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Florida Tops Sales and Houston Leads Regions in Top-Selling Master-Planned Communities

 
 
 

 
 

With more than 3,000 property sales in 2023, The Villages outdueled fellow Florida community Lakewood Ranch for the No. 1 spot in RCLCO’s ranking of master-planned communities.

Photo: Getty Images


Karl Pischke, Principal, RCLCO

RCLCO Real Estate Consulting this month released its annual report on the top 50 master-planned communities in the United States, ranked by sales the previous calendar year. Once again, a certain famous Florida community was No. 1, just as it has been for many of the 30 years the ranking has been published.

“The Villages, an active adult community in Central Florida, is once again the top-selling community in the country with 3,029 sales,” said RCLCO, originally named Robert Charles Lesser & Co., LLC. “Sarasota, Florida’s Lakewood Ranch claims the top spot among all-ages communities, with 2,187 sales, representing an 18% increase and the second-best sales year in the history of the community. Sunterra, a Land Tejas/Starwood Land community in Katy, Texas, earned the third-place rank with 1,293 sales, a 63% increase over 2022.

The ranking is based on total new home sales, net of cancellations, as reported by each individual master-planned community (MPC).

“Analysis of MPC sales by five-year increment shows that the past several years of community development has been robust by historical standards,” says the RCLCO report. “With over 66,000 sales over the past five years, Top MPCs have not performed this well since before Great Financial Crisis of the Mid 2000s.” The top seller in the organization’s 2005 report also was The Villages.

Graph courtesy of RCLCO

“Due in part to Sunterra’s performance, along with 11 other communities ranked within the Top 50,” the report explains, “the Houston MSA is once again the top-selling metro area in the country with nearly 8,300 sales representing 23% of sales among ranked communities.” In fact, Katy was home to three of the top 50, the others being No. 14 Tamarron and No. 47 Elyson. Among the other MPCs in metro Houston are Caldwell Ranch and Meridiana in Rosharon, on the far southern outskirts of the region; Jordan Ranch in Fulshear; Baytown Crossings in Baytown; and Breckenridge Forest in Spring, among others.

The Houston metro area’s MPCs account for more than half of the 21 Texas MPCs in the top 50. Eight MPCs in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro accounted for most of the balance as well as 4,778 sales of their own (13% of sales across all top 50). Those two Texas metro areas — ranked among the fastest growing in the nation by the U.S. Census Bureau and Nos. 2 and 3 in Site Selection’s annual ranking of Top Metros by number of company facility project investments — accounted for 36% of all sales across the top 50 in the RCLCO ranking.


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“Master-planned communities, as a key segment of the broader U.S. housing market, saw an uptick in new home sales following the lows of 2022, in part buoyed by a lack of resale inventory and the ability for homebuilders to offer incentives to attract homebuyers,” said Karl Pischke, an Orlando-based principal at RCLCO. “The second half of the year saw almost 15% fewer homes sold among top-ranked MPCs than those ranked in RCLCO’s Mid-Year report, due to a number of factors that likely included somewhat lower overall employment growth in the latter part of the year, mortgage rates peaking at 7.8% in October and slower economic growth in the fourth quarter.”

Top MPCs and Corporate Attraction

Florida, with 40% of sales among the entire top 50, tallied 16 MPCs in the ranking, meaning those two Sunbelt states account for three-quarters of the entire list, where only seven states are represented. South Carolina and California each claim four ranked communities. Nevada is host to three. Colorado and Arizona host one top MPC apiece.

I asked Pischke how many total MPCs his team evaluated before winnowing out the top 50 and how those communities are discovered and tracked.

“The reality is there is not a one-stop shop,” he says, though the closest thing to that is RCLCO’s own database, compiled over the past 30 years from consulting and survey work. For many years the ranking was a top 10 or top 25, with the jump to top 50 occurring around seven years ago because of the cumulative data RCLCO had compiled through its outreach to developers, capital providers and others. Today the total pool of reporting MPCs hovers between 200 and 300, he says, from 19 states. Some get added by virtue of RCLCO’s consulting work, some get removed as they approach build-out. (The Woodlands, another Houston-area MPC that was due to reach build-out in 2022, is a case in point. Once a consistently high-ranked community, it’s now not included in the rankings. But its name is now officially part of the Census Bureau’s Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land MSA.)


What Qualifies as a Master-Planned Community?

“True MPCs are developed from a comprehensive plan by a master developer, and incorporate a variety of housing types, sizes and prices, with shared common space, amenities and a vital public realm,” says RCLCO. “The best examples of MPCs are developed with a strong vision and comprehensive plan that guide development and unify the community through distinctive signage, wayfinding, entry features, landscaping and architectural/design standards. Beyond the built environment, MPCs differentiate themselves from typical suburban subdivisions in that they provide a means for interaction among neighbors in the sense of the word ‘community.’ They foster an environment within which generations can live better in terms of housing and the community environment, and many offer educational opportunities, neighborhood shopping and services, and even employment centers to complement the residential neighborhoods.”


Quality of life for employees was ranked the No. 4 most important location factor in Site Selection’s recently published annual survey of site selection consultants, behind incentives, workforce and the No. 1 factor of state and local tax policy. How relevant might a ranking of master-planned communities be for companies looking to site offices and headquarters? Pischke says he researched that exact question a few years ago in studying the premium associated with suburban mixed-use development.

“We dug into exactly what you’re noting — the trend of employers and companies finding tremendous value in being located in suburban areas that have a mix of uses within MPC environments but also walkable to employment and jobs, retail, in both neighborhoods and lifestyle destinations. A lot of companies are looking at these master plans and thinking about jobs and office space. Substantial premiums are involved in those suburban mixed-use town centers. A lot of MPCs are capitalizing on that.

“When you look at some of the best like Lakewood Ranch, it’s become an employment core,” Pischke continues. That Florida community, like RCLCO’s ranking, will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. “With nine new residential villages and neighborhoods planned for the coming year, 2023 represented the second-best sales year in the community’s history,” the report notes.

With 1,103 sales, Summerlin in Las Vegas ranked No. 4 in the RCLCO list. The Howard Hughes Holdings Inc. MPC is in its 34th year of development.

Photo courtesy of Howard Hughes Coompany, LLC

“With the village centers located within it and the amount of working households that have located to Lakewood Ranch, it kind of shifts what one might have thought about the Sarasota region a few years ago as a retirement destination,” Pischke says. “Lakewood has flipped that on its head.” (Site Selection’s Ron Starner has observed the changing dynamics in the region for some time, including in this 2019 piece about Sarasota County and in this March 2023 Online Insider about Clearwater and other strong Florida HQ candidate cities.)

Employment is part of the picture in Charleston too. The RCLCO report quotes Cassie Cataline, marketing director for the Nexton community in that region, who says “Our focus on segmentation has been a crucial part of achieving sales success, in a location with strong employment and [a] climate that attracts retirees. Establishing a walkable community with vibrant retail and amenity programming has helped foster a lifestyle that buyers continue to be attracted to.”

As in industrial development, one of the governors on growth is availability of large parcels of land that can be assembled and entitled as a true master-planned community. Another important factor? Financing. “About 90% of MPCs are usually in some form of bond financing,” Pischke says. “Where the MPCs are doing so well and where you’re seeing the most sales is places like Florida, which has both availability of large land and the use of public financing in CDDs [community development districts], or in Texas where they have municipal utility districts. That does play a role in developers being able to finance the infrastructure and deliver the project.” — Adam Bruns


 

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