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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Fixers - Key West

I don't get enough of real estate working it full time almost every day of the week. No, I gotta watch those stupid "reality" TV shows like Flip That House and Property Ladder. My favorite is Flipping Out on BRAVO. I was showing a $3.4 million house last Saturday when I opened the linen closet. The shelves were stacked with towels and bed linens that had been ironed. And each shelf had neat little tags that told the maid exactly where each item must be placed. I made a remark to my clients and the woman said something like "Jeff Lewis must live here". (He's the neat freak on Flipping Out.) And then we all confessed we watch that show religously.

There are so many shows on TV about fixing houses that it almost looks easy to redo a house. It isn't. Don't kid yourself. Especially in Key West.

On my first trip to Key West many years ago I saw lots of old homes and shacks and thought "somebody ought to buy that place and tear it down and put up a nice new house." The reality is that you can't do that in the Historic District (Old Town) Key West with a few exceptions. Most of the Historic District (Old Town) area falls under the HARC (Historic Architectural Review Commission) Guidlines. CLICK HERE to view the entire HARC Guidelines in pdf format. The purpose of the guidelines is to preserve and protect the architectural environment and unique character of the historic neighborhoods of the Key West Historic District.

The stated purpose of the HARC Guidelines is "to assist property owners, architects, developers, and the HARC Commission in making appropriate decisions concerning renovation methods and materials used. Those guidelines extend to signs, kiosks,out buildings, streetscapes, street furniture, murals, and other new construction. Sometimes it seems that HARC rules with an iron fist and other times it acts like a change agent. I take no position on HARC. I've had good success with HARC.

The photo of the humble house on Thomas Street and the shack CLICK HERE are good examples of why locals don't tear down existing structures even though they serve no useful purpose. Before the City of Key West had building codes and rules of adornment, property owners pretty much built what they wanted where they wanted it. But that was in the old days. Today there are set backs, side yards, floor area ratios, etc. that direct exactly what a property owner may construct on his property. But if a buyer acquires a property with a non-conforming structure, such as a shack in the rear corner of the back yard, the current set backs do not apply. It might be possible to renovate the shack into a pool house or a guest cottage by expanding the property from its present location.

I have just enough knowledge about land development to be dangerous. So I always tell prospective buyers to go to City Hall and discuss their general development plan with someone in the Planning Department. Every time I have done this the people at City Hall have been very helpful. I don't recall any city official ever saying something like "Yes you can do that". But I have heard them discuss the method by which approval is granted and that usually makes it easier for a buyer to make a decision.

Most of the flip reality shows get the houses totally renovated in 30 minutes. In Key West it takes more like 30 months. Plan on several months of working with your architect to get the plans done the way you want. Then you have to go through the HARC process. Maybe you'll have to go before the Board of Adjustment for a variance. That always takes a little more time. And then you get to deal with the contractors, electricians, plumbers, dry wall installers, painters, swimming pool installers, and landscapers. Maybe you even get to use an interior decorator. Thirty months. Count on it.

Or you could buy a house that is already done. CLICK HERE to search the Key West mls database in real time to checkout all real estate listings. Set your search parameters. If you see something you like, please call me, Gary Thomas, 305-766-2642 or e-mail me at

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Key West, Florida, United States
I first read about Key West in a magazine called "After Dark" sometime in the mid 1970's. But it wasn't until March 1984 that I made my first visit to the island that would become my home. I had two weeks for a vacation and reserved a room at Colours Guesthouse (now Marrero's Guest House) for one week. I thought that if I didn't like Key West, I could always go back to Miami or Ft. Lauderdale for the rest of my trip. But after a couple of days in Key West, that was no longer a consideration. But when I wanted to extend my stay for the extra week I found there was no room at the inn. The guesthouse owner did find me a room at LaTeDa, the infamous guesthouse/restaurant. That's a story I'll write another day. But those two weeks in Key West gave me the realization that I had found Paradise. Key West has been my home since 1993 and my only regret is that it took me so long to get here. I am a full time Realtor at Preferred Properties CRI. Let me help you find your new home or business in Paradise. Living in Paradise is not a slogan, it's a way of life.