2008 Downtown Condo Property Assessments: Shockingly Modest Growth

This week, Travis County posted 2008 property tax assessments. Across the City of Austin, the assessed value of the average single-family house increased by a significant 12.82%. This is a big jump during a period during where actual property values seem to have increased only modestly.

With the new assessment data available online, AustinTowers analyzed Hundreds of downtown condo units in projects such as the Nokonah, Plaza Lofts, and Milago to better understand the current downtown valuation trend. Because units are easy to compare and some sell each year, city assessments for condo units in large projects tend to be relatively accurate.

With the new assessments, we found that values increased by an average of 3% for most of the established projects lie the Nokonah and Plaza Lofts. For newer projects such as the Milago, values increased by a higher rate -- closer to the City average of 13%. In the newer projects, it was the least expensive units -- those that were valued under $300,000 last year - that showed the greatest increase this year with some units increasing in value by as much as 40%. Conversely, some of the most expensive units in the Milago -- which is not a high luxury property -- saw values remain flat or even dip slightly.

None of these trends are unexpected, here is the summary analysis of this year's downtown Austin condo assessments:

- Demand remains strong for affordable units. As construction costs rise, very few affordable condo units are coming on the market. As a result, the value of the least expensive units is rising quickly. Condo units priced under $250K should continue to see appreciation.

- As new high-end projects such as the Austonian, the Four Seasons, the W, and 21c capture the imagination of buyers, prices for the old generation of luxury units have remained relatively flat. Prices for high-end units in non-luxury buildings have declined.

- The broad downtown Austin condo market lagged the City as a whole with small increases of around 3% as supply and demand became more balanced during the year.

- This is the second consecutive year of modest increases in downtown Austin condo values after a sharp rise between 2003 and 2006. During this peak period, for example, values in the Nokanah increased by an average of nearly 70%. Last year, Nokonah values increased by a much smaller 5%.

Surprise Compromise Saves Riverside Condo Project

While the city continues to approve many variances to large downtown projects, there has remained one downtown Austin zoning request request that seems truly sacred: building in the protected zone around Lady Bird Lake. While long-standing rules prohibit construction within 200 feet of the former Town Lake, a new project may soon be built 50 feet closer to the lake than current rules allow.

CWS Riverside Austin Condo Project Rendering

In a new compromise with community groups, CWS Partners intends to build a scaled-down 8-story project 150 feet from the lake instead of the three 17-story apartment and condo towers with more than 800 units that had previously been proposed. With the support of community groups and a commitment to extend the popular hike and bike trails through the site, the new proposal should fare well as it works it's way through the standard zoning approval process. This is a productive compromise for both sides and a positive sign for the condo market. With the national housing market in such a weakened state, it is a strong endorsement of the market to see developers work so hard to bring a new project to market.

The proposed CWS project is to built on land currently occupied by long-standing apartments built much closer to the lake. Prior to the release of the current rules in the 1980s (they were revised in 1999), buildings could legally be built much much closer to the shore (as close as 25 feet). CWS prior position was that without their requested variance, they would build two 17-story towers within the legal setbacks and simply remodeling the existing apartments into town homes -- a legitimate exception to the setback requirements.

Here is a summary from the Statesman:

In a precedent-setting compromise, developers have agreed to reduce the size of a controversial high-rise residential project on the south shore of Lady Bird Lake and donate land to extend the hike-and-bike trail across the site.In exchange, neighborhood and community groups that had mobilized against the project have made concessions that will allow the project to go forward.The deal reached this week ends a nearly two-year standoff between CWS Capital Partners LLC and the South River City Citizens and Save Town Lake, which had fought to block the project on East Riverside Drive, saying it would violate limits on waterfront development.Austin-based CWS had proposed to build three towers up to 200 feet high and to build within 80 feet of the lake.Under the compromise, the buildings will be no more than 96 feet high, and the project would be set back a minimum of 150 feet from the lakeshore. . . CWS will bring the revised project back before city officials for approvals. With the new agreement, the company will donate 1.5 acres for parkland and extend the hike-and-bike trail, which now stops at the western edge of the site.Miller said it will take four to six months to work through the city approval process and that construction could begin in 2009.

Austin Real Estate: The State of the Market

With today's release of March real estate statistics, the Austin market posted its ninth consecutive monthly decline. While the news is mixed, the Austin market -- and Texas in general -- have fared better than most any other market in the U.S.

Still, it's not like it used to be. While the average sale price last month was up 5% over last March, sales were down 21% from the same period last year. Today, nearly 40% of houses put on the market are removed before they sell. Price per square foot has dropped by 4%, and the average discount from listing price for completed transactions has increased from 1.9% to 3.5%. It's worse everywhere else, but Austin is still feeling the pain.

A big question is whether there is a bubble in Austin. The consensus is no, although some price decreases are likely this year. The common wisdom is that the economy is strong, net migration is high, and Austin never experienced the boom that inflated values across the rest of the country. These three reasons are compelling, and they are often recited as the fundamental reasons why Austin is different.

Interestingly enough, Austin may be more exposed to a downturn than many experts recognize. The local economy is dependent on technology. This was made very clear during the dot com bust when migration patterns reversed, jobs were lost, and the housing market stalled. Months ago, Austin and San Francisco were named the strongest economies in the country based on the strength of the technology sector at the time. Since then, much has changed. Today, technology employers are beginning layoffs as the sector weakens. While nobody expects this downturn to be as bad as the last one, a tech downturn will effect the Austin market.

As for the second factor, this remains positive as Austin will continue to grow. Austin's buzz has never been hotter -- the Austin brand will draw people to town under almost any scenario. This migration will be an important buffer over the next couple of years. If this pattern changes, it is time to get worried.

The final "fact" about the Austin market -- that it skipped the boom -- is simply not true. While the broad Austin market experienced only modest growth over the last five years, prices in central Austin have soared. Between early 2005 and late 2007- just a little over two years -- prices for single family homes increased by 41% in Area 4 (Hyde Park), 43% in Area 2 (Allandale & north central Austin), 55% in Bouldin (near Zilker Park), and an incomprehensible 2-year gain of 83% in Area 3 which covers East Austin close to downtown. During this short period the typical central East Austin house increased in value from a median price of $168K to more than $255K. In Bouldin, price per square foot for the median house peaked at more than $300 / square foot in the second half of 2007 -- prices that make downtown condo projects look affordable.

Like any other market, it is difficult to believe that prices can nearly double during a couple of good years and then not retreat when the economy slides, mortgage rates rise, loan underwriting guidelines strengthen, and the national market implodes. While Austin remains stronger than almost any other market, central Austin prices may be at risk over the next year. While new condo prices are unlikely to go down -- they are too linked to costs -- any negative market change will certainly add pressure on developers as they try to complete the sales process for new projects.

Here is a summary from the Statesman:

Central Texas home sales continued to slide in March, falling 21 percent from a year ago, the Austin Board of Realtors reported today.March, which had 1,832 sales of existing homes, was the ninth consecutive month that home sales numbers dropped. And pending sales — sales expected to close in April — show that the slowdown could continue. Those sales fell 54 percent, the highest percentage on record, the report shows, to 1,349.Even with the slowdown, real estate experts assert that the Central Texas housing market is faring much better than most areas around the country. But the national housing crisis has jaded consumer confidence, and Austin has not been immune to the slowdown.The area’s median price of a single-family home for March increased by 5 percent year-over-year to $186,680. However, homes are taking longer to sell, with an average of 73 days on the market, an increase of 14 percent. With homes taking longer to sell, more homes are on the market, up 24 percent to 9,638.

Seaholm Plan Approved: New Downtown Neighborhood to Emerge in 2011

Last week, the city approved a master plan for the redevelopment of the Seaholm Power Plant site on Cesar Chavez near Lamar. The $117.2 million project, a partnership between the city and Southwest Strategies, will result in a 22-story hotel, 60 condo units, and 180,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. Between the initial proposal and final draft, the condo portion of the project was reduced from 80 units to 60 units.


The 150,000-square-foot decommissioned power plant will be the centerpiece of the 7.8-acre property across Cesar Chavez Street from Lady Bird Lake. With offices, extensive retail, and more than 3 acres of open space, Seaholm will further shift the heart of downtown to the west. While downtown life used to center around 6th street between Congress and red river, the warehouse district, 2nd street district, and Whole Foods have shifted the balance. With Seaholm, the downtown action will increasingly be centered between Congress, Lamar, 5th, and Town Lake.

The most exciting part of the project is the redevelopment of the Seaholm facility itself. When complete, the art deco structure will include nearly 100,000 square feet of retail and restaurants. Construction will 2009, with the final project completed in 2011.

Here is a summary from the Statesman:

The Austin City Council approved the master development agreement for the $117.2 million Seaholm mixed-use redevelopment project today.The agreement says the development group Seaholm Power LLP, led by Southwest Strategies Inc., will pay $98.6 million or 84 percent of the cost of the project, while the city will pay $18.6 million. The redevelopment plan calls for a 22-story hotel, 60 condo units, 130,000 square feet of office space and 50,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. The 150,000-square-foot decommissioned power plant will be the centerpiece of the 7.8-acre property across Cesar Chavez Street from Lady Bird Lake.The city's contribution to the project, which will be raised through property and sales tax revenues, would pay for street and utility improvements, public parks and a parking garage. The city will continue to own the renovated Seaholm Power Plant.

Austin Foreclosures and Loan Delinquencies

These days, the national mortgage crisis is big news. As home prices drop, delinquencies rise, and foreclosures continue to grow, the national picture remains bleak.

In Austin, however, the mortgage crisis is causing much less pain. According to the Wall Street Journal, Austin loan delinquencies are virtually unchanged from the national market peak in the fourth quarter of 2005. During this period, loan delinquencies in Austin have increased by a trivial 0.03 percentage points to 2.97% of loans. This net increase is just 1/60th of the national average increase of 1.84 percentage points. In the worst markets in Florida, California, and Michigan, delinquency rates have risen 5 percentage points or more. In Merced, California, for example, 9.78% of home loans are currently delinquent and home prices have plunged by more than 25%. This is an increase of 7.76 percentage points over the delinquency rate in Q4 of 2005.

During this same period, Austin real estate prices have increased by more than 10%. This compares quite favorably to the average U.S. home which has decreased in value by more than 8%. As a result of the changes, Austin has passed Dallas to become the most expensive housing market in the state of Texas. While Austin home prices are only 90% of the national average, they are moving up the charts quickly as other markets continue to weaken.

There are a few reasons why Austin has fared well:
- Austin skipped the real estate boom which inflated values in the rest of the country
- The Austin economy remains one of the strongest in the country
- Austin continues to attract many migrants from other states, pushing up local real estate prices
- Austin housing remains affordable compared to most major U.S. cities

While Austin has fared well, all is not perfect. The national credit crunch has caused local mortgage rates for jumbo loans to soar and has left many first-time buyers unable to get financing for a new home. The deterioration of the mortgage market has stunted housing demand causing prices to remain flat. While the economy has remain strong, the expected weakening of the technology sector over the next year will have a disproportionate effect on the Austin economy. While Austin fundamentals remain strong -- especially over the long term -- price may dip over the next year.

The good news, however, is that Austin real estate will almost certainly outperform the vast majority of country over the next two years. While growth may be flat, Austin housing remains in high demand.

Patagonia to Lead Congress Avenue Comeback

Congress Avenue was always meant to be the heart of Austin. Over the last 40 years, it's destiny as a retail center seems to have slowly slipped away. When the new Marriott replaces Tesoros Trading Company, very little retail will remain.

Today, however, Patagonia -- the upscale outdoor clothing company -- announced that it will open it's first store in Texas in a historic downtown building located between 3rd and 4th street on Congress Avenue. This is a bold move for the company and it is great news for Austin. With the opening of a new destination store, the Patagonia announcement should lead more businesses to follow with a Congress Avenue presence.

Prior to 1960, Congress avenue was the center of retail and commerce for the City of Austin. Over the last 5 decades, Congress Avenue has been in a steady state of decline as city residents increasingly looked to suburbs for shopping and commerce. Today, there are only 13 retail business on the prime central stretch between the Capital and the lake. While a handful of restaurants continue to survive, Congress avenue storefronts are more likely to be vacant or filled with offices than utilized for retail or cultural purposes. With the opening of the Austonoan, the Patagonia Store, the new Arthouse and the redevelopment the historic Yaring's department store on Congress between 5th and 6th into retail and commercial space, there is once again hope that the former glory of our most prominent thoroughfare may be restored.

Here is a summary from the Statesman:

Patagonia, the Ventura, Calif. active clothing and equipment retailer, plans to open its first Texas store at 316 Congress this fall. The 7,000-square-foot store will be the company's 25th location and will carry outdoor sports and lifestyle products tailored to Austin outdoor activities like trail running, bouldering, paddling and hiking/trekking.The store will open in the historic W.B. Smith Building. The company says it chose Austin as the location for its first foray into the Lonestar State because of the city's reputation among the healthiest and greenest communities in the country.

Who is Buying Downtown: 5 Statistics that Summarize Downtown Condo Demographics

Who is buying all of the new downtown condos? A recent survey commissioned by the Downtown Austin Alliance and conducted by Charles Heimsath, president of Capitol Market Research, sheds new light on this very important question. The survey reveals five interesting facts about downtown Austin Condo buyers:

1. Only 13% of buyers are buying for investment reasons. While most new buildings are capping the number of investors at 25 percent, the vast majority of buyers are owner-occupants.

2. For the high price range, buyers tend to be young: 27 percent are younger than 30; 35 percent are ages 30 to 44; 26 percent are 45 to 60; and 12 percent are older than 60.

3. Out of town buyers are flocking downtown. While 68% of downtown buyers are from Austin, an amazing 32% are out-of-town buyers.

4. Of the 32% of buyers from out of town, 13% come from other cities in Texas and the remaining 19% come from outside the state. Based on AustinTowers data, the largest number of out-of-town buyers comes from California.

5. A survey of a subset of projects concluded that 70 percent of condo buyers work someplace other than downtown.

Here is the summary from the Statesman:

Most downtown condo dwellers are young people.Many downtown dwellers work downtown.Many people buying downtown condos are investors from outside of Austin.Wrong, wrong and wrong, according to a survey of Austin's downtown condo market to be released today.The Downtown Austin Alliance, an organization of downtown property and business owners, commissioned the study by Charles Heimsath, president of Capitol Market Research, an Austin-based real estate consulting firm.Heimsath said the group sought to dispel some myths about the local condo market.Heimsath will present his findings to the group's Economic Development Committee today. He obtained sales data and buyer-demographic information from six condo projects: the 360 and Spring towers, Bridges on the Park, the Four Seasons Residences under construction, the condos planned for the W Hotel downtown and Sabine on Fifth .Heimsath said he was surprised by the broad age range of buyers: 27 percent are younger than 30; 35 percent are ages 30 to 44; 26 percent are 45 to 60; and 12 percent are older than 60.Heimsath also found that downtown condos are selling well.About 818 condo units will be finished this year, and 90 percent (736 units) are under contract or sold. Tighter credit stemming from the subprime fallout "absolutely" will cause some pending contracts not to close, Heimsath said, "But I don't think that it's going to be a serious problem."Heimsath gave the example of the 44-story tower called 360, where 430 units are spoken for, with a waiting list of 140, its developers say.

21c Condo Project Magically Relocated to Waller Creek

In a highly unusual move, developers of the 44-story 21c hotel and condo development have abandoned the planned third and Brazos project in favor of a new multi-building complex to be located a few blocks East on Waller Creek. The new project, also to be named 21c, will first include a 16-story hotel with 243 rooms which will be followed by a 49-story condo tower. The hotel will break ground in 2009 and the condo tower is expected to break ground by 2010. The hotel will also double as a contemporary art museum.

The original 21c project was late to the game, announced just 2 months before the summer meltdown of U.S. credit markets. Although 21c had been actively marketing condo units through a sales office on 6th and Congress, the developers will essentially start from scratch with their condo marketing efforts for the newly planned 295 unit condo tower. At this point, prices have not even been announced.

While the Austin hotel market remains strong, 21c's unlucky timing likely made condo marketing difficult. With the new plans, the developers separate the hotel, residential, and a newly announced commercial tower into three separate projects. This allows them to begin quickly with the economically viable and modestly-scaled hotel project while testing the waters on the other two fronts. When (and if) sales and leasing goals have been met, 21c will be able to embark on the other two towers. One clear sign of the developers preference for hotel rooms over condo and commercial projects is the simultaneous announcement that the existing 21c site on Third and Brazos will also be developed into a new hotel. If all projects are completed on the new site, the project will cost $350 million, a significant jump from the originally planned $200 million hotel-condo tower.

21c Condo Project Downtown Austin

With the move, the new 21c buildings will anchor a high-potential development district on the East end of downtown just north of Lady Bird Lake. The project will be located on a large 3.5 acre site surrounded by park and close to the much-loved downtown hike and bike trails. In the new location, the project will anchor a potential Austin "riverwalk" along Waller creek. 21c is the first major project to take advantage of a city-sponsored $125 million tunnel designed to remove the creek from the floodplain.

Here are some additional details on the new project:

-The new site will be home to the project’s 243-room hotel, 295 residential units, retail, spa, pools, museum, restaurants and other amenities.

- The project, including an underground parking garage, currently totals over 1 million square feet. The development team plans to develop another 425,000 square feet on the site as either a future office/retail or residential/retail tower. The entire project represents a $350 million investment.

- The new location allows the project to be enhanced with park space, a sculpture garden, signature spa, retail, indoor/outdoor meeting space and additional parking.

- The project will include an innovative and accessible restaurant that will emphasize local and sustainable agriculture and feature contemporary American cuisine. Michael Bonadies, CEO of ACE, was previously a founding partner of the New York-based Myriad Restaurant Group, which owns and operates such well-known restaurants as Tribeca Grill, Nobu and Rubicon.

- According to the developers, some of 21c’s most innovative aspects will be its artist lofts and new contemporary art museum, open free to the public 365 days per year. Twelve artist lofts will be made available at favorable rental rates for living and studio space. The museum will provide a new venue for contemporary visual and performing arts.

- The team of architects for the project includes Deborah Berke & Partners, a well-respected New York firm, Goody Clancy Architecture of Boston, and Susman Tisdale Gayle, and Austin firm that is often selected to participate in major downtown projects.

We'll update the 21c profile as soon as full details become available.

2008 State of the Market: Updated Condo Sales Statistics

There is much speculation about the state of the Austin condo market. With lots of new projects, a national housing crisis, and no precedent for high-rise development in downtown Austin, the common wisdom is that all the new projects will fail.

With the revitalization of downtown, the rapid growth of the city, the strong local economy, and the lack of other downtown housing options, the common wisdom so far has been dead wrong. While some ill-conceived projects will likely never break-ground, those that capture the imagination of Austinites--and that are priced appropriately--will thrive.

Take the 360 project, for example. At 44-stories and 430 individual units, it is one of the most ambitious downtown projects. Today, with the skeleton complete, it is the tallest building in the Austin skyline. Set for completion this year, it is at the point where it needs to have sold 70-80% of units to be viable. Not only is the project now sold out with significant deposits, but there is waiting list with enough buyers for an additional 140 units. While some sales may fall through -- the fact of the matter is that demand has been extraordinary for 360. With great views, a great location, and competitive pricing, 360 shows how strong the downtown Austin condo market is for the right project. With this much demand, 360 buyers should expect to see strong appreciation on their units over the next few years.

A report this week from Residential Strategies provides additional details on the state of the downtown Austin condo market. The report, and other sources, provides the following snapshot of several projects' sales/reservations through the end of first quarter 2008:

* 360: 430 units total; 430 committed. 140 unit waiting list.
* The Shore: 192 units; 189 committed.
* W Austin: 196 units; 140 committed.
* Four Seasons Residences: 166 units total; 60 units committed.
* The Austonian: 188 units; 45 committed.
* SoCo Lofts: 69 units; 41 committed.
* Zilker Place: 74 units; 29 committed.

While different projects have different standards for reservations, the data clearly illustrates a few key market forces. First, near-term projects such as 360 and The Shore are doing great. Second, the most affordable projects are selling well, even if they are outside the downtown core. Finally, the ultra-luxury projects--many of which are still a couple of years out--remain the most at risk. While the Austonian, Four Seasons, and W have broken ground--many of the most expensive units may be the hardest to sell.

All-in-all, the news is good. With clear market data, there is no doubt that thousands of people are willing to live downtown. While some of the projects that have broken ground still have work to do, the projects that do break ground in this environment are likely to be successfully completed. While the local real estate market is far from perfect (though much better than the rest of the country), the state of the downtown Austin condo market remains strong.