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Fisher Island, South Florida's haven of the rich, experiences dose of reality

The housing slump has devastated home values in what was the nation's most expensive ZIP Code two years ago. Residents and boosters proclaim optimism.

June 02, 2010|By Hannah Sampson

miami — — Two years ago, tony, secluded Fisher Island was perched atop a lofty list: America's most expensive ZIP Code.

With a median home price of $3.85 million, 33109 grabbed the No. 1 spot on Forbes magazine's annual ranking — and plenty of glowing media attention.

That was then. Now a handful of homes on the 216-acre island have gone into foreclosure, 23 residents are still stinging from their brush with Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, and the median price of a unit has slid 15% since the Forbes list came out.

That No. 1 ranking? Gone.

When the latest Forbes list was released last fall, Fisher Island found itself demoted to No. 33.

But people on the island, separated from Miami Beach by a ribbon of water known as Government Cut, profess optimism, something that's easier to do when you've lost some net worth but remain very, very comfortable.

"Fisher Island has one big advantage. It is a finite supply and I'm convinced the demand will continuously exceed supply," said year-round resident Steven Neckman, a vintage jewelry dealer. "While prices have dropped from the high when they were crazy, I think it is still kind of the best place for the buck."

Real estate analyst David Dabby, president of Coral Gables-based Dabby Group, said it's a fact that luxury markets, like all markets, have been hurt by the housing bust. But not as much as the rest, he said. And, he added, as luxury real estate improves, typically the rest of the market follows.

"They're leading the market out," he said. "They're a leading indicator."

Surrounded by water and accessible only by yacht, helicopter or ferry from the MacArthur Causeway — and good luck getting on that ferry without prior clearance — Fisher Island has a unique feel. Peacocks roam the island and the preferred way of getting around is by golf cart.

The island has 1,500 residents sprinkled among 685 units, the vast majority of which are condos. Most people don't live there full time.

Owners are members of — and pay fees to — the Fisher Island Community Assn. and one of 22 condominium associations or homeowners associations. The island generates $35 million annually in property taxes but requires little in the way of municipal services.

Celebs including Oprah Winfrey, Mel Brooks, Sharon Gless and Florida First Lady Carole Crist have at various times called it home. Tennis legend Boris Becker once lived there. Andre Agassi wooed Steffi Graf on Fisher Island, sending her a huge batch of flowers and watching from afar to gauge her reaction, according to his autobiography. (She stowed them on her balcony — a bad sign, he thought at the time — but he eventually won her over and the two tennis stars later wed.)

The island is named after Miami Beach developer Carl Fisher, who reportedly traded it to William K. Vanderbilt II for a yacht. Vanderbilt built a lavish mansion, which remains the centerpiece of the club.

Unique as it is, the island has not been able to shield itself from the economic realities hitting the rest of South Florida and the country.

"Nobody is immune," said resident Jose Valdes-Fauli, a 57-year-old banker, pointing to diminished home values in other sumptuous enclaves such as the Hamptons in New York and Aspen, Colo. "But, at the end of the day, what matters is location, location, location — and that is what we have here."

Residents and real estate agents are hopeful that Fisher Island's privileged location, rigorous security, pristine beaches and endless views of water are the ultimate circuit breakers in the event of any financial meltdown.

While many condo communities have cut down on maintenance to ride out the economic storm, Fisher Islanders have splurged, approving a $60-million renovation project. The Fisher Island Hotel and Resort and the tennis courts have been renovated, the marina and nine-hole golf course upgraded and the swanky beach club redone.

Up next: the spa, which is getting its own face lift.

The challenge for Fisher Island, said analyst Peter Zalewski, is maintaining the cachet associated with its image even while some units currently there sell for less than $500,000.

One unit has even been listed for the unheard-of price of $190,000. It's a 450-square-foot postage stamp, but still awfully cheap for the island.

"It has great product," Zalewski said of Fisher Island. The problem at the moment, he said, is there "aren't enough buyers to absorb and acquire all the product that is available from people, many of whom paid too much."

Since the beginning of 2009, at least 17 units have entered foreclosure, many owned by speculators who invested in multiple properties in the go-go days. More than a dozen short sales — prospective deals in which the owner is willing to accept less than the amount owed — are listed.

According to a recent report from Web-based real estate services firm, 97% of units on the island saw their value drop since March of 2009.

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