What do you consider to be the most attractive city in the world for those with unlimited means after London and New York? Shanghai, perhaps? Moscow? Well, you may be looking at things from the wrong perspective. Wealthy buyers from South America, for example, now put Miami at the number two spot, after New York, on their property shopping list, according to data from global property agents and consultants Knight Frank, and have been driving the market radically upwards.
“In the past 12 months, prices have risen by 30 per cent on average,” says Miami Beach estate agent Kelly Charles, “far outstripping the rest of Florida.” And, indeed, most of the US.
Admittedly, Miami has had some way to climb after a recent dip in a decade of roller-coaster pricing. The first six years of the century saw the city’s largest building boom since the 1920s, when values rose as high as the 100 newly built skyscrapers. Then came the fall – more dramatic than almost anywhere in the country.
“From 2000 to 2006 there was massive economic growth in Miami,” says British developer and entrepreneur John Hitchcox. “Then, the music stopped.”
Today, while Florida locals remain constrained by the new financial sobriety, outsiders have decided that the party in Miami is back in full swing.
“What has changed,” says Charles, “is that 60 per cent of my transactions are from out of state, and 65 per cent are cash buyers. South Americans, in particular, have always seen Miami as a safe haven. Nowadays, they also see it as a bargain.”
These cash-rich purchasers are mainly interested in luxury homes in the primest of locations, which, in Miami, means front-row views of the Atlantic Ocean in Miami Beach, South Beach, Bal Harbour, Sunny Isles and Aventura. Here, year-round sunshine and tropical heat must be complemented by floor-to-ceiling windows and the finest facilities.
It was Miami’s cloudless Januaries that first attracted developers in the early 20th century and Miami Beach blossomed as they began building luxurious hotels in the latest art-deco style. Fleeing the icy months in the north of the continent, “snowbirds” began to flock here from New York, New England and Canada. This migration has remained a constant, but there’s a reason why Miami is also known as “the capital of Latin America”. First claimed for Spain in 1566, it has long been a refuge for political and financial escapees from the southern hemisphere and today well over half of Miami’s population speaks Spanish as their first language.
“People in Florida sometimes joke that the best thing about Miami is that it’s close to the US,” says ABC news correspondent Jeffrey Kofman, who spent 10 years reporting on Florida and Latin America. “That’s what makes it so interesting. It’s American, but very exotic.”
In the 1980s, Miami enjoyed a fashion renaissance, with models, designers and other style leaders deciding South Beach was the place to be seen. But it is the rapid expansion of recent years that has transformed it into a sophisticated, world-class city as renowned for its art galleries and restaurants as its nightclubs and beaches.
“It’s a very different place to the one I grew up in,” says Beth Butler, president of One Sotheby’s International Realty (Miami Beach properties, $14.9m). “The collaboration of private investment and local government has taken it to the next level of urban development. People now fly in from all over the world.”
Certainly, December’s Art Basel Miami Beach, launched in 2002, has become a seminal fixture in the international art calendar and many visitors who attend the fair have also acquired nearby wall-and-floor space to display their purchases. These buyers are looking for holiday homes to ease them through the winter months and want their five-star luxury combined with maximum convenience. Which is why, in Miami, the condo is king.
Condominiums are freehold flats where the apartment itself is individually owned and the communal facilities managed by an association. For their collective living, buyers tend to favour brands they can trust to deliver the highest standards of service and lifestyle.
The residential and hotel company Yoo was set up by Hitchcox and French design guru Philippe Starck in 1999. Nowadays, it is known worldwide for its high-end offerings of sleek interiors and cool communal spaces. In Miami, Yoo has been responsible for two of the city’s recent success stories: Icon South Beach ($325,000-$7.5m) and Icon Brickell ($300,000-$1.5m).
“We offer an experience that’s thought provoking and interesting from the minute you walk through the door,” says Hitchcox. “It’s like joining a club and purchasers totally understand what the brand has to offer.”
In this design-conscious city, successful branding increasingly means bringing in a big-name architect, and both Norman Foster and Herzog & de Meuron (the Swiss firm responsible for Tate Modern and the new Miami Art Museum) have recently been co-opted to ease two developments past the demanding Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board. Meanwhile, hotelier Ian Shrager, himself a style icon, imported British architect and master of minimalism John Pawson to create the look at the 26 private residences attached to his Miami Beach Edition hotel, opening in 2014 (the penthouses here sold at a record-breaking $3,800 per square foot). Owners will enjoy all the services of the hotel, including a bowling alley and ice-skating rink.
But even purely residential developments are required to provide a sense of fun. “At Icon Brickell we have playrooms for everyone,” says Hitchcox. “Spaces for cards and chess, or areas just to chill out. We also have a big screening theatre with velvet sofas.”
For buyers who derive some of their off-duty pleasure from four wheels and a high-octane engine, Knight Frank has 132 condos in the Porsche Design Tower in Sunny Isles. The clue to what it offers is in the name – as well as all the usual top-of-the range extras (such as an ocean-front ballroom and onsite concierge), the building has everything the supercar owner could desire, including a glass lift to deliver their vehicle to a private garage adjoining their apartment. Prices start at $4.3m and rise to $22m for the penthouse.
If a more traditional form of luxury is sought, Savills is selling a number of “grand residences” in Ocean House, a refurbished art-deco building in fashionable South Beach. These stately apartments of 3,500sq ft to 6,200sq ft (on the market for between $5m and $10m) are accompanied by a temperature-controlled wine cellar, private hair salon, billiard room, outdoor kitchen and pet spa services.
Celebrities of one sort or another have long been a feature of Miami’s social whirl, one of the earliest being Al Capone, whose Spanish-style villa on Palm Island came briefly to the market in July 2012, at just under $10m. Today’s behind-dark-glasses owners are more likely to have made their millions in the film or music businesses. For them, Miami’s many secluded islands offer the perfect retreat. Fisher Island, for example, just three miles off the mainland and accessible only by private boat, is one of the most exclusive. Here rapper and record producer P Diddy and Cuban-born singer Gloria Estefan share 0.34sq miles with other prosperous owners (one of whom deploys his disposable income in air conditioning the exterior of his lavish residence). Those interested in moving into this neighbourhood might like to consider a seven-bedroom condo for sale through Portell International Realty at $13.5m.
The type of “single family” home generally required by those with Hollywood bucks to burn also remains in high demand. “The market in sales of $20m-plus has been very active in the past year,” says Butler, who has an array of independent square footage to satisfy even the most demanding. She is, for example, selling a 20,000sq ft new-built house, minutes from South Beach, with a home theatre, gym and rooftop kitchen. This well-thought-out property, on the market for $38m, has also addressed other concerns of many buyers: security and gale-force winds, coming with 16 security cameras, hurricane-proof glass and a generator.
But Miami is not just a holiday town and in recent years it has become a significant commercial centre, with a high concentration of international banks and global enterprises. “South American buyers, in particular, come here to do business,” says Butler. To reflect the requirements of these more serious-minded purchasers, appropriate urban property has been developed in the Downtown area known as Brickell. Here, the Related Group employed the Cairo-born designer Karim Rashid to provide a cutting-edge experience at MyBrickell, a 28-storey boutique development with street-level shops, restaurants and sold-out residences, while the sleek 50-storey Icon Brickell has just one unit left to sell.
“Miami is back on track for property of the right quality in the right location,” says Hitchcox. And, whatever direction the financial winds blow, it looks likely to stay there.