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(MCT)—Some people are happy collecting fast cars or nice watches. But the ultimate vanity purchase may be the private island.

Billionaire Richard Branson owns several. Magician David Copperfield has a dozen. Singer Celine Dion is trying to sell hers. And tech titan Larry Ellison is closing a deal to buy nearly all of the Hawaiian island of Lanai.

Although private islands are often associated with the very rich, they aren’t always that exclusive or even all that expensive.

Private Islands Inc., a Toronto-based island marketing firm, lists about 500 islands worldwide from less than $50,000 to more than $100 million, Chief Executive Chris Krolow said.

U.S., Canadian and British buyers make up about 80 percent of the market; far-flung locales such as the Caribbean have a more international buyer base, he said. The Bahamas and Belize are hot, as is Panama. In the Mediterranean, Greek islands are popular.

“Before the recession, a lot of islands were priced by owners who had what we call Coke-bottle glasses,” Krolow said. “They put crazy price tags on their islands.”

Price drops in areas such as the Bahamas and a sense that values have bottomed out have brought increased interest in island ownership.

“It has opened the door to people looking,” Krolow said. “They are more comfortable now.”

Ego, extravagance and identity play roles in some high-profile trophy purchases, experts say, but others are motivated by privacy and security.

“These types of people are looking to create something for themselves, to put up a flag and say, ‘This is my own little country,’ ” Krolow said. “They all tend to be very entrepreneurial. Not just the wealthy, but those who are determined to do something different.”

Celebrities have long populated the ranks of island owners, including Marlon Brando, Nicolas Cage and Johnny Depp. Even those not pursued by paparazzi can understand the desire for seclusion these days, said clinical psychologist Stephen Goldbart, co-founder of the San Francisco-based Money, Meaning & Choices Institute.

“We are all living in a world where there isn’t much privacy,” said Goldbart. One of his clients has bought an island, and several others are interested in making their own purchases. “The need for feeling safe and secure has increased radically since the economic downturn.”

Island buyers tend to fall into two groups: people who are making lifestyle choices and entrepreneurs developing resorts.

Oracle Corp. CEO Ellison’s recent deal to buy 98 percent of Lanai could be considered an example of a trophy purchase, since ownership has been a money-losing proposition for seller David Murdock, the Los Angeles billionaire who controls Dole Food Co.

The estimated $500 million deal makes little sense from a financial standpoint, said Paul Habibi, who teaches real estate at the University of California-Los Angeles’ Anderson School of Management. Among the reasons he cites are a lack of resort potential because of a mostly rocky beachfront and scant infrastructure.

“It is probably more of a quality-of-life investment — a pride-of-ownership purchase,” Habibi said. “Who wouldn’t want to own a Hawaiian island?”

Murdock, though unloading the 141-square-mile island, is keeping his Lanai home and some other assets, including a woodworking shop and 1,000 rare orchid plants.

Dion and her husband, Rene Angelil, put their private island up for sale in Quebec in late spring. The couple, who also own a home in Florida, could seldom get to their island mansion because of Dion’s touring schedule, so they listed it for sale at more than $29 million.

The fence-enclosed 20-acre isle near Montreal is reached by bridge across a river. A slate-roofed, French Normandy-style house resembling a castle stands at its heart, offering 24,000 square feet of opulent living space.

Then there are trophy islands that amount to white elephants.

Red Rock is a nearly six-acre undeveloped island in San Francisco Bay. Accessible by boat or helicopter and without structures, it was recently reduced to $5 million from an original listed price of $22 million.

Michael Caffey understands the downside of owing a coastal island in California. The TV producer inherited a 1.3-acre parcel called White Rock Island off Santa Catalina Island and has been trying to sell it for years.

Listed at $657,000, the land is virtually impossible to develop “unless you are the governor,” Caffey said. “The problem is the Coastal Commission.”

Miami-based entrepreneur Christian Jagodzinski bought his Fiji atoll when he was flush with funds from the sale of his online business to Amazon in the late ’90s.

“At the time you have a lot of money, you look at what kinds of toys to buy,” said Jagodzinski, who splits his time between Florida and the south of France. Houses and property seemed to be purchases he could both enjoy and make money on.

“When I looked at Fiji, I thought the resort offerings there were sub-par,” he said. So he bought sprawling Katafanga Island in Fiji’s Lau group intent on operating a top-notch, exclusive resort.

But his initial partnership floundered. Once the development money was gone, construction stalled. He has since listed the 225-acre isle at $20 million in the hope of recouping his investment.

In an effort to reach West Coast buyers and tap into Hollywood A-list and billionaire buyers, he hired Trista Rullan, a listing agent with Hilton & Hyland in Beverly Hills, Calif. Owners of Fiji islands include actor Mel Gibson and Fiji Water founder David Gilmour.

Among the most striking features of Katafanga Island are its natural resources including a bioluminescent lagoon, Rullan said.

“It literally glows in the dark,” she said. “You can see fish swimming.”

White sand beaches ring the pristine island, which has an infrastructure for 20 villas. A break in the surrounding natural reef can allow yachts as long as 200 feet to enter the protected waters.

Jagodzinski’s chief investment officer, Bram Portnoy, recently returned from a visit to Katafanga, where he stayed in a 1,500-square-foot, two-bedroom villa with an infinity pool and 1,000-square-foot terrace.

There is no commercial fishing in the area, but seafood is abundant. Jagodzinski’s guests can snorkel and feast on the island’s coconut crabs and locally caught lobster, barracuda and eel.

“You are in the middle of nowhere in a good sense,” Portnoy said. The island is a 75-minute flight by twin-engine plane from Fiji’s Nadi International Airport.

Jagodzinski appreciates the remote location. “That’s the main reason to live on an island,” he said. “You have this feeling of isolation that you rarely get in this culture anymore.”

Ultimately, though, island ownership isn’t for most people.

Beyond the cash needed, hurdles may include getting building permits and environmental issues. Areas where there are concerns about political stability are a harder resale.

“At end of the day,” Krolow said, “there are only a handful of properties and buyers that can be aligned.”

©2012 Los Angeles Times
Distributed by MCT Information Services