Vacation Destination

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Americans are serious about their vacations and where they're spent. In the past decade, millions have invested in seasonal homes, from wholly owned multimillion-dollar mansions in Michigan to two-week timeshares in Florida. A report released by Washington, D.C.-based American Resort Developers Association (ARDA) says that approximately 8.6 percent, or 8.9 million U.S. households, own or co-own some sort of vacation or recreational property, an increase of 1.7 million households since 1990. Such getaway properties might include resort condominiums, vacation homes, or even campground memberships.

Among those most likely to hold the deed to such a place, says ARDA, are those who already own a primary home: 13.9 percent of homeowners have some type of recreational property, while only 1 percent of renters can claim the same. Older householders and those with higher incomes are also more likely to own a vacation property. Fifteen percent of householders over age 55 have a getaway as opposed to 4.2 percent of householders aged 40 and under. And 18.4 percent of households with annual incomes over $50,000 own a second property, while only 3.5 percent of households with incomes under $35,000 do. Married couples top the list with 11.9 percent claiming to have property, nearly 5 percent more than other households. But don't expect to find many swingsets there: Only 8.5 percent of households with children under 18 have any such properties, 2.5 percent less than households without minor children.

Most second homers (58 percent) are just a few hours away from their primary residence, says The Concord Group, a California-based real estate consulting firm. The Lake of the Ozarks (1) in Missouri is a prime example. Here, residents of Kansas City and St. Louis, each approximately 150 miles from the lake community, can escape to a more serene environment in less than three hours. Lakes are a major draw for second-home buyers: 31 percent of second-home owners say they'd prefer to be near a lake. Other scenic draws include beaches (33 percent) and mountains (27 percent), according to The Concord Group.

It's no surprise, then, that Florida, the state with the most coastline, is also one of the most sought after vacation destinations. Nearly 7 percent of Florida's 6 million homes belong to seasonal residents. Destin (2), located in the panhandle region, has become a prime landing strip for snowbirds who would rather gaze at blue water and white sand than gray buildings and freeways. Increasing numbers of vacation-home owners have had a substantial impact on local businesses as well. Seasonal residents from all over the South return to Destin Chops, a classic American steakhouse run by the Harbor Restaurant Group - average cost per person: $35. System manager Joe McInerney, originally from Manhattan, admits it would be tough to stay afloat without vacationers who account for more than 80 percent of his clientele. Zoning regulations have delayed the opening of another Harbor Restaurant joint, Submarina, a Thai tapas restaurant.

Second homers in Bay Harbor, Michigan (3), are likely to have even more diverse tastes. This premier luxury community, located in Emmet County (on the shore of Lake Michigan), is where entrepreneurs and CEOs, mostly from Detroit, spend their summers, according to a study conducted by Michigan State University. In fact, more than a quarter of all homes in Emmet County are second homes, says ARDA. But rustic cabins they're not: The price of single family custom "cabins" in Bay Harbor range from $500,000 all the way up to $7 million.

Both The Concord Group and ARDA say we can expect second-home property purchases to increase in coming years. ARDA reports that 26.7 percent of American households believe their chances of purchasing a recreational property some time in the next ten years are "about 50-50" or better, and a full 44 percent think they have at least some chance of buying such a property within the same time period. The Concord Group is even more optimistic, reporting that 44 percent of households feel they have a chance of purchasing in half that time - five years. Both organizations' figures show sharp increases from studies done in 1990. The most influential factors they found? The strong economy and an aging boomer population with more time and money to spend. Boomers, now between the ages of 36 and 54, are beginning to think of retirement, and pre-retirement homes are part of the plan.

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