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Wanted! One Dream Home

Donna Hanna is bubbling with excitement as she invites visitors into her new home. She’s practically bouncing on the balls of her feet as she sweeps her arm toward the entry and calls out, "Welcome! Come in!"

Up a short flight of stairs and around a quick corner to the kitchen, the motivation for Hanna to purchase this home is revealed—a stunning view of a well-manicured courtyard leads to a boardwalk that meanders to the flawless white sand of Barefoot Beach and beyond into the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It takes your breath away—as it did for Hanna the first time she saw it.

But her home-buying experience wasn’t as simple as falling in love with an irresistible view. Her quest for her dream home took her to 65 different homes in 14 neighborhoods in an exhaustive search through northern Collier County. Throughout her meticulous process, she found out what it takes to buy the ultimate high-end dream home in this market, and passes on the lessons she learned along the way.

The Search Begins

Like many people who decide to purchase in Southwest Florida, Hanna’s first experience with the area came while she was on vacation. The native Canadian had been living in Arkansas for 18 years and was ready to find her retirement home. So why the Naples area? "I was in Arkansas," she says with emphasis. "You’re completely land-locked, and I heard it was beautiful, quiet and safe here. And you don’t have the rush and the sexiness of the east coast [of Florida]."

While on a Caribbean cruise, Hanna befriended a woman who referred her to Amerivest Realty real estate agent Susan Owens, who met Hanna for breakfast on her next trip to Naples.

"She came with her printed MLS [Multiple Listing Services] list of homes available to rent and homes for sale—she hit the ground running," Hanna says of Owens. "I liked her right away. She was real. She was a worker, and she was ready to help me."

During this exploratory meeting, the two women bonded and determined Hanna’s requirements—a good school district, security and water of some sort. The type of home—single family, villa or condo—was up for discussion, but Owens was a quick study.

"I knew what she wanted before she did," Owens says. At that point Owens gently suggested, "You’re a beach girl," but that didn’t stop Hanna from exploring scores of available homes from north of Immokalee Road, west of Collier Boulevard and south of the Collier-Lee county line.

Finding the Right Fit

Back home in Arkansas, Hanna scoured the Internet, using sites such as www.trulia.com to find homes she wanted to visit on her next trip to Naples. "This is the epitome of the modern, intelligent, Internet-savvy buyer," Owens says of Hanna. Her list included properties from The Dunes to Pelican Isle to Collier’s Reserve to Mediterra.

"You look on a map, and there’s Florida," Hanna says, holding her hands far apart. "I’d zoom in and zoom out [in my search]—and that must have been so frustrating, but Susan never exhibited that." On a trip to The Dunes, Hanna found a beautiful home with a view that swept as far as Fort Myers, but the traffic on Vanderbilt Beach Road was a turn-off.

"But she wouldn’t have known that from afar," says Owens, who first moved to Southwest Florida in 1990. "She’s also the type of person—you can tell her, but she likes to also see for herself. I would take her, but in my mind, I would always say, I don’t think this will work. But I knew she would be satisfied once she saw the logic for ruling it in or ruling it out."

The prices at Mediterra were enticing, Hanna says, but searching through golf communities was a mistake. "One of my top things was boating, a dock and water. Mediterra was so pretty, and the price, because of the market, was great. You could compare per square foot in Mediterra versus per square foot on the Gulf—you can get a palace."

But price wasn’t a deal breaker. "[Owens] would ask me [about the price] and I would say, ‘It depends on how much I love it.’"

When it came to what fit, Hanna knew when her gut told her a home felt right. And at this point, the quiet reminder—"you’re a beach girl"—started replaying in her mind.

Back to the Beach

"Susan told me on our very first meeting—there’s only one neighborhood like this," Hanna says,"with all those amenities I wanted, but I kept going back to the other ones. She was patient with me so I could discover it myself. Almost like a counselor in real estate."

Along the way, Hanna discovered a trend found primarily in vacation destinations—vacation-style homes. "That was a huge issue," she says. "Because there are no closets. You’re just living out of your suitcase when you’re on vacation. You don’t have your photo albums, your decorations and everything else." She needed a primary residence with enough bedrooms, bathrooms and storage space.

So the search continued. At Pelican Isles, she was going to put in an offer, but decided against it when an inspection turned up too many minor—but necessary—fixes. She was still set to buy there when Owens suggested she try renting there first to see if it was a good fit. Because she could not rent with her two dogs, Turbo and Diesel, she moved on. The sandy shore still beckoned. And that’s when she ended up at Barefoot Beach.

"I ended up renting in the beach garden, looking at the Gulf of Mexico, watching the dolphins," Hanna says. "And I was ruined. I didn’t want the backwater any more."

Within a week, they found her home. It had been on the market awhile, but she’d avoided it primarily because of price. "I just thought—I don’t need a big beach house," she says. "And my son said, ‘Get the beach house—get the fun house.’ I’m 47. When else am I going to do it—when I’m in the walker going up and down the stairs?"

Closing the deal

Upon her first steps inside the three-bedroom, three-bath, stand-alone Mediterranean-style condo, Hanna knew. "I walk in, and the lady’s here next to me. She’s from Chicago, very nice," Hanna says. "And I knew—right here [at base of stairway]. We’re talking, and it’s not even like we’re here to look at the house. I knew this was the house."

The view from the kitchen grabbed her attention, but the view from the master suite really did her in. One of Owens’ questions for buyers is, "Where do you want to wake up?" And this was it for Hanna.

Within 24 hours the offer was accepted. Seven days after that, they were at the closing table. And the day before her lease ran out, Hanna moved into her new home—nine months after her search began.
"I knew it was my responsibility to make a wise choice," Hanna says. "Whatever I chose, I was going to have to sit on for at least five years. I don’t have a crystal ball, but my gut told me it’s at least five years. If you’re educated, it’s a good time to buy. There’s no risk in it."

In the current market, Owens says buyers are coming back, but they’re cautious and less willing to negotiate.

"Sometimes, people come here, and they’ve heard there’s blood in the street, and they want to get that great, great buy at Barefoot Beach," Owens says. "There are a couple of them, but it’s not a mass sell-off, by any means. Because you’ve got the beach, the quality construction, the gated neighborhood, those things make it able to sustain its pricing and value."

On Hanna’s block, homes have sold in the $2.5 million range since 2003, according to the Collier County property appraiser’s Web site. One home peaked at $3.2 million in 2006, but prices in the past two years were $2.6 to $2.9 million. Hanna’s purchase price is listed at $2.68 million.

Four months after she moved in, Hanna has integrated herself into her new community—joining the Barefoot Beach book club, enjoying walks to Doc’s Beach House Restaurant on Bonita Beach, watching the dolphins jump in the Gulf and even considering getting her captain’s license if she buys a boat. As a bonus, Owens, a Barefoot Beach resident since 1990, has become one of her closest friends, with whom she’s taken road trips to South Beach and Key West. Hanna credits their chemistry as friends and cohorts in this home-buying process for her success.

"Sometimes you can’t explain a lot of the things that bring you joy. You can’t put that on paper," she says. "All my homework in the world could not have replaced Susan. It was the human element that got me to Barefoot Beach."

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