Real estate executives discuss home markets and trends during Realty Alliance Conference in Sarasota


Members of The Realty Alliance gathered, for three days, at The Ritz-Carlton Sarasota to discuss the real estate industry and how they managed to close $310 billion in real estate last year.

Michael Saunders, founder and chief executive officer of Sarasota-based Michael Saunders & Company, is a member of this invitation-only network of North America’s real estate firms.

Saunders hand-picked a few real estate leaders from Cincinnati, Chicago, Milwaukee, Miami and Naples, representing companies that drive business to the Sarasota/Tampa Bay area, to attend a private breakfast meeting.

Inside The Ritz-Carlton, they discussed their home markets, trends and why so many buyers are drawn to Southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast.

While all executives agreed buyer demand remains strong, the Midwestern contingent said their areas are experiencing a decrease in sales, mostly fueled by a lack of inventory.

Stephen Baird, president and CEO of 168-year-old Baird & Warner, in Chicago, the largest independent brokerage in Illinois, said listings are down about 50% from a year earlier and, despite unlimited demand, “we just don’t have anything to sell.”

While Florida also is facing inventory challenges, along with higher insurance costs, the state is a hot spot for homebuyers.

Ron Howard, vice president of sales for John R. Wood Christies International Real Estate, in Naples, said his two-county market is off from the height of the pandemic but is doing better than the “old normal,” with 7% more inventory and closed sales up about 4%. Howard, whose 65-year-old brokerage is ranked the no. 1 company in Southwest Florida, in sales volume and units sold, said Florida’s desirable weather and active lifestyle continue to attract out-of-state buyers.

Michael Pappas, president of The Keyes Company, in Miami, the no. 1 ranked independent real estate brokerage in Florida, said Interstate 75 funnels buyers from the Midwest to the Sunshine State’s west coast while Northeasterners tend to follow Interstate 95 to the state’s east coast.

John Horning, executive vice president of Shorewest Realtors in Brookfield, Wisconsin, located outside Milwaukee, said more of his customers are deciding to keep their homes in Wisconsin and buy a second residence on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where they can enjoy sunny, mild winters.

Horning, Baird and Robin Sheakley, president of Sibcy Cline Realtors, in Cincinnati, said clients migrating to Southwest Florida are enticed by the Gulf Coast’s beautiful beaches, vibrant cultural arts, proximity to I-75 and airports and laid-back lifestyle. Baird also pointed out another reason: “That’s where all their friends are.”

The real estate leaders said sought-after home features across all their markets include spacious open floor plans with high ceilings, large outdoor living spaces, pools and flexible spaces for work and play.

“People are seeking more active lifestyles, period,” says Sheakley, whose company is the largest independent real estate broker in the Greater Cincinnati area. In South Florida, Pappas and Howard said long-popular Mediterranean-style homes are out, with some undergoing renovations to raise ceiling heights.

Saunders, who started her company, in Sarasota, in 1976, said connections with other independent real estate companies around the country through networks like The Realty Alliance are vital, allowing her brokerage to build trusted relationships that result in steady referrals. Saunders said the network’s pipeline feeds the Sarasota area with buyers from throughout the U.S. and other parts of Florida. “John R. Wood is one of our biggest feeder markets nationally,” Saunders says of the Naples company, which is about two hours south and serves Collier and Lee counties.

A timely example of the key role these connections play occurred the day before The Realty Alliance’s membership meeting got underway, in Sarasota. Sheakley, a fourth-generation leader of her brokerage, said she received an unexpected text, from a friend, looking for help finding a house to buy in Sarasota. Coincidentally, Sheakley happened to be attending a dinner party at the Sarasota home of Saunders, whose firm is the top independent real estate company on Florida’s three-county Suncoast, with 19 sales offices and over 600 agents.

Photos by Rod Millington

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