A spectacular shoreline extends for 27 miles and the emerald-green water captivates the eye. This is Panama City Beach. But the Gulf of Mexico city in Northwest Florida is aesthetically pleasing on and of its crystal-white sand. Residents who cherish Southern hospitality — something that infuses life here — say the location is perfect, but so is the dining and shopping, as well as the practical day-in-and-day-out aspects of a city that make it feel like home.
Full-time residents who agree include Laura Garland and her husband, Paul, an eye surgeon with offices in Panama City (a separate municipality east of Panama City Beach) and at the beach. Three years ago the pair bought a home in Wild Heron, a nature-filled gated community. “It was a weekend escape,” Laura says. Now the couple hope to sell their Panama City home to reside in Wild Heron’s sanctuary full time. “We bought a bungalow-style house to get a feel for the community. We met everyone quickly, bought a golf cart and fell in love with the sound of whippoor-wills,” she explains. The bungalow, which would have been priced well over $800,000 during the boom, sold in the high $300,000s.
Wild Heron epitomizes an alternative view of Panama City Beach. Even though it’s located just one mile from the Gulf, its focal point is coastal Lake Powell, which is ideal for boaters. North of Highway 98, the community spans 600 acres of low-density living and is home to Greg Norman’s Shark’s Tooth Golf Club, the only private signature golf club in the area. An uptick in golf membership is an indicator that the housing market is on the rebound.
When the Garlands aren’t entertaining at home or enjoying a social hour at the Shark’s Tooth club, they have dinner out at Firefly, one of their favorite Panama City Beach restaurants, or drive 15 minutes to Rosemary Beach, on the east end of Highway 30A, for fresh Gulf seafood at Restaurant Paradis.
Numerous subdivisions throughout Panama City Beach have quick and easy access to all the draws that keep vacationers flocking there — including the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. Since opening in May 2010, the airport has provided, via Southwest and Delta airlines, easy access to the area. It served 800,000 passengers in the last year, illustrating that Panama City Beach is no longer pigeonholed as a drive-to-only destination.
It turns out that the lures for vacationers — the 1,500-foot Russell-Fields Pier, known for its fishing and sunrise and sunset views, as well as historic Pineapple Willy’s for the best ribs on the beach and Thomas Donut & Snack Shop for a glazed one — are a plus for residents too. Pier Park, a colorful enclave of shops, restaurants and entertainment, is also a venue for events throughout the year, like Unwind at Pier Park (Nov. 4), which is part of the annual Taste of the Beach wine festival, and the New Year’s Eve Beach Ball Drop (Dec. 31).
Optimism for an improved jobs market and a real-estate upturn with fewer foreclosures has spurred new construction. Panama City made CNNMoney.com‘s list of the 10 best places to own property in 2006, at the peak of the real-estate boom. “The market west on [Highway] 30A, and from Panama City Beach to Destin, has corrected 50 percent to 60 percent since the end of 2009,” says Hunter Harman, broker/owner of Beach Properties of Florida. “The quieter west end of the beachfront is mostly buoyant now,” he adds. At the new Tropic Winds Condominiums, for example, two-bedroom, two-bath standard units are priced at $232,900, and penthouse units at $242,900.
House hunters will find a wide variety of options in Panama City Beach. “We’re seeing a demand for primary housing in the $230,000 to $320,000 range,” says Cliff Cohen, vice president of sales at St. Joe Co., the ubiquitous regional developer behind Breakfast Point. “It’s the frst new development [of this size] to come about in this area, with 348 homes,” Cohen says.
The Breakfast Point Marketplace, which has a Publix supermarket as well as other shops, is essential to homeowners buying there. It was a draw for Mark Graff, newly retired from the Navy after 22 years of service. He currently teaches diving at Tyndall Air Force Base, and his new Breakfast Point home is four miles from the job. He and his wife, Dawn, chose a four-bedroom craftsman with three baths, plus a bonus loft and a two-car garage. Base prices on their model started at $279,000. “We’d been looking for three years,” Mark says. He likes living on a preserve because, he says, “No one can build behind us.” The Graffs make it to the beach at least twice a month and frequent Pier Park for shopping and movies at the Imax Grand. Dinners out are at the newbie Marina Cantina.
Bouncing back from the drop in real estate is the long-established golf-cart-friendly gated community of Carillon Beach, which sits on the south side of Highway 98 on the Gulf. Carillon Beach is home to both full-time and second homeowners. Houses have name plaques like Seas the Day. Built in 1991, Carillon Beach is similar to the New Urbanism town of Seaside, and one of its unique characteristics is its shaded porches. “Multigenerational families call it home,” says Barbara Prather, who’s been living in Carillon Beach for nearly 12 years and resides in a condo. She enjoys inviting friends over for Carillon Beach’s Groovin’ on the Green concert series, which they can watch from her balcony.
Prather also owns a two-bedroom Gulf-front cottage that’s an investment vacation rental. She named it Slice O’ Life. “Inventory is extremely low, which has the market stabilized. There are far less foreclosures than we’ve had in five years,” says Prather, who is also a realtor with Beach Properties of Florida. “There are many cash purchases, but since interest rates are so low, people are beginning to finance again,” she says optimistically. In Carillon Beach, single-family homes range from $450,000 for a cottage of the beach to $4,700,000 for a Gulf-front property with a carriage house. Condomin- iums, some of which are located in the Carillon Beach Inn, are priced from $79,000 for a 530-square- foot one-bedroom suite to $1,595,000 for the penthouse.
Although Panama City Beach is called the “spring break capital of the world,” for many, it’s simply home. Just ask the Garlands, who now plan to build a brand-new house in Wild Heron on a lot facing Lake Powell. “Paul loves being on the water,” Laura says. visitpanamacitybeach.com
Real Estate: What Your Money Can Buy Now + Panama City Beach
- $279,490 — In the new community of Breakfast Point, the Amberjack II model by Huff Homes is a four-bedroom/three-bath 2,269-square-foot coastal craftsman-style bungalow. Featuring granite countertops, Energy Star appliances, Mohawk carpet, recessed lighting and ceiling fans.
- $675,000 — This two-story, four-bedroom/ three-bath Carillon Beach home, named Casa del Sol, spans 2,300 square feet. The open floor plan flows from the screened-in porch on the back to a veranda with views of Lake Carillon. A carriage house is at the end of the long driveway.
- $695,000 — In Wild Heron, this coastal craftsmanstyle home sits waterfront on Lake Powell with 2,200 square feet. For more details, please contact: Hunter Harman, Beach Properties of Florida, 850.598.7011, email@example.com; beachpropertiesofflorida.com.
* Price and availability subject to change.