Friday, February 13, 2009

FOR ATLANTA: Sometimes you do have to reinvent the wheel – if you want to sell condo units in this real estate market
by Jeanne Bonner
Georgia Online News Service

A spoken word artist held court with original poems. A hip-hop singer, who came with an entourage, performed in the penthouse. And local art lined the walls of the long central hallways.

And it was all arranged to sell condos – with the belief that what's good for art can be good for business.

The grand opening of Renaissance Walk, held last year, was not your average coming-out party for a 161-unit condo building. With the housing market in freefall, The Integral Group, which developed the building in Atlanta's Sweet Auburn area, is redoubling its marketing efforts, in the hopes it can turn buzz into sales.

The condo complex has played host to a number of arts events since the grand opening, and a series of Webisodes will launch this month that showcase the performances at the promotional events.

The events, which seek to harken back to the district's lively cultural past, are among the more innovative strategies developers in Atlanta and elsewhere in Georgia are deploying to move properties in this dismal housing market.

Other emerging strategies include obtaining approval for federally-backed mortgages, allowing clients to lease a unit before purchasing it, using social networking sites such as Facebook and in some extreme cases in metro Atlanta, wholesale auctions that offer condos at fire sale prices.

The people charged with moving thousands of condo and townhome units for sale across Georgia have resorted to more dramatic tactics after massive price reductions last year failed to lasso in enough buyers.

Developers have been forced to reach for more creative but not more expensive methods to entice buyers. While it was once the fashion to give away cars to buyers who signed a contract to purchase a condo, more stringent federal guidelines restrict the amount of money developers can spend on incentives.

Metro Atlanta, not surprisingly, is more squarely in the scope of the condo market meltdown, with some 6,000 units on the market. Some of the city's more high-profile properties haven't sold a unit in months. Out of 121 condo properties listed in a year-end report by SmartNumbers, not a single property sold more than three units in December.

But other cities across Georgia, including Columbus, Athens, Augusta and Savannah, also have a surplus of condo properties that potential buyers either don't want or cannot finance. In many cases, buyers who had signed contracts to purchase a condo simply walked away from the deals when the stock market crashed in September. That left many condo developers marketing units they thought they had already sold.

Leah Braxton, of the W.C. Bradley real estate firm in Columbus, is marketing condos in the Eagle and Phenix building, a converted cotton mill along the Chattahoochee River in the city's downtown.

She said the company does not intend to lower unit prices because "we want to uphold the values of the people who have already purchased." Condos at Eagle and Phenix range in prices from $154,000 to $569,000.

But Braxton has launched an incentive program that, depending on a client's needs, may include closet systems, hardwood floors or washers and dryers in shell units that have not been finished in the 88-unit first phase.

"Financing for condos dried up in March of 2008," Braxton said last week.

She added, "Because of crazy things other people did, I only have one preferred lender for this project. I don't have FHA approval. That's a definite problem," referring to the government-backed mortgage program guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration.

W.C. Bradley has sold only 27 units, or about one-third of the project's 88 units. A year ago, Braxton had set a goal of selling 40 units in 2008. The company won't begin work on the second phase until two-thirds of the condos in the first building sell. In the meantime, Braxton said she is eager to learn how other developers around the state are spurring sales.

In Atlanta, where condo building and conversion exploded in the last five years, developers have dealt with oversupply in more extreme ways. For example, Viewpoint in Midtown has slashed more than $100,000 off the prices of some two bedroom units, which now sell for under $300,000.

Other buildings, including Renaissance Walk, have reached agreements with prospective buyers that allow them to lease first and then purchase units at a later date. The Reynolds on Peachtree, a 130-unit property in Midtown, has relied partly on the cachet of a boutique restaurant in the ground floor of the building to lure buyers. Many properties have created profiles on social networking sites such as Facebook, where one can also find ads for nearby condos. And in a few cases, developers have converted some buildings to rentals, abandoning any hope of sales.

Some developers who have received approval for residential complexes have postponed marketing the properties and are moving more slowly with construction. For example, in Augusta, the developers behind Forest Place, a 33-unit townhome complex within the city limits, plan to build the project piecemeal in order to avoid an inventory glut. The developers are pouring slabs for the initial five units, and if one sells, they will begin to build a second phase, said Andy Higgins of Meybohm Realtors in Augusta, which is marketing the properties.

It's one of several strategies in play. In addition, Higgins said he and his partners will pay buyers' closing costs. They have priced units at Forest Place between $89,900 and $109,900, below the threshold of most single-family homes in the Augusta area.

Nonetheless, Higgins said he worries the current housing bust will diminish buyers' interest in city living.

"We are definitely concerned about that," Higgins said.

The condo and townhome market is a subset of the wider real estate market, where agents say no one is buying. Through the third quarter of last year, sales of single-family homes, apartment condos and co-ops in Georgia had fallen 16 percent, according to the National Association of Realtors.

"I'm doing very little of anything," said Dirk Howell, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Upchurch Realty in Athens, as he distributed flyers for a property he is marketing. "There's very little you can do. I don't think the buyers are there. And what little money they have, they are sitting on it. A lot of them are worried about their jobs."

While many say the boom years produced too many housing units, developers and real estate agents say the main obstacle to closing sales today is financing. The nationwide credit crunch that began last year means developers often cannot obtain or hold onto financing for new projects, and prospective buyers cannot land mortgages.

"Banks that were willing to finance projects three or four years ago are basically locked down and comatose," said Emory Morsberger, chairman of The Morsberger Group in Lawrenceville, whose Ponce Park project will include the rehabilitation of City Hall East in Atlanta. "To move a project forward in this market it has to be a superstar project. Average projects don't work now."

While in the past bankers have declined to lend money to people with poor credit, developers say many credit-worthy buyers are being turned away in this market.

The tight credit climate has driven more developers to pursue eligibility for loans guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration. Obtaining FHA approval gives buyers access to federally-backed mortgages that require smaller down payments and often include closing costs and taxes. Newly-built condos are well-positioned for approval because the FHA mandates more stringent building inspections before granting mortgages. Indeed, some of the properties that have received FHA approval – including Villa Sonoma, a resort-style condo property in Dunwoody – are decidedly upscale.

"[Buyers] would not be able to get financing otherwise," said Robert Hughes of Urban Realty Partners, who's marketing The Reynolds on Peachtree, an FHA-approved condo building in Atlanta. "That is why other projects are not doing as well."

It remains unclear when the housing market, and by extension demand for condos, will turn around. Real estate agents and developers in Columbus and Augusta are confident the market will improve more quickly in those cities because of an expected influx of military buyers. For example, thousands of additional military personnel will soon relocate from Fort Knox in Kentucky to Fort Benning in Columbus.

But others are preparing for a longer haul. Valerie Edwards, who as executive vice president of the Integral Group is marketing Renaissance Walk, said she thinks it will take two years before demand returns, given the increase in the unemployment rate.

"You have to face reality. Not much product is moving right now," Edwards said. "You really need to wait it out."

Jeanne Bonner is the senior business writer at Georgia Online News Service.   [full bio]


Editor's note: Hello, Georgia. Georgia Online News Service leads off today with a great business story on the innovative steps some condo developers are taking to sell units during the national financial crisis. The article, by business writer Jeanne Bonner, comes in two versions: If you're an Atlanta news organization, the article focuses on metro developers; for those elsewhere in the state, we have a version with the emphasis on other cities.

Bonner, who is prolific today, also has a column on Valentine's Day – it's not what you'd call sentimental, however.

Finally, for Soapbox today, Ralph Reed is back with a look at Barack Obama's opening days as president. It all reminds Reed of another president – can you guess which one?

As always, we'd like to hear from you. GONSO is an enterprise founded and staffed by more than two dozen leading journalists and media executives in Georgia. We're providing content free -- for a limited period. Newspapers, broadcasters, bloggers and websites are welcome to use our articles -- please credit the writers and the Georgia Online News Service.

Send your comments and any story ideas to executive editor John Sugg at john.sugg@georgiaonlinenews.org. You can also call us at 800-891-3459.


Today's GONSO

FOR ATLANTA: Sometimes you do have to reinvent the wheel – if you want to sell condo units in this real estate market

by Jeanne Bonner
The grand opening of Renaissance Walk, held last year, was not your average coming-out party for a 161-unit condo building. With the housing market in freefall, The Integral Group, which developed the building in Atlanta's Sweet Auburn area, is redoubling its marketing efforts, in the hopes it can turn buzz into sales. The condo complex has played host to a number of arts events since the grand opening, and a series of Webisodes will launch this month that showcase the performances at the promotional events.
Full Story

FOR AREAS OUTSIDE OF ATLANTA: Sometimes you do have to reinvent the wheel – if you want to sell condo units in this real estate market

by Jeanne Bonner
If you've logged onto the social networking site Facebook recently, you may have noticed to the right of your personal newsfeed a small ad for a condo in your neighborhood. The ads are one small part of the arsenal of strategies Georgia condo developers and real estate agents are deploying to move properties in this dismal housing market.
Full Story

Valentine's Day Done My Way

by Jeanne Bonner
I celebrate Valentine's Day twice a year -- on Christmas and my birthday. Those are the top two days each year that I want to love and be loved. I think Feb. 14 – when the rest of the world celebrates Valentine's Day -- may just be the stupidest day of the year.
Full Story

SOAPBOX

The Audacity of Hype

by Ralph Reed
The differences between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are legion. But like Clinton, Obama has misread his mandate and underestimated his opposition. His arrogance (I won, you lost), royalist pretense (don’t listen to Limbaugh) and faux bipartisanship (only three Republicans voted for his stimulus bill) are reminiscent of the early Clinton, who viewed power as an entitlement and governance as his personal destiny.
Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
Murder In Oak Meadow
by Bill Osinski
What really matters to sports fans isn't the score – it's who is scoring with whom
by Paul Kaplan
Protecting Big Pharma from lawsuits isn't the way to build a healthy economy in Georgia
by John Sugg

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