Realtors, was on her way to Maine with her family because she and other residents had been told they wouldn’t be able to come home for around two weeks.

“We’ve got a network we are working with to make sure our Realtors who lost their homes have assistance with that,” Brenner said. “I didn’t stay this time. I’ve lived in the Keys since 1976 and this is the first time I’ve evacuated.

She described some of the damage she had heard about: “The Marathon area was flooded with about four feet of water and the winds all came from the South East, so a lot of the houses had their roof tiles come off. Some houses have holes in them; we don’t have any electric or sewage.”

It is a time to start thinking creatively about housing.

“I’ve just had a local air con guy ask: ‘Do you have a house?’ I said, ‘I do have a house I might be able to get you in, which is for sale but the owner may be able to rent it if he can’t sell it.’ We try to help each other here,” she said.

Brenner has a couple of properties under contract, but there is nothing she can do until she can get into Marathon to inspect them. Florida contracts have a 30-day concession period in case of hurricane where a buyer or seller can back out, she said.

The Key West Realtor who didn’t evacuate

While Brenner waited the storm out with family in Charlotte, North Carolina, Key West independent brokerage owner Doug Mayberry decided to hunker down in the storm at his 120-year-old home in Key West. He was with some friends who weren’t used to hurricanes.

“The reason I stayed was to make sure the house was OK, and make sure friends were safe and had a place to stay,” Mayberry said. “One had just moved into a new apartment he’d just rented and his roof opened up in the storm giving him a new skylight.”

Mayberry’s home, built in the 19th century by shipbuilders, has huge beams, and the roof will never fly away, he said.

The scariest part of the experience, he added, was driving out after the storm to Fort Lauderdale on the main Overseas Highway, parts of which had bits of road that had fallen into the ocean and plenty of debris. He described the experience further on Facebook.

The only thing he lost at his own home was a beloved mango tree.

“Key West can look the most vulnerable, but much of Key West is on high ground,” Mayberry added. “It’s why Key West was settled before the rest of the Keys.”


The broker-owner said the homes that best survived Irma (and other storms) were the old, well-built ones and the newer homes built to hurricane building code. The codes are some of the strictest in the country and were built to weather Category 5 storms.

Mayberry is expecting to get home in a week. He is confident Key West’s Fantasy Fest parade will happen as usual in October. Meanwhile he’ll be keeping in touch with clients with his usual newsletter.

Mayberry has a luxury $6.6 million listing on the Key West waterfront which he is confident will have done well in the storm, having been elevated by the current owners. You can push a button and storm shutters close, he said.

How to answer: Is it safe to live here?

Kent Ducote

While Mayberry comes from Arkansas where he had to face tornadoes on a regular basis, Key West agent Kent Ducote came from New Orleans, where he saw a hurricane or two.

Ducote, a Premier Zillow broker associate with Truman Co. said that during the storm, he had a number of inquiries about houses, which he found odd.

He had customers call to ask: “What do you think this will do to the market?”

“What I’ve said is it may cause a blip in the market, but the fact is because there is no devastation in Key West, there will be no mass exodus as there was with Wilma,” Ducote told Inman.

“Is it safe to live here?” is another question Ducote faces and expects to hear a lot in the coming weeks.

“It’s a conversation that we are used to,” he said. “Wilma flooded 85 percent of the island in 2005. We still get questions: ‘Does it flood?’ The answer is this is an island and there are higher spots than others. People have to come to terms with it. If you live in a hurricane zone, chances are there will be hurricanes.”

Another point he makes when this conversation comes up is if you don’t want any risk in your life, then maybe the Florida Keys are not the place for you.

“But where is completely safe? We moved here 30 years ago. We still love it, it’s been very good to us, we’ve had a great life here,” he said.

Is there chatter about the impact of climate change happening between agents and clients? According to Ducote: “That topic is in the background, but more immediate concerns are at the forefront and being discussed.”

Meanwhile Keys agents will be rebuilding and proceeding with caution in the coming weeks. It will take time, but the Florida Keys spirit is there.

As Stahl said: “They don’t want us back right now. I’m in no rush to live like a savage; I’m already living like a nomad. I don’t want it to be any worse. I can work remotely for a while.”

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