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Second-Home Buyers on Perpetual Vacation: The Housing Market May Be Slowing, but These Buyers Get Year-Round Retreats for Modest Sum

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RISMEDIA, September 4, 2007–(MCT)–Kitty Allen calls it “the causeway effect.” She feels it every Friday night, a loosening of the shoulders and a smoothing of worry lines as the Galveston Causeway appears in her windshield.
For Allen and other locals with weekend getaways, it’s a year-round indulgence.Although Labor Day marks the end of summer in many parts of the country, vacation homes near the temperate Gulf Coast offer respite all year long. Even better, you don’t have to be rich to partake.

The mansion-collecting habits of the wealthy get all the attention, but they aren’t the norm. The median household income of a vacation-home owner is $102,200, according to the National Association of Realtors.

“It’s always been a middle-income phenomenon,” says Realtors spokesman Walter Molony. “But you’ve got this huge divide between cabins under $100,000 and $1 million beachfront homes.”

And for property that is within driving distance of Houston, the prices lure locals and out-of-towners alike.

“A little bungalow in Charleston, S.C., a small little nothing home, costs about $800,000,” says Andrea Sunseri, a realty associate at Sand ‘N Sea Properties in Galveston. “In Galveston, most people will be able to buy a small house or beach condo for $150,000.”

To the west toward San Antonio, small towns are seeing a surge in vacation home sales.

“After the hurricanes, there was an increase in people wanting homes out of the flood areas,” says Ray Corcoran, co-owner of Tri-County Realty in Weimar. “Most places are 20 acres or so, and it’s $100,000-plus for the land. But it’s still less expensive than Round Top or Brenham.”

Owning a second home is not hassle-free, of course — there’s that second set of property taxes and a second set of insurance policies, along with the upkeep and some very real family considerations. And recent concerns over the housing market may scare off some buyers.

But for many, a second home can foster the best kind of double life: one that manages to keep the “real” world at bay for days at a time.

Tiki time

How many people can say they have their own tiki bar on Tiki Island?

Tucked underneath the bay house owned by Jody Larriviere and Susan Lannan sits their sweet tiki hideaway, an open-air bar furnished almost entirely from weekend garage sales. This also is the site of the couple’s annual crawfish boil, attended by close to 100 people. A kayak and a small aluminum boat — which the Louisiana-born Larriviere calls a “Cajun whaler” — wait nearby on the cement, just inches from the West Bay.

Co-owner of Houston’s Magnolia Bar & Grill, Jimmy G’s Cajun Seafood Restaurant and seafood wholesaler Louisiana Foods, Larriviere spends a lot of his Tiki time on the water. He’s proud of his involvement with the Harris L. Kempner Memorial Sailing School, where he teaches youth how to sail and rehab boats almost every weekend.

Larriviere and Lannan have no children, but kids from their respective families come to Tiki to visit, holing up in a back bedroom when nosy journalists come to call. During the week, the couple live in a Houston high-rise that actually is a bit smaller than their weekend digs.

The high-rise is contemporary and uncluttered, says Lannan, a project buyer for Enterprise Products. But the three-bedroom Tiki house is comfortable and casual, with photographs of family and friends decorating the bathroom walls, stacks of magazines on the coffee table, and Mardi Gras beads hanging from the iron bedstead in the master bedroom.

The couple’s circle of friends has grown since buying the Tiki getaway in 2003. They’re regulars at DiBella’s in Galveston, and if they’re going to entertain and cook, they do it on Tiki Island, not in Houston.

“It’s like going on vacation every weekend,” Lannan says.

The country life

Ninety miles west of Houston, Weimar’s rural allure includes two stoplights, open-hearted neighbors and an annual Gedenke Festival that most of the 1,900 residents attend. Here, John Hathcote, a mortgage broker, and Jack Butcher, a mapping specialist, own a modest 1930s house with a stand-alone garage and a large barn near the back of their 42 acres. Majestic live oaks abound, including one that Hathcote says five people holding hands cannot get their arms around.

In Houston, the couple’s circa-1915 Montrose home has been meticulously restored and decorated. But their country house is more casual — a place where a wagon-wheel coffee table is just the thing for the family room.

In Houston, life is fast and scheduled. In Weimar, Butcher says, interruptions are part of the flow. There’s time to take long walks, mow the lawn, watch the butterflies and lizards, and linger over a cocktail.

Fifteen years ago, the couple attended a party in Weimar and fell in love with it. “We always had a good feeling about the area,” Hathcote says.

But perhaps more to the point, both come from strong rural roots. Butcher grew up on a working cattle and farming ranch in northern Wyoming, and Hathcote was raised in Tennessee, spending weekends at his grandparents’ place in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Veterans of country and city living, both men know what each entails.

In Weimar, they’re happy when people drop by to say hello. They expect it. But if friends in Houston did that? Well, it would be better if they called first.

Market jitters

Tightening mortgages and slumping home sales have been a dominant story in recent months. But the effect on the vacation-home market has been mixed, observers say.

Nationally, the housing market downturn started in October 2005, says Kevin Thorpe, manager of housing statistics for the National Association of Realtors. Still, vacation-home sales increased in 2006.

“You have an aging baby boomer population entering retirement years, and they’re buying vacation homes to enjoy them, regardless of a hot or a cold market,” Thorpe says.

Yet buyers of middle-range vacation homes may be feeling the pinch.

The higher-end market in the Galveston area, which includes vacation homes priced at $700,000 and up, isn’t affected at all, says Sunseri, the realty associate. And on the lower end, mortgages for homes that cost $300,000 or less are still relatively inexpensive, she says.

But in the middle market, including buyers who already own small vacation homes and would like to upgrade, people are staying put.

“They’re holding on to what they have,” Sunseri says.
The birth year of Kitty Allen’s Galveston home is emblazoned in blue across a pillow in her parlor: 1888. Her little wooden house survived the Great Hurricane of 1900, which took countless buildings and thousands of lives.

Allen calls the place her “dollhouse,” a little more than 1,000 square feet of girly decor, Texas postcard lamp shades, and one of the last original shuttered porches on the island. She bought it in 2002 and has no regrets, to date.

“I’ve agonized over shoes more than I agonized over this house,” Allen says.

During the week, Allen does legislative relations for the Harris County Hospital District. Weeknights find her rattling around a “big old house” in Baytown, where she has lived in the same neighborhood since 1981. Despite her ties there, she says she’s closer to her friends and neighbors in Galveston.

On Friday evenings, with her Great Dane, Molly, beside her in the car, Allen catches sight of that causeway and picks up her cell to find out what her island friends are doing: “They’ll say, ‘Hurry! Come meet us for a glass of wine.’ ”

‘Staying in Baytown’

Allen lives alone, but she isn’t single. Her husband, former state Rep. Joe Allen of Baytown, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003. For the past year, his home has been an assisted living facility in Baytown.

Although he did visit the Galveston house in July — for the wedding of one of their daughters — it isn’t a regular event.

“It’s like taking a small child away from a comfortable place,” explains Kitty Allen, who has been a leader in local, state and national Alzheimer’s organizations for years. “You just don’t do that.”

Allen’s ultimate plan is to live in Galveston full time, though probably in a bigger house.

“But so long as Joe recognizes me,” she says, “I’m staying in Baytown.”

The Galveston retreat has helped keep Allen grounded. A plaque hanging from a cabinet in her bathroom seems to sum up her sunny determinism.

“Put on a little lipstick,” it says. “You’ll be fine.”

Copyright © 2007, Houston Chronicle
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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