Usually, it’s possible to sum up the outlook with a pithy phrase, but this year the luxury landscape is nuanced. Some markets sizzle; others simmer. Dynamic outside forces are at play and will potentially exert even more influence in 2019. In the background, the words recession and bubble are whispered, but most experts don’t see either in the cards, particularly for residential real estate in 2019.

“In most markets, I think it’s a case of ‘from great to good,’” says Stephanie Anton, president of Luxury Portfolio International.

“We’ve left a crazy market, and we’re moving into a more normal market,” shares John Brian Losh, chairman of Who’s Who in Luxury Real Estate. “We are beginning to see a more normalized market where supply is more equal to demand. Even in the luxury market, there are fewer bidding situations.”

According to Redfin, the number of competitive offers fell from 45 percent to 32 percent in 2018. Still, some ZIP codes in busy markets such as Boston, Washington, D.C., and the Bay Area remain hotbeds of competition, with the number of multi-bid scenarios increasing in the third quarter.

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Concerns about potential bubbles continue to percolate, but economists and other experts caution that fundamentals are strong and for real estate the next downturn will be different. “The recent tax reform and increased government spending have been a shot in the arm of the U.S. economy,” Tim Wang, head of investment research at Clarion Partners, explained to journalists at the Urban Land Institute’s fall conference. Wang and other experts expect the current expansion of the economy to continue through 2019, tapering to 2.5 percent next year.  

“The housing market is following the trend in the overall economy, which needs to be noted because housing led the last downturn,” comments Marci Rossell, chief economist for Leading Real Estate Companies of the World, citing politics and global uncertainty as factors affecting real estate. This time, she says, “the casualties will be a little bit different, and because of that I don’t anticipate a meltdown.”

A cooling period is how Craig Hogan, vice president of luxury at Coldwell Banker Real Estate, characterizes the luxury climate, particularly in the second half of 2018. It’s a change Coldwell Banker has anticipated. “For any of us to think it was always going to be incredible is a little naive. The market is always going to fluctuate.” Hogan says it’s important not to interpret cooling as a market decline. “Cooling is a normal fluctuation, while a decline happens when the value of homes begins dipping.”

“There hasn’t been any great price suppression. Houses are staying on the market a little longer, but demand is still healthy,” says Losh.

“I think we’re still going to have a very strong year overall. I do believe we’re seeing price adjustments, and that’s okay. I think the key is watching how long properties are staying on the market and watching the size of the price adjustments,” observes Lesli Akers, president of Keller Williams Luxury International.

The average sales price for Sotheby’s transactions is up year over year. “From a luxury point of view, many of our companies are having a record year,” says Philip White, president and CEO of Sotheby’s International Realty. “Revenues are up, and in some cases pretty significantly,” he shares, noting that this number also reflects significant recruiting and/or acquisitions by some companies.

Recent stats show prices for upscale properties still increasing, but at a slower pace than past years. The number of sales in many places has dipped, but that differs by location, and in more than a few instances sales still exceed 2017.

Data from the Institute for Luxury Home Marketing (ILHM) shows median prices for single family luxury homes climbing 8.5 percent in November over October, while the number of sales fell 11.7 percent. For attached luxury properties, sales rose 2.6 percent with a 2.3 percent hike in prices.  

Putting the current market for real estate overall into perspective, Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, said, “2017 was the best year for home sales in 10 years, and 2018 is only down 1.5 percent year to date. Statistically, it is a mild twinge in the data and a very mild adjustment compared to the long-term growth we’ve been experiencing over the past few years.” Yun and other housing economists are quick to point out that new construction still hasn’t caught up with demand and foreclosure levels are at historic lows, factors which make the current climate different than the run up to the recession. NAR’s forecast calls for an overall price increase of about 3 percent in 2019 while the number of sales flattens or edges up very slightly.

tale of two markets

Luxury’s story is a little different. “This year the luxury market has been a tale of two markets, for sure. Some areas are struggling, but most have been stronger than many realize, particularly in the first half of the year. As median prices have been slowing (and getting lots of media attention), the top 5 percent of many major metro markets nationally have been growing, with sales over $1 million up over 5 percent year over year and prices breaking records, in some cases by double digits. In the majority of markets, inventory has been selling faster. This is happening simply because of the health of the affluent,” observes Anton.

What sets this year’s outlook apart is that some places are having a strong, dynamic market, while others are seeing a softening, often only in specific price brackets. “The slowdown that started on the East Coast is having some effect on the West Coast. But it’s not a typical slowdown,” says Mike Leipart, managing partner of new development at The Agency. “Good product that has relative value is continuing to transact.”

The top three sales nationally in the third quarter, each over $30 million, occurred in Laguna, and seven out of the top 10 were in Southern California.

Rather than a general market malaise, Leipart characterizes the slowdown as more of a spec home problem. “It’s just too much has been built too fast, and not all of it is very good. The people who thought they could build a house for $15 million and sell it for $30 million are struggling.”

The higher price points in L.A. may see an even stronger downturn in the near future, suggests Bob Hurtwitz, owner of Hurwitz James Company, who typically works in the very high end. “There is a lot of inventory on the higher end, and luxury home buyers are usually in a position to wait and see. The drops in price are a lot more dramatic on property at $15 million and above, and buyers are aware of the benefit in waiting to see how it plays out. At the ultra-high end of $100 million or more, you are going to see and already are seeing huge reductions in price.” What’s hot in L.A.? Luxury penthouses in full 24-hour security buildings in prime areas, according to Hurwitz. “High-end penthouses will continue to be in-demand from foreign buyers purchasing as a part time home or for housing for their children.” Other price brackets, notably the $1.5-million to $3.5-million range, are busy, and, Hurwitz says, his agents are doing a lot of deals.

Perceptions of prices in Manhattan can be skewed, since recent closings are often for new construction for which contracts (and prices) were written a couple of years prior. Even though stats show sales decreasing, Ellie Johnson, president of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New York Properties, says, “There is still a healthy but steady group of buyers that are still out there in the high-end luxury landscape.” Additionally, New York is particularly keyed to Wall Street, and volatility in the stock market often means more money gets transferred into brick and mortar. “We’ve seen an uptick that we didn’t have at the beginning of the fall season,” Johnson observes. Despite a less than stellar real estate market at year end, New York remains a global gateway and the top city for global wealth.

Manhattan

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Los Angeles

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St. Petersburg

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In other locations, particularly those with lower prices for upscale properties compared to California, Florida or New York, reports show strong interest and price growth. An acre in one of Atlanta’s prime addresses in Buckhead can demand as much as $1 million. It’s just one indication that luxury here continues to reach new price levels with considerable demand coming from outside the region, including buyers from California and Florida. Some relocate simply because they want a home in the city; others follow corporate moves. The city has also become a favorite for the film industry, which has become a $4 million industry. “It’s changing everything about this city,” says Debra Johnston with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Georgia Properties. Luxury really doesn’t begin until the $5 million threshold, says Johnston, but prices compared to Florida and California are reasonable.

At one time, it was thought it might take more than 20 years for Florida real estate to recoup from the recession. In October, the state tracked 82 consecutive months of price hikes for both single-family and condo-townhouse properties, with many cities showing double-digit increases in the number of sales. “The overall market in Florida, particularly higher-end areas such as Sarasota, Naples and Palm Beach, is definitely strong and stable. Maybe not as robust as say 2013 and 2014, but we haven’t had any major slide — except the economists talking about the market slowing down,” says Pam Charron with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Florida Realty in Sarasota.

“The St. Petersburg market seems to be performing differently than other Florida markets and other national trends,” observes Tami Simms with Coastal Properties Group, noting November sales skyrocketed over the prior year. “We have developed into a year-round market with luxury downtown condominiums in high steady demand.” Another sign of consumer confidence is lack of defaults on pre-construction sales. “When we experienced the crash, those buildings that had been sold out prior to completion experienced a significant number of defaults. We see none of that in this instance.”

Florida is one of several states including Texas and Nevada benefiting from changes in tax law. Tax changes not only force some to reevaluate where they live, but they also impact the margins of price brackets. “While it doesn’t mean people wholesale leave New York or San Francisco, marginal changes tickle up and trickle down to the next closest price level,” and it will take several years for that to be felt, says Rossell.

The New Market

“So many trends have taken place they are no longer trends, they are the new market,” observes Hogan, using new construction as one example. “It doesn’t matter where you go or who you talk to, new construction is part of the conversation.”

Global demographics will have a long-term impact. “What luxury is adjusting to is a different demographic worldwide. Those aging baby boomers are kind of done with big homes and the following demographic is 50-percent smaller,” Rossell says.

Changing demographics affect location and property type. “I think we’ll see increased demand for primary residences in traditional second home and resort markets. We are seeing this trend in select markets, as individuals who have the freedom to work remotely are opting to live in places where they feel their quality of life will be the best,” observes Anthony Hitt, president and CEO, Engel & Völkers Americas.

Summer 2019 will mark the most prolonged economic recovery since World War II, but wild cards including interest rates, a trade war and further instability could easily derail this expectation. However, there is a silver lining to the current market. Increasing inventories will bring some buyers back to the market and create more demand. “I think it’s going to a be a great opportunity. People will buy things that they haven’t considered, and they’re going to buy more of them. I think that’s been a big challenge. We’ve not had the inventory, and a lot of buyers kind of just fell out of the market because they didn’t feel like there really was one,” explains Akers.

ILHM President Diane Hartley believes 2019 will be a year of opportunity for both buyers and sellers provided they remain agile, innovative and adaptable to their local market influence.

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2019 edition of Unique Homes Magazine.