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Jax Daily Record Monday, Dec. 4, 201710:50 AM EST

Call to a friend key to year's top home sale

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The $8.35 million Harlow House, the most expensive home sold in the region 2017, sold by word of mouth.
by: Andrew Warfield Staff Writer

Nestled upon 3 heavily wooded acres at the last driveway before its portion of Seminole Road ends stands an Atlantic Beach home of distinction.

Although not visible from the road, the home is situated on 300 feet — the length of a football field — of beachfront, set back more than 200 feet on a lot that measures 450 feet in depth. Built in 1935 by William Harlow Rogers, one of the founders of the Rogers Towers law firm, the 9,242-square-foot home was the highest-priced home sold in 2017 at $8.35 million. It closed Feb. 24.

The home is as secluded as it could possibly in an otherwise bustling beach town. Seminole Road curls to an end just beyond its driveway, only to continue just a few feet away — across a natural buffer, as a service road for public parking at Hanna Park, then continuing northward toward Mayport. 

Known to some as the “Harlow House,” the mansion was the setting for formal occasions and photographs of special events during the 1940s and 1950s. It was also the subject of the PBS home remodeling and renovation show, “Today's Classic Homes,” in 1999. The house is featured in photographs in the Jacksonville Historic Landmarks Commission’s book “Jacksonville's Architectural Heritage, Landmarks for the Future.’’

The home was built with concrete blocks and then finished with a cast layer to resemble limestone.

The Harlow House

With the pool of prospective buyers limited, listing agents Susan Fort and her son, Tyler Ackland, geared up for the full-scale marketing campaign such an exclusive property might require. But Fort said within three weeks the $8.9 million home had two interested buyers.

And all it took was a phone call to a friend.

“This sale, believe it or not, was by word of mouth,” said Fort. “I had some friends who live in Atlantic Beach on the ocean and I knew how much they loved the home and they had friends they wanted to move there. 

“We had started the full gamut of marketing, but come right down to it, it was who you know. When I knew for sure I had the listing, I called my friend and asked if they wanted to see it because they knew they would have friends who would be interested. What a lot of people don’t understand is that people who live within our community move within our community.”

Growing up near Atlantic Beach, Fort recalls frequently riding past the gated driveway with thick, lush landscaping obscuring the home behind it.

“I spent a lot of time in Atlantic Beach as a child and I always wondered what was behind those gates,” said Fort. “The first time driving in there I was so excited because I had never had the opportunity to see it before.”

She described the experience of driving on the long, winding driveway as dramatic.

“It was just absolutely perfectly manicured landscaping throughout,” said Fort. “When I saw the house for the first time, I thought of it as South Florida, Palm Beach-style.”

With a full-time, live-in caretaker, Fort said the home was show-ready and appeared much as she imagined it did when it was the centerpiece of the Atlantic Beach social scene.

“It was very much in keeping with the era of the home,” Fort said.

Patience required

Like the Harlow House, the majority of the top 10 homes sold in 2017 were beachfront properties. All but two offered direct beach access out their back doors, and both of those were not only directly across Ponte Vedra Boulevard from the beach, but also were next door to each other.

Homes at 350 and 352 Ponte Vedra Blvd. ($3.7 million and $3.75 million, respectively) are near the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, a factor that greatly contributes to their value, according to Elizabeth Hudgins, a Berkshire Hathaway Home Services agent who listed two of the top 10 homes, and was the buyers’ agent for a third.

Hudgins’ listings were at 895 Ponte Vedra Blvd. ($4.7 million) and 515 Ponte Vedra Blvd. ($3.5 million). At 8,956 square feet, the home at 895 boasts 200 feet of oceanfront. Her listing at 515, at 3,170 square feet, has 100 feet of oceanfront. She represented the buyers in the purchase of the second-highest priced home sale of the year, at 831 Ponte Vedra Blvd., which sold for $5.1 million. Among the top 10, she was involved in $13.3 million worth of transactions.

Both listings Hudgins sold, she said, required patience, as do most properties at that price point.

“It can take up to two years or more to sell because the higher you go, the smaller the market,” she said. “So in order to reach everybody in that smaller market, you really have to market it worldwide. I’m lucky because working with Berkshire Hathaway, they have a worldwide website in 10 languages. 

“You have to get out there and blanket the marketplace. You want everybody in the world to know about it because there aren’t that many people in the world who can afford it,” she said.

In older homes such as the one at 515, the cost only begins with the purchase. At 82 years of age, the house had not been updated. The home sold for essentially the land value only, making it a likely candidate for a tear down.

“(The seller’s) husband bought that house when they got married in the 1940s and she lived there ever since,” said Hudgins. “The house has a lot of charm and it’s close to the club, and people in that stretch down to the lodge love to be able to walk or take a short ride to the club because that’s the center of the whole community. They will forego the larger lot because of the location.”

The home previously had been on the market for a year, then taken off and rented for a year before Hudgins re-listed the home for more than two years.

Patience is necessary, she said, not only for the amount of time a high-end home is on the market, but also for the time required to work the listing.

“You are going to be there for all the showings, so it's a dedication of time you will be asked to give, which you should because every house has a story, particularly in that price range,” Hudgins said. “It’s important to be there to tell the story of the house and point out every feature it has.”

A good year

Kim Martin-Fisher wasn’t surprised by the performance of the local luxury home market in 2017.

“It was a good year for the price point,” she said.

It was a good year for her, too. The Coldwell Banker Vanguard agent listed three of the top 10 sales: No. 2 at 831 Ponte Vedra Blvd. ($5.1 million), No. 4 at 517 Ponte Vedra Blvd. ($4 million) and No. 6 at 352 Ponte Vedra Blvd. ($3.75 million).

As if that weren’t enough, she also represented the buyer in the sale of Hudgins’ listing at 895 Ponte Vedra Blvd. ($4.7 million). Among the top 10, she was involved in nearly $17.6 million worth of transactions.

“After we got through the election and the hurricane season of last year, buyers felt like it was a good idea to get into real estate,” said Martin-Fisher.

Like Fort, she said one key to marketing high-end properties is maximum exposure to the worldwide audience, using vehicles from print advertising to all social media platforms.

“You do have old-school buyers who pick up the newspaper and read it (for real estate) and don’t look online,” said Martin-Fisher. “I think if a buyer is looking online I have their attention for two seconds. If you don’t have a special presentation, they will skip right over you and on to the next one. That first interaction is so very important. My photographs I believe are the best in the area as are my videos.”

She also makes certain she is present at all showings.

“I always show my properties, and the reason I do that is a lot of times the buyers are with a relocation agent who may not know the details,” Martin-Fisher said. “There are so many questions that can go unanswered and if I can engage with the buyers and with the other Realtors, I can provide all the information they need to make their decision.

“I sell lifestyle. I show the buyer what their lifestyle will be when they buy this home,” she said.

Hurricanes in back-to-back years, she added, have not deterred buyers from seeking beachfront properties.

“I think people just took a deep breath, but that market is back and it’s strong,” said Martin-Fisher. “There are certain areas along the beaches that the hurricanes did hurt, but Ponte Vedra Beach was mostly very lucky and there hasn’t been much damage there.”

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