Renting the High Life
Want to live in a custom home for a fraction of the price? Builders are leasing what they can’t sell.
THE PAINT WASN’T on the walls, but the writing was. Custom builder Charlie Anderson was still completing construction on a 4,000-square-foot spec home nestled between I-90 and Lake Sammamish in July 2008, when the tanking real estate market forced him to consider alternate measures for recouping his investment. He finished the project, planted a “For Sale” sign in the yard (list price: $1.25 million), and in December brokered a deal: a one-and-a-half-year lease for $3,500 per month. “We figured it was a better financial move to rent,” Anderson says, “than just discount our product to sell at the absolute bottom of a frenzied, unsure marketplace.”
The leasing-new-construction model wasn’t ideal: Even after Anderson restructured his construction loan into something resembling a standard mortgage, the rent fell nearly $1,500 short of covering his monthly payments. But it would keep the bank at bay until the market recovered and he could unload the house without taking a bath.
Renting unsold property is an option that many builders (at least those that weren’t already in default) grudgingly exercised last year. Eight condo developers hired Phillips Real Estate Services last year to rent vacant units, and between March 2009 and March 2010, the property management company leased 74 unsold homes and condos. And a quick scan of the Northwest Multiple Listing Service in late February revealed that some 25 homes or condos built in King County in 2009 were listed for rent—no doubt a deceptively low number, according to Michael Wilson of Windermere Property Management. “If a developer’s got 25 units, he’ll put one or two on the MLS, even though his agent knows he’s got 25,” he says. “He doesn’t want to say to the market, ‘Come make me a lowball offer.’ ”
Now, more than a year after the rental rush started, the question is, What will become of those year-old properties once the leases expire? In a perfect world, builders would book a sale with the current renter—re-leasing requires refinishing floors and repainting walls, and you can’t get back that new-construction cachet—but when high-end homes can be had for rock-bottom rates, it’s a tough sell. Anderson went the lease route in the hopes of breaking even in an eventual sale, but the renter broke the lease in January and by February the house had yet to sell for the reduced price of $925,000.
Lake City–based builder Sam Brace is batting a thousand so far in his attempt to sell off the homes he resorted to renting in West Seattle last year. The first lease—on a four-bedroom contemporary originally listed for $829,000—ended in December, and Brace negotiated a deal to turn the renters into buyers, to the tune of $690,000. And in early March, he was gearing up to begin negotiations on a second. “It’s not something I would ever plan to do,” he says of renting new-construction homes. “But it’s better than the alternative of giving it back to the bank.”