Palm Beach County vacancy rates vary by ZIP code, community

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Kimberly Miller

Published September 6, 2012


Rarely are comparisons made between subtropical Palm Beach County and gritty Detroit, so it was a little startling when a recent report ranked this vacation haven second only to the Motor City for high vacant homes rates.


A request by The Palm Beach Post for more detailed data from the real estate analysis firm Trulia reveals that while vacancies are high, there are wide variations in the percent of empty houses depending on location and the machinations of construction trends pre- and post-boom.


Countywide, last month’s Trulia report said 6.7 percent of all housing units in Palm Beach County were vacant as of July. But that rate was as high as 16 percent in and near downtown West Palm Beach, where condominiums sprouted like summer mushrooms during real estate’s peak.


In Wellington, the vacancy rate was just 5 percent. The Palm Beach Gardens ZIP code of 33418, which includes PGA National, had a slightly higher rate of 5.6 percent.


“It really is prime real estate right now,” said one Realtor, Talbot Sutter, about PGA National. “It’s at the lowest inventory it’s ever been, and I’d say near 100 percent occupancy.”


Trulia’s study used U.S. Postal Service data that tallies active and vacant homes. Seasonal and vacation homes are not supposed to be counted as vacant, the Trulia report says. A home is considered vacant 90 days after mail delivery to the address stops.


Nationwide, the vacancy rate was 3.4 percent with Detroit coming in tops at 12.1 percent.

Jed Kolko, Trulia’s chief economist and head of analytics, said he wasn’t surprised Palm Beach County ranked so high, considering Florida’s backlog of foreclosures in the court system and boom-time construction that ran ahead of demand.


Florida had about 377,700 foreclosure cases backlogged in its courts through June, according to the Office of the State Courts Administrator.


But not all vacant homes are in foreclosure.


In downtown West Palm Beach, a few towering condominiums built during the boom have vacancies, but developers are just biding their time until prices go up, said Anthony Pizzarelli, a real estate agent at Corcoran Group in Palm Beach.


“It’s not a vacancy because they can’t get people in there. It’s strategic,” said Pizzarelli, who specializes in downtown sales. “They’re just on pause for a better market.”


Along the coast in Jupiter, ZIP code 33477 includes condominiums and townhomes boasting views of the beach and a 14 percent vacancy rate.


Even though Trulia’s study isn’t supposed to count snowbird or vacation homes as vacant, Joby Slay, a Realtor with The Harvest Group at Keller Williams in Jupiter, isn’t sure how else to account for the high rate there. Nearly 40 percent of people living in that ZIP code are between the ages of 50 and 69, according to U.S. Census data. Another 32 percent are age 70 to 84.


“A lot of those are seasonal rentals,” said Slay, adding that many of his clients are looking in the Palm Beach Gardens and Jupiter area. “Some of those units may be owned by people who don’t come down to them anymore. Some could be foreclosures, but not a high number.”


The same may be true for the town of Palm Beach’s 33480 ZIP code, which has a vacancy rate of 11 percent and 68 percent of its residents between the ages of 50 and 84.


Linda Olsson, a Palm Beach Realtor, said she doesn’t see many vacancies. In fact, rental demand is so high she has a hard time finding enough vacant homes. Furnished properties are especially hot, she said, as people try out island living or wait for new homes to be built.


“We were at a standstill for three years, but things are coming back, slowly but surely,” Olsson said.

Still, foreclosed and abandoned properties certainly make up a high percentage of the vacancies in Trulia’s report.


Unincorporated areas of Palm Beach County have an estimated 18,300 foreclosures, according to Melbourne-based, which contracts with the county to register the homes and collect lender contact information.


One of the vacant homes is next door to octogenarians Marvin and Mildred Sacks, who live in a gated community west of Lake Worth. It has a hole in its roof, moldy tiles and a tattered blue tarp.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, vacant and foreclosed homes may reduce prices of nearby homes by $8,600 to $17,000 per property.


“It’s very depressing,” Marvin about the vacant home next door. “And it’s dangerous. Those tiles are asphalt, and if they start blowing around, they could kill somebody.”