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Novak: Finding affordable homes for Central Texas buyers is a challenge
By Shonda Novak
During the past decade, I’ve written lots of articles about housing for the affluent, as luxury tower followed by uber-luxury tower got built downtown.
But those aren’t the residences that veteran Central Texas real estate broker Robert Fields sells. His niche is using three zero-down loan programs to help eligible entry-level buyers purchase brand new single-family homes, in suburban areas, to people who didn’t think they could afford one.
It’s a particularly relevant strategy in the current housing market.
The under-$200,000 price segment is seeing a strong uptick in demand, experts say, largely because many apartment dwellers are trying to stabilize their housing costs as Austin area rents rise to record highs.
Also, experts say strict mortgage lending criteria ushered in after the national housing crash continues to make it difficult for some entry-level buyers, especially those who don’t have money for a down payment, to qualify for mortgages. And for those would-be buyers, the zero-down programs Fields taps can be one of their few options, said Eldon Rude, a local housing expert.
“We have good hardworking people who now can’t get a loan because the pendulum has swung so far the other way,” Fields said. “Loan qualifying is still our biggest challenge. Underwriting standards are as tough as I’ve seen them” in his 35 years of selling homes.
The loan programs Fields uses to help his clients are through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs and the Veterans Administration. All fund zero-down loans to eligible home buyers meeting income and other criteria.
The USDA’s Rural Development Home Loan program makes zero-down loans available in many suburban areas to residents with low to moderate incomes and limited funds for a down payment.
Under these programs, Fields said, his clients need only two of the usual three buying requirements —credit and a job — not cash, credit and a job.
To qualify, his clients must have gross incomes of more than $3,000 a month and credit scores above 600. In many cases, he said, Fields can get these buyers into houses with mortgage payments less than their monthly apartment rents.
Fields owns New Home Locators, a residential real estate brokerage with 103 agents in Central Texas, Dallas and Houston. He drives a van with a sign on the back windshield that reads: Why Rent When You Can Own? $840 monthly payment, 0 down.
“I sell about two houses a year off that car,” he said.
“Seventy-five percent of the people I close said they had no idea they could buy a home for zero down,” Fields said.
“They were told they had to save for a down payment and closing costs.”
Fields is targeting buyers in a price segment that’s a sweet spot in the market now.
“Although the recovery in the area new home market began in the move-up price ranges between $200,000 and $500,000, since the middle of last year builders who offer homes priced below $200,000 have seen sharply higher demand,” Rude said. “This demand is primarily coming from renters who are trying to find a way to keep their housing costs fixed as rents for apartments and homes continue to increase in our area.”
For some buyers looking for a new home priced below $200,000, the zero down loan programs “present their only option for purchasing a home,” Rude said. “However, in contrast to several years ago, buyers in today’s market must be able to prove they have income and meet specific credit scores to qualify for their loan.”
D.R. Horton, one of the region’s largest volume builders, has about three dozen subdivisions in Central Texas, six of which are in areas that are eligible for USDA-funded mortgages, Fields said. Many home builders in the entry-level ranges will pay closing costs.
And with entry-level builders offering interest rates in the 3.5 percent range through their mortgage affiliates, “many of our buyers are able to buy zero down with payments that are below apartment rents.”
Mark and Michelle Vasquez are among Fields’ customers. Last year, one of Fields’ marketing fliers appeared on the door of the 1,100-square-foot apartment they were renting for $945 a month in far Northwest Austin. The couple inquired, and within a couple weeks Fields had helped them find the last Centex home in the Canterra subdivision in Pflugerville. Their monthly mortgage payment is $1,183.87.
“To get the (USDA) loan, we couldn’t make over $87,000, and we came in just right,” Mark Vasquez said. He said they put no money down, and that Centex paid the closing costs and returned the couple’s $500 earnest-money deposit.
The Vasquezes and their two Boston terriers, Sam Adams and Fenway, moved into their 1,805-square-foot home in June 2012.
“It wound up working out really well,” said Mark Vasquez, adding that Fields helped him find just what he was looking for — “a big house, brand new, and well within my budget.”
With money having dried up for both new apartment and home construction during the recession, Fields — echoing other housing experts — said he thinks the Austin area this year will face a housing shortage “never seen before,” particularly of units within reach of working class folks.
Rude expects demand to remain strong for first-time buyers in the local market, as long as job growth continues. However, he said, “it is not getting any easier for builders and developers to find land that is properly located and priced correctly to use zero-down loan programs.”
“Builders such as D.R. Horton, Lennar, KB Home and Pacesetter are aggressively trying to secure land and lots in locations where they can offer these products,” Rude said. “To do this, builders are forced to purchase land further from Austin where the zero down programs are in place.”
To help builders that sell to entry- level buyers, Fields said he recently showed 11 land tracts in USDA- eligible communities to two builders “in an effort to get product for our buyers.”
“All signs show many more people moving here than available housing,” Fields said. “I know it’s not sexy to sell a $140,000 home, but I love helping these people.”
No longer. Austin realtor Kevin Elliott says buyers are snapping up houses as companies like Apple, Progressive Insurance and Whole Foods add hundreds of jobs and out-of-staters gladly pay up for what, to them, appear to be ridiculously cheap homes.
“My last three listings I’ve had multiple offers, and they sold for either full price or more than full price,” said Elliott, with the Home Resource Group of Keller Williams Realty. “They were all under contract within 48 hours.”
A revived home market is just one side of the boom in Austin, which ranks first on Forbes’ list of America’s Fastest-Growing Cities for the second year in a row. The Austin metropolitan area — including the northern suburb of Round Rock, home to Dell Computer — is expected to have an economic growth rate of 6% a year through 2016, according to Moody’s Analytics, more than double the nation as a whole. Apple is likely to sign off soon on plans to build a $304 million operations center that will employ as many as 3,600 people.
As usual, Texas dominates our list of the fastest-growing cities, with Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio all in the top 10. Seven of the top 10 cities are in the South, supporting the idea that low taxes and inexpensive real estate are still drawing jobs and economic activity from other parts of the country.
To construct the list, we ranked the 100 largest metropolitan statistical areas according to projections of economic and population growth from Moody’s. We then factored in median income, unemployment rates and employment growth, to discriminate between cities like Austin, which are getting larger, and rebounding economies like Las Vegas. This filtering also knocked out fast-growing cities like McAllen, Texas, where a No. 4 rank on economic growth was countered by a bottom-quartile performance on median household income.
Austin is expected to grow its population at 2.8% a year through 2016, almost triple the national rate. Since 1990, Austin has added 1 million residents, more than the entire population of the city of Detroit. The city pulled in 35 corporate relocations last year, adding 6,000 jobs, and the city and state governments this year approved some $30 million in incentives to induce Apple to build a new campus for its Americas Operations unit.
Austin beat out Phoenix for the new operations center, and Apple’s filing with the city details what a coup that was: The company estimates its jobs will average $54,000 a year, ranging from $40,000 entry-level positions to 270 managers and executives making $114,000 to $211,000 a year.
Austin’s commercial real estate market, long suffering from an overhang of space, is recovering. Brokers Jones Lang LaSalle report 438,000 square feet of office space was absorbed in the central business district in January. The vacancy rate in the once-empty office towers is still at 17%, but rents increased 3.1% year over year and some downtown tenants are signing leases at 32% above last year.
Brokers have long bemoaned the lack of international flights out of Austin’s airport, which they believe limits the city’s attractiveness for corporate relocations. That may change. A Formula One racetrack 15 miles outside of town, boosters say, will finally provide enough traffic for the airlines to add Austin to their routes.
Austin apartment market on record-setting hot streak
By Shonda Novak
The Austin-area apartment market is continuing on its hot streak, with rents and occupancies hitting the highest levels in the 21 years that a local expert has been tracking the numbers.
The area's midyear apartment occupancy rate stood at 97.8 percent, said real estate consultant Charles Heimsath, president of Capitol Market Research. He said that's the highest rate since 1991, when he started surveying the market.
The high occupancy is pushing rents up too. They hit a record $953 a month, Heimsath said, with that figure representing an average across all unit sizes. That's a jump from a $900 average in June 2011.
Although more than 10,000 apartment units are under construction in the area, demand is still easily outpacing supply, experts say.
"It's getting insane," particularly in areas in and near downtown, including the popular 78704 ZIP code, said Drew Johnson, a real estate agent with Live Weird Realty. "Demand is exploding."
While landlords are raising rents, many tenants are facing sticker shock.
Caprice Capri said her salary as a cook at Austin's Pizza on South Lamar Boulevard might not be enough to pay the rent when she finds her next apartment, which she needs to do by month's end.
Capri, who moved back to Austin in January from Fort Worth, works five nights a week. But she said she might have to get a second job "to afford an efficiency in this town."
"I don't live to work; I work to live," said Capri, 42, who said she takes home about $700 a month, plus tips. "You shouldn't have to work all your waking hours just to have a roof over your head."
Capri's situation is a common refrain these days among apartment seekers in the Austin metro area.
Driven by job growth and a robust influx of newcomers — more than 50,000 a year — along with a recession-caused dearth of new units being built, the region's apartment market has become one of the nation's hottest over the past two years in terms of rising rents and occupancy. And experts expect the rental squeeze — and the escalating rents — to continue through next year.
The recipe for a tight apartment market is a growing population coupled with a shortage of new supply coming on line, and Austin has both.
Its economy has fared better than most U.S. metro areas during the downturn, making it an attractive place for job seekers, including younger people who are likelier to rent. But even Austin wasn't spared from the recession and the ensuing financial constraints that made it virtually impossible to obtain financing in recent years for new projects, including apartments.
"The recession put a big crimp in the development pipeline," said Karen Judson, a vice president for Houston-based developer Transwestern.
The past year, however, has seen lending loosen up somewhat, and that has led developers to put some stalled projects back on the front burner, or to plan or start new ones.
Heimsath's research shows 10,604 apartment units currently under construction, more than a tenfold increase from the 839 under construction in June 2011. An additional 8,800 are in the planning phase for the next few years, he said.
New apartment construction in Austin "will be among the most aggressive seen anywhere across the country during the next couple of years," said Greg Willett, vice president of research and analysis at MPF Research, which tracks the local apartment market.
Despite that new development, Austin's multifamily market will remain among the nation's tightest at least for the near future, experts say, because apartment construction still lags below its peak levels. As many as 15,000 units were being built as recently as 2008, Willett said.
"Today's building activity, then, still hasn't gotten up to the peak levels seen during the past two market cycles," said Willett, whose research showed Austin's apartment occupancy at 95.6 percent, slightly lower than Heimsath's figure.
Heimsath said the market will remain "very undersupplied" for the rest of 2012. Like Willett, Heimsath said he thinks "we'll see a little bit of easing in 2013 as new units get delivered to the market, but I see continued tight market conditions at least through the end of 2013."
Experts from outside of Texas also foresee the squeeze continuing. John Burns Real Estate Consulting, an independent research and consulting firm that focuses on the housing industry, recently released its forecast for 78 U.S. metro apartment markets. Along with San Jose, Calif., and Raleigh, N.C., the firm said Austin is among the tech-oriented markets that will continue to experience strong rent increases over the next five years as job growth drives up rent demand.
The consulting firm also ranked Austin in the category of "younger" markets — a list that includes Dallas, Charlotte, N.C., and Tampa, Fla. — where a relatively young population with a greater propensity to rent is expected to drive rental demand over the next five years.
Heimsath and others say they don't think the market will be oversupplied with the current level of construction. That's because the projects in the works represent a variety of product types — from garden-style units in the suburbs to mid- and high-rise towers — and they have staggered completion dates.
"Everyone is worried that now we are going to overbuild," said Judson of Trans-western, "but that's unlikely."
In fact, Willett said, the danger of an oversupplied market "probably doesn't come until 2014 or 2015, when deliveries could be quite a bit more substantial than they will be in the next year or so."
Variety of projects
The ongoing wave of apartment construction includes a wide variety of projects across the region.
Cypress Real Estate Advisors, HPI Residential and Grayco Partners are among the many developers adding new units to the market.
In far Northwest Austin, HPI is under construction on Lakeline Boulevard with a project called Indigo. The first of the 325 units should come online in October or November, with the project wrapping up next July, said Jim Norman, president of HPI Residential. Rents will average $1,116 a month, he said.
This week, HPI started construction on a second project planned for 334 units on Spectrum Drive and Parmer Lane. Monthly rents will average $1,085.
Off East Riverside Drive and South Lakeshore Boulevard, Houston-based Grayco Partners expects to have the new streets and utilities substantially completed in August at its SouthShore District project, which will have 506 units in three phases. The first units should be ready for tenants in April.
Cypress has four projects that are under construction or soon to start. They include Lakeshore Pearl, a $20 million project planned for 230 units along Elmont Drive off East Riverside, where the first 82 units and clubhouse will be ready in mid-November. Rents will average $1,275 a month, said Dudley Simmons and John Burnham, who are heading up Cypress' apartment projects.
"We're ecstatic with where occupancies are now," Simmons said. "We feel comfortable that what's under construction and in the immediate pipeline can be fairly easily absorbed, assuming the continuation of job growth and net in-migration to the Austin area."
But with market conditions in landlords' favor, many tenants are having a hard time, said Joel Canada, a real estate agent with Live Weird Realty.
"They're getting very frustrated with the prices," Canada said.
Among those is Capri, the Austin's Pizza employee. With her roommate moving out of their two-bedroom apartment off South First Street and Lightsey Road in South Austin, Capri is scrambling — so far in vain — to find a comparable apartment she can afford in the same area.
The rent at her current apartment is increasing from $1,075 a month — her share with a roommate was $536.50 — to $1,275 a month, far more than Capri can afford on her own.
One-bedroom units in her current complex rent for about $925 a month; the least expensive efficiencies she's found in the area are going for $725 to $750 a month, she said.
"It's ridiculous," she said. "I'm about to lose my mind. I didn't know it would be so expensive to live on my own."
Contact Shonda Novak at 445-3856
BY THE NUMBERS
The area's mid-year apartment occupancy rate
Average monthly rent, a record high, or an average of $1.10 a foot
Apartment units under construction in the area
Here is a sampling of some area apartment projects, both planned and under construction:
■ Cypress Real Estate Advisors: 298 units at University Park north of downtown, with several hundred more planned there; 230 units on Elmont Drive off East Riverside Drive
■ Grayco Partners: 506 units off East Riverside Drive and South Lakeshore Boulevard, with future additional units planned
■ HPI Residential: 325 units on Lakeline Boulevard; 334 units at Spectrum Drive and Parmer Lane
■ Endeavor Real Estate Group/Columbus Residential/RREEF: 543 units at the Domain
■ Gables Residential: 222 units downtown, next to Seaholm
■ Alliance Residential: 330 units in the Arboretum area; 280 units in Round Rock
■ Riverside Resources: 277 units at Third and Brazos streets
■ Transwestern: 378 apartments around the Broken Spoke on South Lamar Boulevard
■ Ardent Residential: 202 units at South Lamar Boulevard and Gibson Street
■ Post Properties: 298 units on South Lamar Boulevard
■ Cypress Real Estate Advisors: 357 units at South Lamar Boulevard and Manchaca Road; 256 units in a project called Corazon in East Austin
■ Green Water Treatment Plant redevelopment: about 825 apartments
■ Seaholm Power Plant redevelopment project: 294 apartments
■ Endeavor and Lynd Co.: 358 apartments on Bowie Street near West Fifth Street downtown
■ Alliance Residential: 220 units at South First Street and West Riverside Drive
■ Novare/Andrews Urban: 320 units in an apartment tower on Rainey Street downtown
■ Hanover Co. : 340 units on South Lamar, just south of Uchi
■ Greystar: about 400 apartments at the Lamar Square shopping center that houses Alamo Drafthouse and the Highball
■ The Sutton Co.: 800 to 1,000 units in two towers in the Rainey Street area