Florida’s stretch of beaches from Dune Allen to Inlet Beach along highway 30A are a popular vacation destination or second-home spot for many Tennesseans who enjoy the area’s family-friendly atmosphere, white-sand beaches and emerald green water.

The area has been featured in the “Wall Street Journal” twice in the last six weeks, not for its natural beauty — but for its record-breaking home sales. 

In 2020 a home in Seagrove Beach referred to as Mont Blanc was purchased by Franklin residents Chuck and Jo Ellen McDowell for $14 million. It was, at that time, the most expensive single-family residential sale on 30A. 

The couple purchased another home on 30A and has listed Mont Blanc for sale. This time for $26.5 million. That’s an increase in value in two years of $12.5 million, or nearly double its original sales price. 

Just down the street, another beachfront property in a four-home development known as Sanctuary at Seagrove is pending for $25 million. A 4,700-square-foot, gulf-front home sold in nearby Rosemary Beach in early June for $21 million. That comes close to a whopping $4,600 per square foot.

Five years ago the most costly gulf-front residential real estate was closer to $9 million.  According to market research, in the first quarter of 2022, the average sales price along 30A was $1.85 million, up from $1 million during the first quarter of 2021. Home values on the east end of 30A have risen 93% in the last three years according to National Association of Realtors data.

Jonathan Spears, founder of Spears Group at Compass 30A said before the pandemic, affluent folks chose to vacation at international destinations, or domestically in places like Malibu or Maui.

“What became amazing about this market is a third of the U.S. could drive to it safely during the pandemic,” Spears said. “It really showcased what we have here. I think pricing was realized in terms of overall value because of that exposure.”

Now the 30A area, home to some of the closest beaches to Nashville, is evolving into a third- and fourth-home market for that affluent buyer. 

The area Spears refers to as the “Hamptons of the South” is now transcending the new urbanism developments it has become known for and is beginning to compete with world-class destinations like Malibu, Lake Tahoe or Aspen. 

How it all started

The first settlers of this area between Panama City and Destin, Florida, which pre-date the construction of Scenic Highway 30A in the 1970s, came to the wild west. There was very little access and even fewer comforts such as stores, restaurants or neighbors.

The original appeal was, and still is, the beach.

In his book “The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera,” author Harvey H. Jackson III recounts that a pioneer of developing beach communities in this area was C.H. McGee Jr., who in the early 1950s, bought 170 acres of gulf-front property, built “three spec homes and a little store” and called it Seagrove Beach. 

Jackson writes that long before the 30A beach village known as Seaside would “tap into the utopian dreams of affluent Americans in the 1990s,” what McGee created was designed to appeal to those who wanted something other than a “week at a beach motel in a resort full of tacky amusements and the sort who enjoyed them.”

This philosophy is the lifeline of today’s 30A with each beach community from Seaside to Alys Beach to Rosemary Beach, offering something different from the other because of the variety and connectivity accentuated by arguably some of the world’s most beautiful salt water. 

There’s world-class Caribbean- and Greek-inspired architecture used in traditional neighborhood-style master planning all along 30A that is connected by a bike path that runs the entire 28.5-miles.

What this area doesn’t have is as important as what it does. There’s no neon. No billboards, no Ferris wheels and no nightlife. 

People have come here for decades to enjoy family time at the beach. 

“The way this market distinguishes itself from a Miami or a Palm Beach or a Boca Raton or even a Naples is this is a family destination and it caters to that multi-level family,” Spears said. “It’s the family that has young kids. It’s not young tech gurus who want to go out to the club every night. We don’t have that.”

Scenic highway-turned-destination

In the late ’50s the only way to access Seagrove and Grayton beaches were dead-end roads coming off of nearby Highway 98. In the ’70s, construction began on Scenic Highway 30A, which many residents at the time opposed. In the ’80s, land owner Robert Davis would conceptualize and build Seaside, which built upon what Grayton and Seagrove started, but on steroids. The love of this new urbanism on the beach kick-started the explosion of development that would become known collectively as 30A.

The growth along 30A was controversial then and it still is today. Long-time residents and visitors notice added traffic and bigger houses that can sleep 20 people, creating crowds on the beaches. Some gulf-front property owners’ property lines go all the way to the “wet sand” confusing visitors who see “private beach” signs dotting the coastline. 

The area has something special, however, that continues to draw visitors and new homeowners who come for the beaches and stay for the charm.

Dwayne and Cherie Montgomery recently purchased a home in Sanctuary at Seagrove and relocated there permanently from Nashville. 

“30A is special,” Dwayne Montgomery said. “It is like a step back in time where life was simple. The colors of the ocean and beaches speak for themselves and rival any beaches in the world.  The architecture is phenomenal and along 30A, the vibes are different and specific to that part of 30A.”

He added that although the growth on 30A cannot be ignored, it is still such a “magnificent gem.” 

Nashvillians Kelly and Tom Roule own on 30A because they took a slight detour on a recent trip to Destin.

“We flew into the Panama City Beach airport and headed to Destin, but decided we would take the 30A drive,” Kelly Roule said. “We turned onto 30A and hit Rosemary Beach and we were like ‘oh!’ Then we hit Alys, and said ‘wow!’ Then Seaside, ‘yeah, this is awesome.’ We got to Destin and said ‘Nope. We want to go back over there.”

Buy high sell higher

Knowing the origins of this stretch of coastline were always geared toward the affluent who were looking for something different, the 2022 $20-million plus sale prices could be seen as the next evolution of the affluence.

Chuck McDowell, current owner of Mont Blanc, said after watching the stock market during 2020, he noticed a trend of people moving. 

“If you are going to move anywhere in the world when here you can walk to Seaside, I don’t know where else I’d rather be. This house on the beach in Seagrove for $14 million seemed ignorantly cheap,” he said. “I think we bought a $20 million house for $14 million.”

McDowell is the founder and CEO of Franklin-based Wesley Financial and Wesley Mortgage and is well-versed on the mortgage industry. 

“People have laughed at me for saying this, but I’ve changed the old saying from ‘buy low, sell high’ to ‘buy high and sell higher,’ he said. “Whether it’s 30A or Franklin, whatever you pay today, you are going to make money tomorrow. There just aren’t enough homes and there aren’t enough places like Franklin or Seaside where you feel warm, welcome and safe.”

Although for many, like the Roules, while they could make a nice profit selling their home in Seagrove, it would be near impossible to re-buy at the same price point. 

“If we sold our house today, we could double our money, but we would have to leave 30A,” she said.

Elite market in its infancy

Realtor Lyndon Jackson is a native of Santa Rosa Beach on the north side of 30A and has seen the growth over the last few decades firsthand. He’s the co-listing agent with Spears on Mont Blanc and said although the $20 million-plus homes are setting a new trend in this area, he doesn’t think those sales are going to have a massive impact on the rest of 30A real estate.

“I think these legacy homes are top-quality construction in the best locations possible, serving the elite,” Jackson said. “I don’t think these sales will affect the properties that are worth a million. It’s a completely different world.”

Jackson and Spears agree 30A is a young market when it comes to clientele looking for their third or fourth home and have millions to spend on it.

“We are in our infancy stages,” Jackson said. “We aren’t as mature as those other markets like the Palm Beaches of the world.”

But Spears added he thinks these $20-million and up sales are just the tip of the iceberg. “I think eventually we are going to see $30, $40 and $50 million houses here.”

Why 30A, when people with significant wealth could build or buy almost anywhere?

McDowell may have said it best. 

“When I was young, my grandfather would always say, ‘Son they aren’t making any more land.’ And they certainly aren’t making any more lots on the best beach area in America.”

Melonee Hurt covers growth and development at The Tennessean, part of the USA Today Network — Tennessee. Reach Melonee at [email protected]