Call it a real estate rush. You read it right, rush — not crash, which many housing pros fear. If you're dubious, don't be. In this case, it's property Wall Street craves: select, ultra-luxury real estate in two of the country's most desirous vacation playgrounds.
While housing is slumping nationally, with the latest figures showing a 6.1% year-over-year decline in October home prices, that's not the case with luxury real estate — $10 million or higher — which could soon make a splash in selected well-to-do areas thanks to an estimated $38 billion in year-end Wall Street bonuses.
Noteworthy are the Hamptons, one of New York's premier summer playgrounds for the rich, the famous, the infamous, and the wannabes, and Palm Beach, a favored winter vacation spot for Wall Street's sun lovers and one of the country's wealthiest communities.
One Hamptons real estate expert, the vice president and chief financial officer of Hamptons Luxury Homes, Frank Dalene, estimates that the Hamptons will snare roughly $3.8 billion, or 10% of the Street's bonus money. One major catalyst for this expected bonanza, he says, is luxury vacations — both winter and summer — which have become significant status symbols on Wall Street.
Real estate contacts, including folks at the Corcoran Group and Sotheby's International Realty, tell me that numerous appointments have been lined up with Wall Streeters over the next few weeks to view pricey real estate both in the Hamptons and Palm Beach, and recent surveys in these locations show housing prices up markedly.
Still, skepticism abounds about future housing vigor even among the more affluent, with some observers arguing that sales expectations may be exaggerated, given growing recession fears and losses at some Wall Street firms, such as Morgan Stanley and Bear Stearns, which should sharply curtail their bonuses.
But citing growing foreign interest because of the falling greenback, Mr. Dalene says trends are clearly in place for a more vibrant Hamptons sales picture in 2008, and he notes an influx of European and Asian buyers.
He projects, for example, that his firm, which specializes in home renovations for well-heeled Hamptons residents, as well as new construction, will turn in record sales this year of about $10 million, more than double last year's $4.5 million. A further rise to about $15 million is expected in 2008.
Documenting his case for a strong Hamptons market, Mr. Dalene cites third-quarter sales statistics for eastern Long Island, notably the Hamptons, from the Suffolk Research Service. It shows the median price of a single-family residence rose 14%, to $717,000, from $625,000 a year earlier. In 2003, the median home price was $445,000, equivalent to a 61% increase in five years.
Coinciding with strong Hamptons sales to affluent buyers is brisk demand for pricey construction work. Among Hamptons Luxury Homes' projects are a $200,000 installation of a pool and spa, the building of a $20,000 dollhouse, a $15,000 platform tub for washing dogs, and an $11,000 coffee maker. The company also is installing two refrigerators and a stove for $40,000, as well as 40 windows that can be opened or closed with just the use of one finger in one house, for a total of $150,000.
The firm's average home remodeling, which includes additions and rebuilding, generally runs between $2 million and $4 million. What about the slew of for-sale signs in the Hamptons? Those are not luxury homes, Mr. Dalene says, but middle-market, $3 million to $7 million houses built on speculation. In this price range, he sees considerable softness.
Florida, as everyone knows, is in the housing doghouse, largely a reflection of heavy overbuilding, bulging inventories, ballooning foreclosures and delinquencies, skidding demand, and falling prices. Accordingly, would-be buyers might well expect a bevy of bargains.
Forget it. Many potential buyers are finding the town of Palm Beach, versus West or South Palm Beach, out of reach. A recent survey shows the average price of a single-family Palm Beach home now goes for a record $5.24 million, while a condominium has an average price tag of $1.46 million. About 80% of the purchases are all-cash transactions.
"Forget about bargains here; they're about as real as the tooth fairy," a veteran Palm Beach real estate broker at Corcoran, Helene Sidel, tells me. "There's no buying on the cheap."
A Palm Beach real estate attorney, Leslie Robert Evans, bears this out, describing sales as strong, spurred in part by a lack of hurricanes, and a tax reform in Florida that should lower property taxes. Palm Beach, like Manhattan, he says, fits a special niche, "and while housing prices may plateau here, they just don't go down."
He also notes that an increasing number of Hamptons homeowners are purchasing an additional residence in Palm Beach. "It's a case of Wall Street having the best of all worlds — spending the summer in the Hamptons and part of the winter in Palm Beach."