At this point, we should have all learned a few things. If we were paying attention during the last market cycle, from slow rise to raging boom to crushing collapse, then we should have taken some things away from that decade long episode. In the same way, from that collapse to the nascent recovery to this now active and vibrant seller’s market, this should be teaching us something as well. I suppose in that there is a difference. Have we learned anything or have we just observed it all from afar?
What I’ve learned, mostly, is that housing markets do not rise and fall based on the math of it all. Sure, low interest rates and stable stock markets might kick off a resurgence of housing haste, but that isn’t what propels a market. What pushes a market from Tidy Recovery to Raging Bull is confidence. Confidence is what makes a family of 4 making $90k annually purchase a new vinyl box in a cornfield for $410k. This is the same thing that makes the same family drive to the car dealer and sign for a 0% loan on a $70k Tahoe. Interest rates and unemployment figures are sweet, but what pushes a market into hyperdrive is nothing more than individual consumer confidence.
Most of the things that happened during the last cycle are happening in this one as well. FHA loans are way up. Like sky-high, as a percentage of new loans. These are US Taxpayer backed mortgages that are given out with very little money down. When a market is appreciating, these mortgages are fine. But when the market stalls and reverses, these homeowners who were given those house keys with as little as 3.5% down will be the first ones to run for the hills. But if we continue our learning from the last cycle, then we shouldn’t panic sell our house unless circumstances (job loss, illness, etc), mandate it. If you bought a house in 2008, then 2012 was a difficult time to consider your negative equity. But if you’ve hung on into 2018 you’ve more than likely made a full and complete equity recovery. That, and you’ve had a place to live for the past decade.
But these are not market specific lessons. For those, let’s turn to the Lake Geneva condotel market. Condotel is a silly way of describing the sort of housing unit that is sold as a condominium, but operates like a hotel room. You buy the unit, you pay taxes and dues and extraordinary fees to the hotel, and they give you a percentage of the rental income generated. In theory, it’s a tidy idea. In practice, it can be either great, reasonably acceptable, or downright horrible.
The Lake Geneva market has a handful of these so-called condotels. Notably at the Grand Geneva (Timber Ridge), The Cove, The Bella Vista, The Abbey Resort, and a few others. Understanding the context that our broad market is hotter than a pistol, let’s consider the current market for these sorts of properties. I won’t delve into each development, but I’ll sample a few to give you an idea as to how I feel about them as an “investment”. Crud, those quotes likely gave me away already.
Timber Ridge is at the Grand Geneva. It’s a waterpark. It’s nice enough. There used to be a rib joint inside the waterpark hotel, but I haven’t been there since my kids were last invited to a birthday party there. Today there are nine units available at Timber Ridge priced from $99k to $189k. None are pending sale. Normally someone dissecting a condotel market would look at the net income and compare that with the purchase price. Not me. I don’t care if the units print 3% or 5% or 7% annual return on the most recent run of numbers. That’s because that’s not the issue with these sorts of units.
I care about the value of the real estate. Let’s look at the $99k unit. First sold by the developer in 2001 for $160,400. Nice. Then sold once or twice. Then sold in 2003 for $206k to the current owners. After 15 years, their investment has declined more than 50%. Another unit listed at $102k sold previously for $181k. Another unit listed at $189k previously sold for $305k. And the beat goes on. Rather than view these units as an opportunity that the market has beaten up, I prefer to view them as a painful lesson of what happens when consumer sentiment shifts. Take away the free steak dinner and boat cruise; would anyone ever buy a timeshare again?
Let’s check on the Cove in downtown Lake Geneva, the place with that absurd blue roof. A little unit for sale for $109k. Prior sale? A 2008 print at $170k. Here’s another unit listed at $134,900. Initial sale by the developer in 1996: $135,400. 22 years, negative equity. Let’s move to Fontana, and check on what is likely the best of this bunch, the Abbey Hotel. Here’s a unit listed at $150k. Prior sales price? 12 years ago for $254k.
It’s not that I enjoy beating up on a particular market segment, it’s just that I don’t know as though I’d be a buyer of something like this. Yes, they might turn a small profit on an annual basis. But what of the initial investment? What about that crushing loss? These properties are relatively illiquid, intensely sensitive to overall market conditions, and reliant on a consumer that just might have learned their lesson.
If you’re a buyer searching for an economical condo that you can rent out to generate some income, I’d opt for the lower priced condominium units in non condotel properties. I’d look at lower priced listings in Geneva National, Abbey Springs, and the Abbey Villas. I’d consider those options 99 times before I’d consider anything else. If you’re in the market for this sort of thing, email me and I’ll set you up with my assistant Vicki who can help guide you through this particular market segment.