If you want to know Florida – and especially 30-A – the guy you need to see is James Watts. Why?
For one, his unique skill set. After a stint in Oxford, Mississippi, where he got both his undergrad and law degree, he has been able to use his law and business training in the real estate world to make sure his clients get the best deal – and that those deals close.
But he also knows the area – and well. He and his wife live in 30-A (they start the day with a walk on the beach), making him not just a real estate resource for clients looking to buy, but also frequently their go-to for getting acclimated, too, with restaurant recommendations, activity suggestions and more.
We caught up with the busy Realtor to find out why he’s so big on Florida dirt, who is buying, and more.
SecondShelters.com: Just looking at the latest numbers from the Florida Real Estate Association, it looks like everything – closed sales, median prices, pending sales, etc. – is on an upward trend. What are you seeing in your area?
JW: “We are seeing a consistent upward trend each year in prices and sales. In 2010-2012 it was a sharp increase each year, but over the last couple of years the market has settled into a healthy trend.
What has happened is that in the 1990s-2000s, the area was bolstered by mostly the major cities of the southeast; mainly Atlanta. If Atlanta had a hiccup, we felt it here. It was mostly Georgia people with some Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana. Many people were still going to Destin and Gulf Shores.
Now, we have people visiting from all over the country. Our two closest airports have direct flights to 15 plus cities. Southwest opened the floodgates with direct flights from Houston to the ECP airport. Now Texans make up a huge portion of our owners and visitors.
I can go on and on about this change, but it boils down to supply and demand. The demand for this area has multiplied and although a lot of building continues here, the supply has not kept up. “
SS: What are you guys selling the most right now? And to who? Is it second home buyers or people looking to really put down roots?
JW: “Our area is starting to have a bit of a transition as it matures. It used to be the majority of buyers we worked with were looking for a second home that they would primarily use for rental income and personal use occasionally. Developments with restrictions on vacation rentals were essentially dead.”
“I still think the majority of buyers are using their homes as second homes and in many cases rental income, but we are seeing a growing number of people who are buying to use as a second home with no thoughts of rental income. They want a true home to come to whether it is for two weeks out of the year or six months. They want a nice place that has not been worn out by rentals.
It is a different kind of buyer. One who is more financially secure who does not need the rental income to own a second home. This is a more stable buyer that is less susceptible to the winds of the market.
I personally have had more buyers looking specifically for non-rental areas or areas not saturated with rentals in the last two years than in the previous five years combined. These are people who have either owned here for many years and are looking for a more permanent place (they have done the rental thing and are over it) or they are people with discriminating taste and the means to support that taste and they want luxury and privacy.
I always tell people that it is a larger pool of buyers looking for homes that they can use for vacation rentals, but the smaller pool looking for non-rental are willing to pay a premium for the right house in non-rental areas. I think this is a sign that our area is attracting more established and stable clients as opposed to those who are stretching to buy a second home and then rely on rental income to get by.”
SS: Why should someone consider the Emerald Coast?
JW: “White sand, clear water, state parks, dune lakes, good restaurants, live music venues, year-round events, easy access and on and on and on. I focus a lot on 30-A because that is where I live, but Destin has been here for much longer and still draws visitors due to the beaches and easy boating access. The Destin Harbor is a great spot to dine on the water or rent a boat for the day. Things are more fast-paced in Destin but there is no shortage of activities there. 30-A tends to be a little slower. I have traveled all over the US from California to South Florida and the keys plus all over the Caribbean. Our beaches and water are tough to beat. Our restaurants are tough to beat.”
SS: You have an interesting backstory – law degree, but a yen for real estate. When did that yen become a full-blown career?
JW: “I thoroughly enjoyed law school and all that I learned during that time. It was an invaluable education. When we moved to Florida, real estate just fell into place. I liked the concept of working with people buying luxury items.
People call attorneys usually because they are upset about something. People call me excited about buying a beach house.
At times I wish I had practiced law because I enjoy many aspects of the legal field. However real estate gives me the flexibility to travel with my wife or take off for the afternoon to meet friends or clients at the beach. I am a workaholic so I work all the time, but if I want to take time off then the only person I really have to answer to is myself.
I enjoy selling real estate here because I am oftentimes selling more than real estate. I am selling the beach lifestyle. Many of my clients have become close friends who I see every time they are down visiting.”
SS: Who should buy in 30-A?
JW: “Everyone! 30-A is great for families due to all of the activities; swimming, biking, paddleboarding, hiking, festivals, live music, movies and on and on. Families love the area because they feel safe letting their kids take off on bikes for the day. There is always something to do.
30-A is great for empty nesters looking for a place at the beach that fits their needs but is also easily accessible for the kids and/or grandkids. Many people I know will come down for several weeks and just have their kids and grandkids coming and going throughout the stay.
The area is an easy drive from many major cities plus we continue to add direct flights into the airports. If you love good food and wine then it’s your place to buy. There are countless restaurants and wine bars. There are multiple wine festivals throughout the year. There are several food festivals.
If you are an active person then this area has much to offer. There are several half marathons held on 30-A not to mention the 5K’s and 10K’s mixed in. The dune lakes are perfect for paddleboarding and kayaking. The bike path is great for running or biking. The trails in the state parks are ideal for trail running or mountain biking. You can sign up for RUN/SUP classes in Watercolor where you mix in trail running with stand up paddleboarding. They also hold races for all ages on the dune lakes.
For beach lovers, you will not find whiter sand or clearer water anywhere in the U.S.”
SS: What do you think are some common misconceptions about buying real estate in Florida?
JW: “One misconception people have is thinking that there are still foreclosures and distressed sales to be found. Our area rebounded fairly quickly since we did not have the large number of foreclosures and short sales that areas like South Florida had.
Everyone claims they have a ‘friend’ or ‘cousin’ who bought some deal for pennies on the dollar down here. What people don’t understand is that real estate has become such a global focus that there are thousands and possibly millions of people keeping an eye on real estate in this area.
When a true ‘deal’ comes up, it sells fast because so many people are eyeing the market, sitting on cash just waiting. I have not run into a distressed seller willing to just dump a property in a very long time.
Also, just because a listing has been on the market for a long time does not mean the seller will take a low ball offer. It could mean the seller has little to no motivation to sell but would consider selling if someone pays what he wants. Otherwise, he is willing to wait.
What is unique about this area, in particular, is that much of the area is guarded by dunes from the gulf. The natural barrier of dunes running the length of 30-A varies from 5 feet to nearly 50 feet in height. It acts as a natural barrier against storms.”
SS: We write a fair amount about celebrity homes and hotspots – is there a who’s who of the 30-A/coast? I mean, we know about areas around Miami, but are there other hot spots?
JW: “So we have a sneaky yet growing number of famous people with homes in this area. I have spoken to a few of them and their agents and one of the main reasons they love this area is because they can fly under the radar.
I cannot tell you how many times I have been standing in Publix or at a local restaurant and look over to see a Nashville star, famous politician or actor a few feet away. For the most part, they all own homes in LLC’s so it can be hard to verify exactly who owns the home. So far not a single agent or person will respond to questions about ownership or verify ownership.
There have been a few articles about Vince Vaughn. He owns multiple homes here. Everyone knows where Luke Bryan’s house is. He also co-owns a cigar bar here. Alys Beach is home to several stars from Jason Aldean to Cam Newton to Sean Payton. Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line and his wife live in Grayton Beach and also own a clothing/lifestyle store there. Jerry Jones has a huge house here.
Multiple professional and college coaches have houses here. Several professional athletes have houses here. We do not have the glitz and glam of places like Miami, but that is part of why the area is such a draw for celebrities to either own here or visit here.
The area is also a who’s who for CEOs and owners of Fortune 500 companies. When I talk to people about the area, I explain that we have a sneaky number of very powerful people in terms of the business world and sports world plus the Nashville music scene plays a major roll in our market.
Anytime real estate agents or local writers try and highlight celebrity owners for personal gain, it is met with backlash.”