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On a cool, but sunny morning, Bob and Judy Ries of Salt Lake City rode in a golf cart around the well-manicured grounds of the Oceanwalk Condominiums in New Smyrna Beach.
"Isn't it lovely?" Judy Ries asked.
A few minutes later, a long, black snake slithered down a wall as the golf cart drove by. Judy was less thrilled by this aspect of the local flora and fauna.
Welcome to Florida. The Rieses have been thinking for some time about buying a vacation home in Florida. In the current buyers' market, they've decided the time is right.
"That was a big thing to me," Judy Ries said. "We're getting older. If we're going to do it, we better do it."
November may seem like a weird time to think about buying a vacation home, but for many foreigners and others visiting the area, it could be the best time as prices finally are coming down on condos and other beachside properties. "We like the snowbirds," said Al Sciscione, marketing coordinator at Oceanwalk. "They come and are always looking."
This year, they may buy, say local Realtors. "When the snowbirds came last year and were looking, they were not sure prices had settled," said Susan Mclain, a Realtor at Prestige Properties in New Smyrna Beach. "Now, prices have fallen in line with where they can purchase."
Still, Sciscione acknowledges things are slow now. He said gas prices are hurting the real estate business even more because some people from out of state can't afford to travel here.
Condo sales were down 40 percent in Volusia and Flagler counties in September from the same time last year. Home sales were down 28 percent.
Nationwide, condo sales were down 4.3 percent and down 37 percent in Florida.
Sciscione said most of the condos being sold at Oceanwalk are for second homes or vacation homes. "They love to have something to come down to that is their own," he said.
Sciscione was happy to hear from Bob Ries, an old friend from his days as an air traffic controller. Ries, who still works for the Federal Aviation Administration, had been to Palm Coast for training at the FAA Center for Management and Executive Leadership and liked the area.
The Rieses' daughter, who lives in Atlanta, suggested they look at New Smyrna Beach. "We had never heard of it," Judy Ries said.
The couple decided to visit New Smyrna and rented a condo. "It's got a good feel," Judy said.
Bob Ries, 69, said he would like to retire to the area eventually. He said he'd probably want to buy a house then, but for now, the condos at Oceanwalk seemed perfect.
The couple looked at a 1,300-square-foot, two-bedroom condo, which was listed at $273,000. But Sciscione said what he always says to buyers these days: "Make me an offer."
Oceanwalk, like many condo developments now, has several promotions for buyers. Under its buy-back program, if the price on the condo drops during the next 18 months, Oceanwalk will buy it back at the price the buyer paid.
"If prices drop, we don't want people to say, 'I got screwed.' " Sciscione said. Under its lease-back program, Oceanwalk will lease the condo for about $1,300 a month. Some owners who live out of state like the option of renting their condos, he said.
Usually, the vacation home market on the East Coast is seasonal, with most buyers rushing to the settlement table in the spring and, less frequently, in the fall. But some experts say running counter to the spring cycle can be advantageous to buyers.
Sales are seasonal in other popular vacation destinations, too. Dan Martier, an agent with Coldwell Banker Seaside Realty in Kitty Hawk, N.C., said timing is important for people who intend to rent the place out most of the season. Closing has to happen in time to get things lined up for the next vacation season, when the vast majority of rents are collected.
Those renters make buying in the height of summer difficult, Martier said. "Most of the houses are occupied," he said. "It's hard to even look at it unless it's turnover day."
Kevin Kling at Gaff's Realty Co. said he has clients in France, Canada, England and Turkey, who are looking in the Daytona Beach area. "I've sold many second and third homes this year," he said. "Some are first- time condo buyers and many are upgrading their old condos to new more luxurious condo properties like Ocean Villas in Daytona Beach."
Mclain, who just earned a designation as a resort and second home property specialist from the National Association of Realtors, expects most of the snowbirds to arrive after the first of the year. She's already getting calls and e-mails from potential buyers who have looked online. "I'm seeing some people I've already sold something looking at purchasing another unit," Mclain said. "That's where most of my business is coming from, second- or third-time buyers. I'm not seeing first-time homebuyers.
"I'm seeing people coming in from out of the area, who have been coming here for years with their families," she said.
John Horn is one of those people. The Chicago resident and his family have a time-share condo in New Smyrna. They come each year for Bike Week and for racing events when they can.
"I'm in the construction world, so winters are slow," Horn said by telephone from Chicago. "I'm looking for something more than a time share for a week."
Horn said with prices dropping, it is time to buy. "We like New Smyrna," he said. "As many times as we've visited, we feel like it is our second home and feel comfortable there."
Written By Melissa Griggs with contributions by the Associated Press.