Ramon Sanchez and his wife, Vivian, enjoy concerts, theater, museums, baseball, burger joints, fine arts, fine dining. Even more, they like living close enough to walk to those attractions.
So when their last child left their west Omaha house, the couple's view quickly turned downtown. A condo owner at Beebe + Runyon was expanding into a top-floor space, which opened a fourth-floor spot for the Sanchezes to move to a few months ago. The 1,600-square-foot urban loft puts them near all they find dear.
“Eppley Airfield is so close we wait for our guests to tell us they're picking up their luggage before we leave to get them,” Ramon said.
The Sanchezes, who also own a condo in their former home of Chicago, are among buyers who downtown real estate brokers say are helping to revive the condo market.
In the first few months of this year, 40 condos east of 16th Street to the river have been sold or were signed to contract — that's already half the number that closed in all of 2012, said Benjamin Proctor, a veteran Realtor downtown. He said the median condo sales price so far this year in that area is $277,000, up from $255,000 in 2012.
A larger geographical area that includes midtown shows the number of condos sold growing from 158 in 2011 to 162 in 2012, and the median price rising from $96,500 to $122,400, according to the Omaha Area Board of Realtors.
Yet a more comprehensive Omaha-area analysis by Real Property Appraisals reflects a 50 percent jump in the sale of condos, town homes and villas in 2012 over the previous year. While the median sales price wasn't back to the peak, that report showed a return to 2007 levels.
The turnaround shocked Nick Dizona of Real Property Appraisals. Dizona said that in 2010, he dismissed condos as dead. Lending restrictions had hampered sales, he said, and he watched values “implode.”
“I had completely written them off,” said Dizona. “I told people not to buy one.”
In late 2011, he saw a glimpse of change. In 2012, he said, he was convinced the shift was not an anomaly but a climb toward recovery. His firm's newsletter said, “That cool hip fun rocking housing type has found a way back into the good graces of the secondary mortgage market and people are buying.”
Not everything, of course, is back to previous levels. Dizona said virtually all condos he recently appraised were valued at less than in 2007 and 2008. He said one condo unit in a downtown project that has turned to mostly apartments sold recently for less than half what the original occupant paid in 2006.
The price rebound varies from project to project. The Omaha Area Board of Realtors statistics show the median sales price of all Omaha area condos at 26 percent higher in 2012 than the year before.
Real estate agents who specialize in the downtown luxury condo market say they're seeing prices slowly rise at buildings with unique amenities. But they say the market remains obstructed by strict lending and government rules implemented nationally after the housing bubble burst.
The good thing, said Tasha Moss of Prudential Ambassador Real Estate, is that brokers have learned better how to maneuver around barriers. She, for instance, has successfully argued to lenders that Omaha-area buyers shouldn't be “punished” for abuses that ran rampant in bigger coastal housing and condo markets.
“It's become easier because we know where to go,” she said.
Moss and Proctor say the condo inventory of $300,000 and above has thinned to the point that they foresee a new development going online in a few years.
Last year, for instance, Moss said she had 13 condos to sell at 1101 Jackson, and this year it's zero.
Proctor, sales manager at Riverfront Place, said that of the eight higher-end, more successful developments participating in this weekend's Downtown Showcase of Homes, only a few units are for sale in each. The price range among showcase projects is $210,000 to $1.4 million.
Just last weekend, Moss said, four condos that were to be featured at the weekend event sold — two at Kimball Lofts at 15th and Jones Streets and two others at the Rows at SoMa at 12th and Leavenworth Streets. Additionally, four condos at Riverfront Place have been claimed by buyers during the past two weeks.
“A lot of people have been standing on the sidelines making sure they're making a solid investment,” Moss said. “They're noticing that things are selling and that pricing is starting to go back up.”
David and Melanie Hecker are empty-nesters who had been intrigued by downtown living, and they made the move a few months ago from the Ridges subdivision near 180th and Pacific Streets.
They downsized in space but upsized in cost, David Hecker said with a laugh, adding that the couple paid about $735,000 for their top-floor condo at Kimball Lofts that has oversized windows and a private roof deck.
Hecker, who was interviewed while he and his wife were out of town in Scottsdale, Ariz., said they liked the history of their condo building, the proximity to his Kiewit job and the lack of maintenance and mowing required.
They, like neighbor Jeff Hillman, appreciate the bond that has formed in their condo community.
Hillman is a 26-year-old California native who wanted an environment similar to one he left in New York to work in his family's Elkhorn-area trading office. His 1,600-square-foot loft cost nearly $300,000.
Kimball Lofts has a Facebook page, Hillman said, and neighbors often post invitations to gather at the rooftop, someone's condo or for drinks at a place downtown. “This has really enabled me to make friends quick, which is what I needed.”
Hillman and the Heckers are original occupants of their condos. But Proctor and Moss, another longtime agent in the downtown condo market, said it has matured to the point that most units for sale today have been lived in.
Moss recalled the surge of condo developments around 2005. She said the last large development to open downtown was the second tower at Riverfront Place in 2011. Today's downtown is filling up with new apartment buildings.
Moss and Proctor foresee further focus on condos as the economy improves.
“All the new rentals are bringing more people to the lifestyle,” said Moss. “Most people don't want to rent forever.”
Ramon Sanchez and Vivian Ayuso-Sanchez were not unfamiliar with downtown condo living. The couple had made a similar move in Chicago, from a suburban home to a downtown condo.
In December, the Sanchezes moved from the Barrington Park subdivision to the Beebe + Runyon former furniture warehouse where condos range from $230,00 to $500,000. Sanchez runs his consulting business out of their loft; Vivian teaches at Metropolitan Community College, one of the few reasons besides a run to Costco that requires either to drive.
“Everything is a couple of blocks away, and we like to walk,” Vivian said. “This is easy living that keeps you fit.”
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