Miami, Vegas condo markets hit hard

MIAMI — With foreclosures soaring and home prices in the tank, Miami and Las Vegas often compete for the dubious distinction of being the nation's hardest-hit condo market.

Once invincible boom towns, both are climbing out of an abyss of stalled developments, spiraling foreclosures and stymied real estate sales.

Trying to figure out which is the biggest real estate loser isn't so easy.

"They built less in Las Vegas than in Miami," but there are fewer potential buyers, said Marty Burger, president and chief executive of Artisan Real Estate Ventures in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas analysts and builders blame South Florida developers, as well as other out-of-market players, for helping whip up the condo mania.

During the boom, Miami development companies launched full-scale assaults on the Vegas market.

They figured frequent visitors from Canada and Southern California would buy second homes rather than continue paying for high-priced hotel rooms.

Faulty assumption, said Richard Lee, a Las Vegas analyst and vice president with First American Title Co.

And here's another one: Locals, tired of traffic and long commutes, would seek a more urban lifestyle closer to the action on the Vegas Strip.

"There was no real demand that you could point to," said Jack Winston, a consultant with Goodkin Consulting who cautioned several South Florida developers about their ambitious Las Vegas plans. "Permanent residents rarely go down to the strip."

"Outside developers came here and really misjudged this market," said Irwin Molasky, a veteran Las Vegas real estate developer.

Florida's Turnberry Associates was one of the first to go vertical in Las Vegas with the four-tower Turnberry Place project. It rapidly closed out 770 units and made tremendous profits.

Others tried to mimic them.

"It was like the gold rush after that," said Bruce Weiner, president of Turnberry Ltd., the residential division of Turnberry Associates.

But condos weren't the only buildings sprouting on the Vegas skyline. There was also a casino building spree that pushed construction and labor prices through the roof, forcing dozens of developers to shelve plans.

Unlike the bulk of Miami's new condominiums, which are clustered around the downtown area in stunning high-rise towers, most of the new Las Vegas projects are midrise buildings and condo/hotels perched on top of casino hotels.

In that sense, the problems plaguing the Las Vegas market have been less visible than the darkened condo towers of Miami and are obscured by massive LCD screens and the glitz of surrounding buildings.

Since the condo model was relatively untested in Las Vegas, the volume of building was huge. But Miami's building boom was far more expansive.

During the boom, developers had filed plans to build 85,000 new units throughout Miami-Dade County. The final count, according to Bal Harbor-based research firm Condo Vultures, has been about 23,000 units since 2003.

Miami is burning off its excess supply of condos nearly twice as quickly as Las Vegas. The median price for an existing condo in Las Vegas stood at $72,500 in November and $149,000 in Miami- Dade.

Thousands of foreign investors, many from Latin America and with long-held ties to South Florida, have helped jump-start new condo sales. Although it's just as hard to get a condo loan in Miami as in Las Vegas, Las Vegas has far fewer foreign buyers willing to pay cash.

Also, lenders have begun allowing South Florida developers to sell units for less than the amount needed to repay their loans. That lowers prices for buyers.

As for which market will mend more quickly, most analysts said it's hard to tell.

For Weiner, so many unsold condos in South Florida will be tough to sell off.

But "as bad as it is," he said, "I think South Florida will absorb its condos probably as fast, if not faster, than Las Vegas."