Photo courtesy of HomeAway

Sales of vacation home sales are surging across the nation as Americans seek out their own place for a family retreat, a regular vacation spot or a place to ski, sail, fish or hike.

Vacation home sales were up a whopping 57 percent in 2014 over the sales of 2013, according to a national report by the National Association of Realtors.

“Vacation home sales are skyrocketing,” says Dallas-based journalist Candy Evans, a CultureMap contributor and founder of CandysDirt.com and Secondshelters.com. “Vacation home sales have shown astounding growth. I get 50 emails a day from developers with new projects that are coming up.”

“Vacation home sales have shown astounding growth," says Candy Evans. "I get 50 emails a day from developers with new projects that are coming up.”

Evans, who moderated a vacation homes panel in Miami at the National Association of Real Estate Editors Conference, says the surge is driven by “The One Percent” – affluent households who have done well in the stock market in recent years.

“The wealthy got even wealthier since the recession of 2008,” says John Klemish, broker in-charge at the upscale Greenbrier Sporting Club resort in West Virginia.

The buyers at the ultra-luxe Greenbrier often pay all cash and the typical buyer there has at least three or four other houses, says Klemish.

The massive Baby Boomer generation is supporting the surge in the vacation home market as they acquire vacation homes now and plan to convert them to their primary residences after retiring.

The top choice for vacation home buyers is the beach, according to the National Association of Realtors Vacation Home Buyers Survey.

Last year, 40 percent of vacation buyers purchased in a beach area, 19 percent purchased in the country and 17 percent purchased a vacation home in the mountains. The average buyer purchases a vacation home that is 200 miles away from his/her primary residence.

Foreign buyers are also supporting the vacation home boom. Owning real estate in a country with a stable economy can be an appealing haven to affluent people from other parts of the world.

The top choice for vacation home buyers is the beach, according to the National Association of Realtors Vacation Home Buyers Survey.

“We’ve seen a huge desire for real estate from flight capital,” says Phillip Day, an executive with the IMI vacation realty company in Greenville, S.C. “We see a lot of people from Europe and South America.”

The ability to get rental income by renting out a vacation home is attractive, says Jon Gray, chief revenue officer at Austin-based HomeAway, an online marketplace that connects renters with vacation home owners.

The owner of a vacation home gains $28,000 a year, on average, by renting out their vacation home, Gray says. Many vacation home buyers can cover half, or even three-fourths of their mortgage payments with rental income, says Gray, a panelist at last week’s NAREE conference.

Orlando Realtor Chris Cain, author of “Your Made in the USA Vacation Home” says the investment aspect of vacation home buying is huge. And it is appealing to a cross-section of buyers, not just the ultra-rich.

“If your primary residence is the best investment of your life,” says Cain, “why not buy a vacation home, too?”

Ralph Bivins, former president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, is founding editor of Realty News Report.

Rental income is an important factor in buying a vacation home, says Jon Gray of HomeAway, an online marketplace that connects renters with vacation homes like this one on Lake Austin.

Photo courtesy of HomeAway
Rental income is an important factor in buying a vacation home, says Jon Gray of HomeAway, an online marketplace that connects renters with vacation homes like this one on Lake Austin.
Photo by Ralph Bivins

Major developer eyes downtown Houston Chronicle building, with an eye on the future

Wrecking Ball

Hines, the real estate developer that erected many of the iconic skyscrapers decorating the Houston skyline, is reportedly negotiating to buy the Houston Chronicle building in downtown Houston.

The deal is viewed as a way for Hines to make its next major downtown play by demolishing the old Chronicle building, 801 Texas Avenue, and building a major tower on the newspaper site.

Houston-based Hines is expected to pay more than $50 million for the property, according to Realty News Report, which broke the news in an exclusive story Monday.

Lesser developers would not be buying additional development sites when they own a 1 million square foot spec building, with no tenants, only one block away. But Hines is no ordinary developer.

The Chronicle plans to sell its downtown facilities and move next summer to the former Houston Post building, 4747 Southwest Freeway, near Loop 610.

In downtown, the Chronicle occupies a 10-story building, 801 Texas at Milam, and operates a nearby 560-space parking garage at 710 Preston. The newspaper recently began allowing the public to pay to park in the garage, which had been reserved for employees only for decades.

Last November, as reported in another exclusive story by Realty News Report, Hearst Corp., the owner of the Chronicle retained the well-known Holliday Fenoglio Fowler firm to market the Chronicle’s downtown property.

At first, the whisper number (rumored sales price) for the Chronicle property was about $40 million. With oil prices in a free fall, there was no certainty that any buyer would come forth at all. But oil prices have stabilized, the economic fear has subsided and Hines has zeroed-in the long-term value that lies in the Chronicle property.

The newspaper’s facilities cover 99,184 square feet of land on two city blocks and would be an ideal platform for Hines to construct its next Houston skyscraper at some point in the future.

However, there is one complication. Hines is currently building a 48-story skyscraper only one block away from the Chronicle building. The new 1 million square-foot Hines building, 609 Main at Texas, is slated to be finished around the end of 2016. The 609 Main building is a speculative project for Hines and no tenants have been announced.

Lesser developers would not be buying additional development sites when they own a 1 million square foot spec building, with no tenants, only one block away.

But Hines is no ordinary developer. It has $85 billion in assets under management and locations in 185 cities around the globe. Hines developed the Galleria, the First Colony community, and some 1,000 major projects around the world, including hundreds of skyscrapers, hotels, residential towers, business parks and retail centers.

So if the deal goes through, Hines is not expected to immediately demolish the Chronicle building and proceed with another new tower. The development firm, founded by Gerald D. Hines in Houston in 1957, is a long-term player and it appears to be seeking to lock up a prime skyscraper development site for future years.

Ralph Bivins, founder editor of Realty News Report, is a past president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors.

Photo courtesy of © TK Images

Pros offer tips on making your home more attractive to potential buyers — ditch the clutter; less is best

How To Sell Your House

We are all familiar with the adage that baking cookies or bread in your home just before a showing to potential buyers can enhance the feeling of warmth and help the house shoppers connect with your home.

But there are other steps home sellers should take when preparing the house or condo for sale and at the top of the list is staging. That aspect of the real estate market is so important today that there are accredited staging professional classes and certifications.

"Staging is so important in this market as it can show a buyer how they could live in the property and increase the perceived value of the home," says Lisa Kornhauser with John Daugherty Realtors. "A great stager could use homeowners existing furniture, add pieces from their collection or stage a vacant house all from their inventory. Staging a home is a way of bringing it to life. The key is to make sure that you use the right kind furniture and accessories that work best in the home."

"You have to create a look that triggers a buyer to respond well to a house. Staging is scientific, it's not just decorating."

While there are a number of interior designers and professional stagers who assist homeowners, Greg Williams and Steve Cook of ShowHomes run a turn-key operation, covering everything from furnishing vacant homes to providing their own contractors for updating to working with landscapers on curb appeal.

"Our goal is to put the house in the best show condition possible," Williams says. "We try to show prospective buyers what the home has for them."

Interior designer and professional stager Gail Taylor of Taylor & Taylor Designs regularly does staging for leading real estate agents. Her advice is simple, "The key words I tell my clients before staging are: Clean, clutter-free, organized, neutral walls, light and bright, and always . . . less is best. It's hard for buyers to picture their furnishings in a new home. They view the home as it is presented to them."While he agrees that effective staging involves visual esthetics, it is as much about placement. "It's not so much about the stuff that's in the house as it is the placement that is used to show off the house."

The goal is to create a setting that will increase the perceived value of the house. For Williams that means the home must look on trend. It should feel calm and serene. It should be sophisticated.

"In the Houston real estate market, it has become something of a beauty contest for houses," he said. "You have to create a look that triggers a buyer to respond well to a house. Staging is scientific, it's not just decorating."

He pointed to studies that show that rooms that are cluttered "with lots of stuff" cause a physical reaction in the potential buyer. "The heart rate goes up. The blood pressure goes up and alarms go off that this isn't the right place for them."

Staging is a key element in preparing your home for real estate listing.

Photo courtesy of © TK Images
Staging is a key element in preparing your home for real estate listing.
Photo by Robert Frazier, Qwest Media

High-rise condo in the heart of downtown offers breezy living with out-of-this-world private terrace

On the Market

Editor's Note: Houston, the surrounding areas and beyond are loaded with must-have houses and properties for sale in all shapes, sizes and price ranges. In this continuing series, CultureMap snoops through some of the best and gives you the lowdown on what's hot on the market.

One of the drawbacks amid the many conveniences of living in a high-rise is the lack of opportunity for you own al fresco moments. Not so with this 18th floor home (#1805) in Commerce Tower, 914 Main St. A remarkable 640 sq.ft. private balcony provides lofty views of not only the downtown skyline but also an overlook of the building's swimming pool.

What's inside: The spacious floor plan reads more like terra firma than high-in-the-sky. Consider the size of the modern chef's kitchen, exceptional for most high-rise buildings, and the adjacent breakfast room. Amenities such as beautiful hardwood floors and recessed lighting throughout are additional bonuses.

The open floor plan is ideal for entertaining and when you add the balcony, you just have to feel a party coming on.

The basics include three bedrooms, two full baths and one guest bath. The master suite has private access to the balcony and features dual closets and a sophisticated bath.

The condo tower boasts a rooftop pool, exercise gym, two party rooms and valet parking.

Square footage: 2,657.

Asking price: $879,000.

Listing agent: Terry Stanfield with Heritage Texas Properties.

The 640 sq.ft. wide balcony overlooks downtown and the building swimming pool.

Photo by Robert Frazier, Qwest Media
The 640 sq.ft. wide balcony overlooks downtown and the building swimming pool.
BrunchNews.com [http://www.brunchnews.com/new-york-magazine/general-news/advertising-apartments-to-dinks-can-cost-you-dearly-695299]

Want to rent a nice apartment in Houston? Then you need to make this much money

Rental Woes

It might be normal to complain about the high cost of renting an apartment in Houston, but it seems that nationally we're not alone. According to a Zillow analysis done in April, it's darn near impossible to rent a median-priced apartment in most of the 35 largest U.S. metro areas on an income of $15 an hour.

Here's the catch, though: The study uses $15 as the "minimum wage" — inspired by Seattle's decision — when that's not an accurate number in most cities. (In Houston, minimum wage is still $7.25.) In order for two people to afford median rent here, which is $1,513, according to the April 2015 Zillow Rent Index, they must each make $15.13 an hour.

If you don't want a roommate (or several), you have to make at least $30.26 an hour. In terms of annual salary, the magic number in Houston is $60,520.

If you don't want a roommate (or several), you have to make at least $30.26 an hour. This is assuming 40 hours worked a week, for 50 weeks in a year. In terms of annual salary, the magic number in Houston is $60,520.

The other thing Zillow points out is that these numbers take into account the fiscally responsible advice of not spending more than 30 percent of your monthly income on housing. Of course it is always an option to splash out on an apartment and be frugal in other areas. (Can you really give up dinners out, though?)

Or you could move to Detroit (where an $11.21 hourly wage is needed for two earners to afford median rent), Pittsburgh ($11.24), St. Louis ($11.37), Cleveland ($11.61) or Indianapolis ($11.99).

Unless you plan on raking it in, steer clear of San Jose ($32.87), San Francisco ($31.62), Los Angeles ($24.98), New York ($23.72) and San Diego ($23.30).

Loyal to the Lone Star State? It'll cost you $14.65 an hour for two to rent in Dallas, and $16.86 for a pair in Austin.

Can young adults afford to buy a home in Houston? Yes, according to new report, but we're not so sure

Millennial Housing

A new report from Bloomberg finds that millennials are being priced out of homeownership in many major U.S. cities, but the situation is better in Houston.

On a list that includes 50 metropolitan areas, Houston ranks as the No. 36 least affordable city for millennials — or to interpret it another way the 15th most affordable on the list.

In Houston, where the median home value is $159,450, the minimum salary required to purchase a home is $35,034. With a median income of $21,633, millennials in Houston have a surplus of $13,401. What the report doesn't take into account is that finding a home for under $160,000 in a millennial-friendly Houston neighborhood seems just about impossible.

Even if such housing exists, Bloomberg cautions that these numbers assume that young adults have saved a 20 percent down payment, which often is not the case. "That means millennials living in unaffordable markets will be forced to shell out money for ever-increasing rents, instead of building equity," Bloomberg says.

Thirteen metropolitan areas have an affordability gap, where millennials are priced out of the market. In such places as San Jose, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle and Denver, the minimum salary required to purchase a home far surpasses the median millennial earnings.

Millennials will have the best luck in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Buffalo — the three most affordable cities on the list. Austin is the least affordable city in Texas at No 16, with Dallas-Fort Worth (No. 34), and San Antonio (No. 28) faring better.

To see the stats on each city, check out the full Bloomberg report.


CultureMap editor-in-chief Clifford Pugh contributed to this article.

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Towering downtown skyscraper and former headquarters for oil giant set for new high-rise apartment conversion

fins and all

An empty downtown skyscraper harking to Houston's energy capital brand may soon reignite the high-rise living trend in downtown.

The tower formerly known as the Humble Oil headquarters and now the Exxon building (800 Bell St.) has been sold to an out-of-state developer with plans to convert the structure to residential units. Ralph Bivins, a former CultureMap scribe, was first to break the news on Realty News Report.

Bivins reports that the 1.2 million-square-foot building was sold to a New York investment group affiliated with CMI Developers. Notably, the group boasts experience in historic redevelopment and apartment conversions. Bivins adds that the age of the Exxon building (it was completed in 1962) and its high local profile might yield available historic preservation tax credits for the developers.

As downtowners may recall, the former Exxon HQ at 800 Bell for around eight years when the company relocated to its modern new campus.

Culturally, the building has been significant as a towering symbol of Houston's energy powerhouse status. At the time of its opening, Bivins notes, the building was considered the tallest building west of the Mississippi River. Its famed Petroleum Club atop the building was the site of myriad power deals, and later, special events.

Looking forward, the building presents numerous opportunities for adaptive reuse. The first floors of the building, once open to neighbors who utilized the Exxon cafeteria, can be an ideal mixed-use locale for restaurants and even retail. One hopes the building's signature "fins," crafted to block the hot Houston sun, remain a design feature.

Exxon building 800 Bell fins A close-up shot of the building's fins.Photo via CALpix; copyright 2023

The large scale of the Exxon tower raises the opportunity for placing a significant amount of retail or restaurants in the lower levels of the building, located between Milam and Travis. The old Exxon parking garage, located nearby, comes with the deal, Bivins point out — always a boon for parking-scarce downtown areas.

Given the green-light status of the hotly contested I-45 expansion project and plans to redevelop Midtown and areas near the Pierce Elevated, the high-rise residential could be an epicenter of new downtown growth.

Globally famous diner dishing out "world's rudest service" headed to Texas...like, whenever

Displeased to serve you

Imagine you’re at a restaurant and the server rolls her eyes because you don’t like ice in your water. What a pansy you are. First, you order a chocolate milkshake, but on second thought, you’d like vanilla. You apologetically ask her to change it on the ticket and she threatens to spit in it. On your way out, you tip her 20 percent and leave a review: “5 stars. Rudest service I’ve ever had.”

Karen’s Diner provides the worst service for the best experience, at least according to cheeky clientele who appreciate the campy comedy of a long-suffering server who just can’t smile through it anymore. The Australian restaurant concept exploded in popularity in the last few months, largely from viral videos of funny quips and embarrassed customers (who are usually in on the gag).

Part subversion of the sweet neighborhood waitress trope and part revenge fantasy for off-duty service industry people who find relief in watching other servers speak their minds, this is an exercise in improv comedy wrapped up in a classic diner meal. There are now 14 locations in the United States according to the restaurant’s locations page, including one that has quietly popped up online in Austin.

There is very little information about this location in particular, but there is an active listing on Hidden, which allows users to sign up for a waitlist and eventually gives access to the restaurant’s secret location. As of January 24, Hidden told CultureMap via email that it does not know the opening date.

Although the diner could rest on the laurels of its terrible attitude, reviewers seem to agree, the food is also good. The menu lists 14 burgers, including some traditional cheeseburgers, luxe twists, chicken burgers, and a few meatless options, in addition to other diner snacks like wings, floats, and fries. Prices may give visitors something to complain about (the burgers range from $16-28), but the price keeps the most creative instigators on staff.

Kids under 14 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian for lunch, while dinner’s raunchiness raises the accompanied age to 16. In general, the chain encourages minors to attend earlier in the day. Any actual Karens may show their ID for a free drink.

More information about Karen’s Diner can be found at bemorekaren.com. Check Hidden for changes, or sign up for the ticket release waitlist.

Ken Hoffman trashes Houston's No. 1 spot in 'dirty, rotten' new ranking of filthiest U.S. cities

here's the dirt

Great. Now we’re the Dirtiest City in America, too? It’s not enough that Houston is the serial winner of Fattest City in America?

Lawnstarter, a nationwide lawn care, landscaping and pest control company, ranked cities coast-to-coast by “32 dimensions of compatibility.” (No wait, that’s eHarmony.) Lawnstarter compared U.S. cities on the basis of: pollution, living conditions, infrastructure, and consumer satisfaction.

Houston came in dead last … or in this case, No. 1 for Dirtiest City in America. Of course, that’s a dirty rotten lie.

For this "study," Lawnstarter calculated publicly available data, like air quality index, gas emissions, percentage of smokers, population density, homes without kitchen facilities, homes with cockroaches, and number of landfills and junk yards.

Here’s a better way of determining if a city is dirty: open your eyes.

Important to note: Lawnstarter folks did not actually visit Houston to take a look around.

Garbage advice from non-visitors

The folks at Lawnstarter suggest that Houstonians stock up on air fresheners, mouse traps, and cans of Raid. Sure, we have some rough parts of town, where people use unlit back roads as an elephant burial ground for worn-out mattresses and rusty old appliances. But overall, Houston is a progressive, forward-thinking town that keeps up appearances.

I don’t have to hold my nose when I walk outside or wear a Hazmat suit when I drive downtown for a ballgame.

I’m not going to dispute Lawnstarter’s finding that Houston is No. 1 in cockroaches and No. 3 in greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the by-product of geography and industry. We’re working on it. But Lawnstarter says we’re No. 1 in overall filth and I ain’t buying it.

The five dirtiest cities in America, according to Lawnstarter, are:

  1. Houston
  2. Newark
  3. San Bernadino
  4. Detroit
  5. Jersey City

The cleanest city, or more to the point, the least dirty city is Virginia Beach, Virginia. Other spotless towns include Des Moines, Iowa and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

I don’t like to criticize other cities, but I once stepped in New Orleans and had to wipe my shoes. Chicago wasn’t exactly Tidy Town, either.

How Houston can clean up its act

I’m not saying that Houston is squeaky clean, either. There are some habits and things we need to clean up. They’re little things, but little things mean a lot. Here’s my top-5 list:

  1. Who are these deranged psychopaths who pick up their dog’s poop, then leave the plastic bag on the sidewalk or neighbors’ lawns? It’s not just unsanitary, it’s disgusting. And unlawful.
  2. How about people who put their garbage on the curb too early and then leave the empty trash bins out there for days after it’s collected? And thanks for putting your garbage out on holidays when you know it won’t be picked up. Merry Christmas. Makes the street look like a garbage dump for out-of-town relatives.
  3. I’m tempted to speed up and yell at drivers who throw cigarette butts out their window on I-10. But I don’t. I’m chicken.
  4. Is it too difficult or a physical hardship to return shopping carts to the parking lot corral?
  5. We build bike lanes to encourage a healthful habit like riding a bicycle, and then we allow them to become trash heaps. Here’s a million dollar idea: open “Fix-a-Flat” stations every 100 feet next to the bike lanes on Westpark.

Bonus: This one is close to home: raw onions on the ground in fast food parking lots.

I’m told that the No. 1 thing fast food workers have to sweep up at night is raw onions. People take off the onions and throw them out the window before driving away. I completely understand. I hate raw onions, too.

And yet, I love breaded and fried onion rings. I guess that’s what makes me such an interesting person. (Editors' note: Way to peel back the onion on that one, Ken.)