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Crude Summer: Grand Isle, La.
Broker Nicole Lombas sees her market shift from cash buyers to contract crew renters as her tiny southern Louisiana island home becomes a hub for clean-up efforts.
September 1, 2010
Nicole Lombas used to cherish the view at night from her beachfront home on Grand Isle, La.—the moonlight shimmering on the ocean as waves crash along the beach, blowing in salty sea air and mist.
But this summer, the picture changed. The beach closed and workers descended on the small island at the southern tip of Louisiana, usually popular for family vacations and fishing. Huge floodlights, military vehicles, and tents accompanied the cleanup crews that worked to contain the most devastating oil spill the Gulf of Mexico has ever experienced. "It was like a military base," says Lombas, broker-owner of Century 21 Nicole Lombas & Associates.
Lombas has two offices with seven agents, one in South Lafourche, La., and the other on Grand Isle. In addition to selling, she manages vacation homes—commonly referred to as "camps" by the locals—and dabbles in development. "There’s no good time for a tragedy like this, but this hit us at the worst time of year possible," the Grand Isle native said in June. "It’s our busiest time tourism-wise, with real estate sales and rentals. Plus, it’s coming up on hurricane season."
A fourth-generation business owner on Grand Isle, Lombas feels the effects of the spill acutely. Her great grandfather started a shrimp and oyster business, Grand Isle Seafood Co., more than 100 years ago. Later, her grandfather took over the family business. So in addition to her real estate company, Lombas owns 30 acres of oyster leases that once belonged to her grandfather—all closed to harvesting due to the spill.
Her real estate business is feeling the pain, too. Typically, Lombas says, her office would have 10 to 12 properties set to close by Independence Day; this year, there were only two. One buyer purchased a lot for $27,500, $7,000 below the asking price. Before the spill, the seller had turned down a higher offer. The other buyer was a staffing company, purchasing a property to house cleanup crew.
Camps are typically set up for family getaways, Lombas says. To accommodate cleanup workers, she and her team have had to change out king and queen beds for twins. "We need as many workers down here as possible, and we don’t have enough housing," she says. To meet demand, locals and second-home owners are renting out their homes. "Some are taking the rental money and vacationing elsewhere."
Sellers who manage to find a buyer may have to be flexible with the terms of the sale. Normally, property owners won’t consider a financed sale, says Lombas, a 13-year veteran of the business. "In the summer, for a beachfront property, it’s usually all the money up front, a cash sale or not at all." Today, she says, more sellers are looking at lease-purchase options.
A typical "camp" on Grand Isle costs $400,000, Lombas says. Rentals mean smaller commissions. A camp may rent for $5,000 per month, so even if a practitioner gets a 20 percent rental commission, that’s just $1,000. "Even though we’re busy with a constant booking of rentals, we’re losing income," Lombas says.
But Lombas doesn’t mind—for now, at least. She knows that she has a valuable role in the cleanup effort. Workers need a place to sleep, and property owners are happy to have some income during this time of unrest. "I feel good that I can help these workers who are out in the sun 12 hours a day helping to save us and our island," says Lombas. "I want to believe that they can fix this, that we can get our waters back, that the government will make BP clean it all up for as long as it takes." In the meantime, she isn’t going anywhere: "I’ll never leave. That’s not an option. It’s not like the people of South Louisiana to give up."
Updated: September 22, 2022