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Hurricane Ian destroyed Fort Myers’ sense of place. Landmarks erased, the shrimp fleet destroyed, homeowners still without shelter. It’s the perfect recipe for population micro-migration, which occurs when potential migrants estimate the costs and benefits of moving to alternate locations.

According to population studies, home-buying statistics and local real estate agents, several population shifts seem to be taking hold in Southwest Florida’s coastal and inland communities.

  1. Seniors left to stare at the remnants of their former homes move off the beach to other locations, perhaps to other states to be near their adult children. They seek the stability and comfort of children and grandchildren as they try to find a home out of hurricane range.
  2. Residents of Naples, Fort Myers Beach and other Gulf Coast neighborhoods who survived Ian remain in Florida, but move inland to communities beyond the storm surge zone.
  3. As former residents leave the destruction behind, new arrivals fill the void, buying homes sold by those who are leaving. They often come from the Northeast or Midwest. Many are baby boomers who own businesses up there or have sold them and cashed in.

The first thing to remember: Much of coastal Lee County is in flux. In Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and other places, people are still trying to find basic shelter, some housing stock has been condemned and many homes are still under repair.

A run to inland communities

Jenna Scharf, a real estate agent with Treeline Realty Corp., helps clients buy and sell homes in Fort Myers and other locations in Lee County. She said Hurricane Ian sent Fort Myers, Captiva and Sanibel Island homeowners inland, where they can buy homes with higher elevations and lower property insurance rates.

“The storm created a lot of concern; it was a wake-up call for Southwest Florida residents,” Scharf says. “Right away, residents began moving inland where there’s a lower risk of flooding and property insurance—which is based on elevation—is a lot less expensive.”

A number of coastal residents began asking Scharf immediately after the storm about purchasing a home in inland Lee County, in such places as Marina Bay, Pelican Preserve, Plantation, the Treeline Corridor and Babcock Ranch.

“They are safe areas, some close to the airport, and people can purchase a 3-bedroom, 2-bath single-family home for $500,000 to $600,000,” she says.

Babcock Ranch, which boasts its 440-acre solar panel farm, pointed out in the days after Ian that its community never lost power.

For those with wealth, the exodus from Fort Myers Beach, Captiva and Sanibel Island is more temporary, Scharf said. “I hear from coastal residents who want to rent or purchase inland for the short-term as they rehabilitate their Sanibel Island property,” she says.

Once their Sanibel home is finished, they can rent out the inland home as an income property. “A lot of people, especially Sanibel residents, have the cash to buy it, then rent it out.”

Analysis by Today’s Homeowner, a housing industry consulting company, aligns with what Lee County real estate agents are seeing. The organization, citing the U.S. Census Bureau’s 1-year American Community Survey, found that Florida had a net migration of 87,154 baby boomers, many of whom moved to Cape Coral, Naples, Sarasota and other Southwest Florida destinations.

“More so than ever before, Port Charlotte is the oldest per capita,” says Christian Zaloum of Sotheby’s International Realty. “Due to price increases up north, we’re getting phone calls from people who are just discovering this area.”

Fort Myers housing stock increased

Older couples bring proceeds from selling their northern homes, supplemented with Social Security income, and seek lower-priced homes so they can have their place in the sun. The number of available homes in Ian-ravaged Fort Myers is up, way up. According to Rocket Homes, which tracks housing markets, there were 1,139 homes for sale in Fort Myers in January. In February, the number rose to 1,553—an increase of 36.3%.

Younger arrivals from the north

But younger families are also moving to the area, arriving from New York, Wisconsin and other Midwest states. They also are wary of living too close to the beach, Scharf said. “They are more aware of the flooding and the risk, and want communities where the risks are lower—and want to avoid places like the Private Island Park area, Fort Myers Beach, Captiva and Pine Island. No matter what, private equity firms are hiring real estate agents to help them close in those very places.

“A lot of the units are being bought up by investors. They are buying empty lots and paying for prime real estate,” she says.

Zaloum also hears from residents who want to move away from the coast.

“Residents of Naples, Fort Myers Beach, the Fort Myers area are looking to move inland from those areas,” he says. “At Lakewood Ranch, we had a big sales meeting and one of the big points of topic was the pipeline of new buyers coming in from Naples and Fort Myers.”

Cash buyers in Sarasota, Manatee

Rising interest rates have slowed sales in inland communities. Those who buy inland (and everywhere else) are not eager to sell the home they bought at 3% for a home for which they’ll spend 7% interest on the loan.

And, like everywhere else, Lakewood Ranch, Panther Preserve and other planned communities are getting pricier. The communities are more accessible to people who don’t have to worry about interest rates.

“We do have a lot of cash buyers in Sarasota and Manatee counties,” Zaloum says. “You’re looking at a million-dollar-plus range. Even the small models can start at $1.1 million.”

As hurricanes clear out older homes and buildings, private equity and individually wealthy investors move in, driving prices up. The coast, it seems, is now for the mega-wealthy.

Prices are going up, way up, according to Randy Thibault of LSI Companies. During the recent “Market Trends of Southwest Florida” convention, he told attendees that lots in the path of Ian’s worst destruction—Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel—are going for $3 million to $5 million.

Inland, however, home prices are more attainable: $400,000 median price to $1 million for those with the means. Lee County home prices were up 5.3% in February 2023, compared to last year, according to Redfin.

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