Outside of Austin, the health of the U.S. condo market continues to deteriorate. It’s well known that many formerly hot condo markets have come upon tough times. In markets such as Fort Lauderdale and Miami where flippers would by and sell units many times before projects were completed, the meltdown has caused investors to flee, leaving the remaining owner-occupants with an oversupply of units and very few buyers.
The condo markets in Florida, Las Vegas, and other markets are very different from the market in Austin, Texas. After huge run-ups in prices, the trend has reversed, According to the Wall Street Journal, “the median condo sales price in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area of Florida fell 26% to $202,300 in the fourth quarter of 2007 from $273,400 a year earlier. . . Prices dropped nearly 20% in Tucson, Ariz., and 12% in the Atlanta area during that time, according to National Association of Realtors data. Inside the newly minted Quantum on the Bay in Miami, prices for two-bedroom units have fallen from the high $700,000s to around $500,000.”
When prices drop this quickly at the same time as new projects are nearing completion, it creates a very painful market dynamic. When a buyer puts a 10% down payment on a future unit and then sees the value of the unit fall by 20% during construction, they walk away at closing to avoid future losses. The projects, in this situation, wind-up in a very precarious situation with as many as 40% of pre-sold units failing to close. If the developers are unable to pay back the construction loans, they subsequently lose all of their capital, default on the loans, and the projects often go bankrupt.
Will this happen in Austin? The answer seems to be “no.” The markets where condo prices have imploded have featured a combination of three critical factors. The first is that all home prices — condos and single family residences — have dropped dramatically in value. This has not happened in Austin. In fact, in 2007, prime central areas increased in value. In area 8e which covers much of Westlake, for example, prices increased by nearly 15%. The second factor is that condo projects were massively overbuilt. While many projects are planned in Austin, not all will be constructed. The ones that do make it to the market — while adding lots of downtown units by historical standards — represent a miniscule percentage of Austin housing units. In fact, the 700+ downtown units that will be completed in 2008 are essentially sold out at this point.
The third major factor in the national meltdown is the current credit crunch. Today, there are few good options for people with poor credit, first-time home buyers who want to make small down payments, and anybody who needs a jumbo or interest-only loan. These trends effect us here in Austin in the same way they effect the national market. This is the primary reason that the Austin market has slowed down and price appreciation has paused in spite of a strong local economy and string regional job growth.
According to the Wall Street Journal, one of the big problems has been that developers in other cities started too many projects before the bust and failed to cancel or convert projects under construction to another use — as rental units, for example. In Austin, virtually every project that started constrcution before the summer credit crisis is now sold out. Every project started after the crisis has been required to meet a very stringent bar for pre-sales. While no market is 100% safe — Austin seems to be in excellent shape in comparison to many other major condo markets.
Hear is a summary from the Wall Street Journal (see the article here – subscription required):
It may seem surprising that anyone would want to add supply to a market whose troubles have been well-publicized for many months. But the economics of condo building encourage developers to bring half-finished projects to completion, even when prices and demand are plunging.Developers usually put up their own money for a project first, then spend borrowed funds. Once developers have spent their money and have commitments from lenders, they have a strong incentive to keep building to finish the project.”These developers had millions of dollars tied up and they had them financed so they just moved forward,” says J. Ronald Terwilliger, chief executive of Trammell Crow Residential, which builds many rental apartment buildings and also a few condos. “What they hope is that by the time the project is finished the market comes back.”However, developers and lenders can more easily shelve projects that are still in the early stages. Many developments nationwide are being canceled, suggesting that by next year or 2010, the number of new condos coming onto the market may slow to a trickle.