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Condo Mania

 

  

Condo mania a bust in Las Vegas,

 Miami

Developers overestimated demand around the Strip, South Florida

MIAMI -- With foreclosures soaring and home prices in the tank, Miami and Las Vegas often compete for the dubious distinction of being the nation's hardest hit condo market.

Just a few years ago the two cities shared a reputation as invincible boom towns. Now both real estate markets are climbing out of an abyss of stalled condo developments, spiralling foreclosures and stymied sales.

Trying to figure out which is the biggest real estate loser isn't so easy. But comparing the two markets puts into perspective just how unprecedented Miami's condo explosion was.

"They built less in Las Vegas than in Miami," but there are fewer potential buyers, said Marty Burger, president and chief executive of Artisan Real Estate Ventures in Las Vegas.

Vegas condo owners like Kathy Riggle, a retiree from Tucson, Ariz., who bought a condo conversion sight unseen for $180,000 during the boom, have watched in disbelief as values have dropped by more than half.

"Will Rogers once said, 'Buy land because they ain't making any more of it.' We got caught up in it like a lot of people," Riggle said.

Her unit, now valued at $49,000, is in foreclosure because she can no longer rent it for enough to cover the mortgage.

Las Vegas analysts and builders blame South Florida developers, as well as other out-of-market players, for helping whip up the condo mania in the nation's gambling mecca.

During the boom, Miami development companies launched full-scale assaults on the Vegas market -- complete with cocktail parties (hosted by gorgeous models) and million-dollar sales centres.

The developers dreamed of expanding their empires on the new Vegas condo frontier.

They figured frequent visitors to Las Vegas from Canada and the mega-population hubs of Southern California would buy second homes rather than continue paying for high-priced hotel rooms.

Faulty assumption, said Richard Lee, a Las Vegas analyst and vice-president with First American Title Co.

Here's another false perception the Vegas condo boom was built on: Locals, tired of traffic and long commutes, would seek a more urban lifestyle closer to the action on the Vegas Strip.

"There was no real demand that you could point to," said Jack Winston, a consultant with Goodkin Consulting who cautioned several South Florida developers about their ambitious Las Vegas plans. "The people in Las Vegas, if they want to gamble, they have their own casinos in the suburbs. Permanent residents rarely go down to the strip."

Just as in South Florida -- hemmed in by the Everglades and the ocean -- the vertical push out west was propelled by the belief that developable land was running out. Although Las Vegas is surrounded by empty desert, much of it is federally owned and off limits to development.

"Outside developers came here and really misjudged this market," said Irwin Molasky, a veteran Las Vegas real estate developer, who also built the 84-unit Park Place condominium that sold out in 2001. "It is not a Miami market. We don't have the South American trade, the New York trade, and they just thought, if you build it, it will come.

"And, unfortunately, they turned out to be wrong," he said.

Aventura, Fla.-based Turnberry Associates was one of the first to go vertical in Las Vegas with the four-tower Turnberry Place project. It rapidly closed out 770 units and made tremendous profits.

Others tried to mimic them.

"It was like the gold rush after that," said Bruce Weiner, president of Turnberry Ltd., the residential division of Turnberry Associates.

But condos weren't the only buildings sprouting on the Vegas skyline. There was also a casino building spree that pushed construction and labour prices through the roof, forcing dozens of developers to shelve plans. In the end, a fraction of what had been proposed actually made it out of the ground.

In Las Vegas, only 8,300 condominiums of 29,000 residential condo units planned since 1999 were built, most of them around the Strip. Only 13 high-rise projects, comprising 21 towers, went up. Six were Turnberry's.

An additional 4,800 units are stalled in their tracks or otherwise yet to be completed, including almost 900 residential units in the vaunted CityCenter development, a $9-billion mixed-use project of shimmering hotels, condominiums and retail space that sits on 68 acres adjacent to the strip.

As in South Florida, several developers were caught mid-construction when the market froze. Others, like Turnberry, which finished the two-tower Turnberry Towers in 2007, were stuck with unsold units.

"We were about 50 per cent sold out in the second tower when Armageddon set in," Weiner said. Turnberry's partner in the venture, Prudential Real Estate Investors, ended up paying off the banks and taking ownership of the project, which still has about 250 of 636 units unsold, he said.

Another Turnberry project, the $3-billion Fountainebleau Las Vegas, with its 1,000 condo/hotel units, filed for bankruptcy in June.

Jorge Perez of Miami's Related Group, sensing an impending market implosion, pulled out at the last minute. He said his decision to cancel plans for a $3-billion mixed-use project called Las Ramblas was one of the smartest he ever made.

"The market was clearly showing signs of decline and the demand for construction services was so great that construction prices had been inflated to the point of making our project unfeasible," Perez said in an email. "Instead of taking the immense risk, I decided to sell the land at a huge profit."

Perez also nixed ICON Las Vegas, a two-tower project in which three-quarters of the 502 units were pre-sold.

His timing was not as good with ICON Brickell, his $1-billion mega-condo in Miami. Although the project was completed in 2009, only about 100 sales in the 1,800-unit towers have closed.

Unlike the bulk of Miami's new condominiums, which are clustered around the downtown area in stunning highrise towers, most of the new Las Vegas projects are mid-rise buildings and condo/hotels perched on top of casino hotels.

In that sense, the problems plaguing the Las Vegas market have been less visible than the darkened condo towers of Miami and are obscured by massive LCD screens and the glitz of surrounding buildings.

Several real estate watchers estimated at least 1,000 Las Vegas units remain unsold, excluding apartments in CityCenter and other condo hotels. About 4,800 additional existing townhomes and condos also were for sale in November, according to the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors.

Since the condo model was relatively untested in Las Vegas, the volume of building was huge. But Miami's building boom was far, far more expansive.

During the boom, developers had filed plans to build 85,000 new units throughout Miami-Dade County. The final count, according to Bal Harbor-based research firm Condo Vultures, has been about 23,000 units since 2003, more than double the amount built in the previous 40 years.

Miami is burning off its excess supply of condos nearly twice as quickly as Las Vegas. The median price for an existing condo in Las Vegas stood at $72,500 in November and $149,000 in Miami-Dade.

Thousands of foreign investors, many from Latin America and with long-held ties to South Florida, have helped jump-start new condo sales. Although its just as hard to get a condo loan here as in Las Ve
gas, Las Vegas does not have hordes of foreign buyers willing to pay cash.

-- McClatchy Newspapers

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