Vegas beats tough odds

Market sees prices coming back after crashing in US recession, writes Peta Tomlinson

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 May, 2013, 4:22am

Buying real estate can be a gamble, but punters right now are betting on Las Vegas.

The resort city posted the highest gains of all United States markets in the latest S&P/Case-Shiller index of property values, climbing another 2 per cent in February. This took the year-on-year increase to 17.6 per cent on the index, ranking third nationally behind Phoenix (up 23 per cent) and San Francisco (up 18.9 per cent). The gains prompted David Blitzer, chairman of the S&P index committee, to note: "Housing continues to be one of the brighter spots in the economy."

For existing homes and condominiums, not including new builds, the price increase is even more pronounced. According to latest data from the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors (GLVAR), existing home prices in southern Nevada, encompassing the Las Vegas Valley and surrounding cities in Clark County, are almost 31 per cent higher today than a year ago.

Whichever methodology one chooses to go by, this upward trend is good news for property owners in a city once tagged as "ground zero of the housing bubble". Las Vegas was about the last market in the US to be hit by the recession, but it also fell the furthest. Prices plummeted by more than 50 per cent below their 2006 peak and, four years ago, at the market's lowest point, more than 80 per cent of the homes sold were foreclosure or bank-owned sales.

Now, the tables are turning. As prices rise and the time on market shrinks, GLVAR reports that more homes are being sold by "traditional" sellers - as opposed to lenders, who are responsible for the short sales and foreclosures that dominated the market in recent years. Dave Tina, GLVAR president, says: "In fact, for the first time in years, traditional sales have accounted for more than half of all local home sales so far in 2013."

Patrick O'Neill, who markets US property to Asian investors through his company, The O'Neill Group, says overseas interest is also piqued. "Many buyers who missed the price drops in other cities like New York and San Francisco are now scrambling to find the remaining pockets of opportunity. Las Vegas is one of the last markets to recover, forcing bargain-hunters to bear down on the remaining inventory."

He notes that, while other markets in the US began to recover in 2010, Las Vegas stayed stagnant. "The bottom did not hit until the last quarter of 2011. Since then, the market has been roaring back to life, with condo values up 41 per cent and single-family homes up 30 per cent compared to last year." Many factors may be driving the market, but O'Neill says a big one is the lack of opportunities elsewhere. "Many investors sat on the fence and missed the opportunities to buy in cities such as New York and San Francisco. We had several Hong Kong clients that looked at New York last year but did not buy. They are now priced out of the market, with Manhattan values back to the peak pricing. Las Vegas, by contrast, has not fully recovered, so there are opportunities to buy below replacement cost and 50 per cent under the peak values of 2008."

O'Neill says his group's partners in Las Vegas report increasing activity from Chinese buyers, especially for brand-new developments such as the Mandarin Oriental on the Las Vegas Strip. "We have several Hong Kong investors purchasing at the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas. The prices have been adjusted to US$680,000 from the original pricing of US$1.6 million," he says. "After struggling with sales, the property has taken off, with 12 units closed in the past month." Colliers International points to some promising economic indicators: southern Nevada has added around 18,900 jobs in the past year, and visitor volumes and gaming revenues are stable. Retail sales are edging up, leading to improvements in the commercial real estate market.

Las Vegas also occupies the second spot in a list of the hottest US housing markets of 2013, compiled by the financial news and opinion site 24/7 Wall St. Property search site Trulia also picked up on the trend, naming Las Vegas one of the top turnaround markets of 2012.

But where is the market headed? Economist Robert Shiller of the S&P/Case-Shiller index is one who seems troubled by such fast growth. While "it looks positive right now, at least for the short run", Shiller says several factors weigh on the future of US housing, including the likelihood that interest rates will go up. "I'm not in with the chorus of people saying it's over, it's great, full sailing ahead," Shiller recently told CNBC.

Tina concedes that some are questioning whether the present price increases in Las Vegas are sustainable. "A few people have even warned about another housing bubble, which I think is unlikely for a variety of reasons," he says. "For one thing, median home prices are just over halfway back to the 2006 peak, and arguably below where they should be had they never gone up and down so fast. Secondly, I don't see many people walking away from the homes they bought during this housing market rebound, since about half of all our local buyers these past few years have been paying cash for their homes.

"Finally, the local job market and overall economy keep improving. I still see room for home prices to go up, though probably not at the rate they have this past year."



What you can buy for US$100,000

A one-bedroom high-rise condo at Platinum Resort in Las Vegas. Built in 2006, the building is one block from Bellagio and Caesars Palace. It has a spa, pool, fitness centre, restaurant and bar.

What you can buy for US$1million

A1,625 sq ft unit comprising one bedroom plus a den in The Residences at Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas (original asking price US$2.7 million). As permanent guests of a luxury hotel, residents enjoy 24-hour room service, a concierge, doorman, housekeeping and valet services.