In Palm Beach, Mansion Buyers Pause While Hurricane Dorian Looms

(Bloomberg) -- There’s panic in the air in Palm Beach, Florida, home to President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and some of America’s most historic beachfront mansions.

With Hurricane Dorian bearing down on the barrier island, some buyers are holding off and waiting to see how bad the damage is before making bids on homes, said Michelle Noga, a luxury agent at William Raveis South Florida in Palm Beach. Showings continued, even as property managers and owners prepared for the storm.

“They’re getting the ultimate inspection on the home,” Noga said. “Let’s see how the homes hold up to a hurricane.”

Dorian may strike anywhere between Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale as a Category 4 hurricane, with winds topping out at 140 miles an hour and a storm surge that could easily overwhelm coastal properties. After it’s ashore -- by late Monday or early Tuesday -- Dorian could be pinned inside Florida by larger weather systems, meaning days of heavy rains across much of the state.

Heavy Furniture

It’s normally a quiet time in Palm Beach. The richest families typically don’t arrive until November, when it’s cooler. But now, there’s urgency. Property managers are bringing in plants and disentangling orchids that hang from banyan trees. They’re also hauling in heavy wrought-iron furniture that in a storm would turn into projectiles.

Year-round residents -- like the professional golfers, doctors and local business owners -- are lining up at grocery stores for water and at gas stations to fill their cars and gas cans for generators.

Alexander Wittmann, a local builder, said his parents aren’t taking their chances. They’re taking their dachshund and beagle and leaving their 7,000-square-foot Spanish Mediterranean abode on the water in Tequesta and will stay temporarily at his inland home, in Palm Beach Gardens’ PGA National neighborhood.

When Hurricane Irma hit two years ago, a few trees at their compound were uprooted and the wooden dock destroyed, said Wittmann, vice president of Wittmann Building Corp. The company, founded by his father, Paul, has about 10 homes under construction, ranging from about $4 million to $17 million.

‘There’s Some Panic’

His crews are out, securing properties. One client, with a $17 million mansion in Jupiter that’s 80% complete, is concerned about the storm surge filling the basement with water. When the property is done, it will have drainage and a sump pump. But for now, there’s not much to be done, other than protecting the garage bay with plywood, Wittmann said. Another recent buyer sent him a last-minute text, asking him to put up shutters and move the furniture inside. He was on it.

“There’s some panic, and some clients are requesting more than others,” Wittmann said. “It’s funny, there’s quite a range in what they say. One client didn’t even know a storm was coming.”

Other than a little wave action at the beach, the weather was eerily calm Friday, said Noga, the real estate agent. An offer came in Thursday for a five-bedroom house in Palm Beach Gardens for about $1.1 million. An anesthesiologist was coming to see it Friday. Meanwhile, the sellers were rushing out of town with their dogs, heading to a hotel in Orlando.

Building codes that took effect after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 mean many homes are built to withstand the worst, often with concrete construction, Noga said. But some historic mansions are framed with wood, and homeowners insist on keeping the original windows, which are not hurricane-resistant, she said.

There’s reason to be hopeful about even the oldest properties, she said: “They’ve endured all these other storms.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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