Penny Stokes-Hilton is not American, but friends back in England have long told her she should have been.
“I just love America so much,” she told GrowthSpotter. “Americans have so much positivity, such a great outlook: You can have it, you can do it, it can be yours. The American Dream is just naturally, intrinsically in me.” Few Yanks if any would argue if they met Stokes-Hilton, a team member at Top Villas Realty, whose primary areas include Reunion and Bella Collina.
Stokes-Hilton’s American love affair began in childhood. She vacationed often with her grandmother, who had several investment properties in idyllic, sunny and decidedly un-British Miami Beach.
“We were sitting on the sand together – I was perhaps 17 – and I said, ‘Nana, I just want to live here…!’ She said, ‘Make it your dream and it will happen.’ It’s very Disney, isn’t it?” she laughs.
The dream lived and breathed and waited. For 30 years.
“You go home and life takes a different stance,” Stokes-Hilton philosophizes. “You have your family, your kids and then in a minute, I was approaching 50 – and I just said to my husband, ‘The kids have grown. They’re getting on with their own lives. If we don’t jump and make our dream come true, it’s never going to happen.’”
It did so, in part, because of real estate.
She and husband Ian were quite experienced in purchasing properties and flipping them. A habitual “stager,” she arrives at properties early to get the details, down to sofa cushions, just so. That eye began at age 12, when she redesigned her room down to the smallest detail.
Through their livelihood, people got to know them. “They would ask us to help find them properties.”
As what Stokes-Hilton calls a “property finder,” she was not a traditional agent; they do things very differently in the U.K.
“In England, you can only sell the properties that homeowners have given you to sell. So even if you have a really good relationship with an agency, they may not have the house you like – and that one may be down the street with an agent you don’t like!”
After landing as new expats in Naples, Fla., an opportunity arose that spoke directly to Stokes-Hilton’s experience. Longtime friends (and the owners of Top Villas Realty) implored them to abandon their beloved coast seven years ago for Orlando and an opportunity to sell.
“We had known them for 20 or 25 years by then. We knew each other’s values. We trusted each other … and property was just always in my veins.”
So, too, now, is Orlando.
“It gets under your skin ... we thought we’d do two years and go back to Naples.”
The pair recently bought a home in Bella Collina, about which Stokes-Hilton can’t say enough good things. Though difficult to pin down professionally – one moment she is selling a $200,000 condo, the next a $4.5 million estate – her non-native status makes her a patient and understanding match for international buyers who often find the U.S. real estate process confusing.
Energetic beyond words, Stokes-Hilton has no plans to stop working, and those back home who called her moving plans “a mid-life crisis” couldn’t have been more wrong she says. The admitted foodie was doing lots of Magical Dining planning when we spoke – Chatham’s Place, Eddie V’s, Ocean Prime and Vine’s were all on her list.
Her trailblazing grandmother, she notes, remains an inspiration all these decades later.
“She got me here,” she says. “And I just know she’s up there in her pink powder puff in the sky keeping an eye on me. She always said, ‘You only regret the things that you don’t do, not the things you do.’”
Will she ever return to the U.K.? She won’t rule it out, but can’t resist a laugh at the idea.
“When the sun shines every single day of the year and we get valet parking in England, I’ll go home.”
-- A.D. Thompson