RCLCO’s annual list highlights the building blocks of housing's new normal.

10 Best-Selling Master-Planned Communities

RCLCO’s annual list highlights the building blocks of housing's new normal.

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    Courtesy Newland Communities

    Cinco Ranch
    Houston
    Newland Communities
    2009 net sales: 887
    What do home shoppers consider critical in a master-planned community? “Good schools” topped buyers’ wish lists in a recent RCLCO survey of home buyers, with 83% of participants rating them as important. That partly explains Cinco Ranch’s rise to the number-one spot among the nation’s leading MPCs. The 7,600-acre community saw 15 out of 16 schools in its independent school district receive an exemplary rating from the Texas Education Agency in 2010, meaning that 90% or more of students meet or exceed state standards. In addition, two of its high schools made the grade in the “America’s Best High Schools” list issued by Newsweek in 2010.

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    Courtesy The Woodlands

    The Woodlands
    Houston
    The Woodlands Development Co.
    2009 net sales: 633
    Conceived in the 1970s before environmentalism was cool, The Woodlands has, for decades, remained steadfast in its vision to embrace nature and offer an alternative to sprawl. Now 35 years old, the venerable master plan includes 116 forested parks and 185 miles of hiking and biking trails on nearly 8,000 acres of protected green space--stretches of which are adorned with public art, pavilions, playgrounds, waterways, wildflower meadows, and butterfly habitats. Its ninth village, Creekside Park, includes a 1,700-acre nature preserve that earned The Woodlands Development Co. a corporate conservation leadership award from the Nature Conservancy of Texas.

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    Mountain’s Edge
    Las Vegas
    Focus Property Group
    2009 net sales: 596
    Located near the Red Rock National Conservation Area, Mountain’s Edge was the first master-planned community in Southern Nevada to embrace drought tolerant landscaping from its inception. Paseos wind through the 3,500-acre community, connecting its neighborhoods to recreation areas and Exploration Park, an 80-acre park with volleyball courts, horseshoe pits, picnic areas, and an amphitheater for concerts and other live performances. Another big draw for this desert hot spot: it’s close to the Las Vegas strip.

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    Courtesy Newland Communities

    Telfair
    Houston
    Newland Communities
    2009 net sales: 450
    Bucking the current trend toward smaller houses, this 2,018-acre community is comprised entirely of large-lot single-family homes (at a maximum of four units to the acre), with a variety of plan options and price points within those size parameters. The model has been particularly successful in attracting immigrant families (more than half of residents are of Indian or Asian descent) setting up multigenerational households. The community fabric is strengthened by Telfair Life, a not-for-profit that organizes community events, educational activities, scholarships, arts and culture programming, environmental conservation, health and wellness programs, volunteerism, and charitable giving. The nonprofit is funded by enhancement fees that are paid initially by builders upon new construction. Fees are equal to .25% of the sales price of the home, with a deed covenant that requires home sellers to pay in an additional .25% at resale closing.

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    Providence
    Las Vegas
    Focus Property Group
    2009 net sales: 388
    This 1,200-acre community offers wide boulevards lined with mature shade trees, miles of walking trails, ballparks, and open spaces.  But it also offers the trappings of big city life (it’s minutes from the heart of Las Vegas) and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a chance to savor the wilderness.  The community is just a few miles from the splendor of Mt. Charleston and Kyle Canyon.

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    Courtesy Kennecott Land

    Daybreak
    Salt Lake City
    Kennecott Land
    2009 net sales: 375
    Designed in accordance with a “five-minute rule,” Daybreak’s land plan places all homes within close walking distance of parks, trails, schools, village centers, and restaurants. More than 70% of school-aged kids here either walk or ride their bikes to school, and commuters will have access to light-rail service starting in spring 2011. Taking sustainability to heart, the developer has responded to market conditions with small, Energy Star-rated homes incorporating renewable energy sources (solar or wind power), water-conserving features, and an advanced stormwater retention and re-infiltration system. Builders recycle more than 75% of construction waste, and several of the community’s civic and commercial buildings are LEED-certified. Large-lot single-family sales represented only 13% of Daybreak’s total home sales in 2009, while small lots accounted for 33%; townhomes and condos, 27%.

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    Rancho Sahuarita
    Rancho Sahuarita
    Tucson
    2009 net sales: 358
    This desert community is all about amenities--so much so that one resident in a recent ABC Nightline segment on recession-proof communities referred to life at Rancho Sahuarita as similar to “living on a cruise ship.” In addition to the largest private water park in Arizona, residents have access to a high-tech fitness center; dance, yoga, and aerobic studios; a billiards lounge; party space; tennis and basketball courts; a sports bar; mini-golf; kiddie train rides; a kids’ club and activity park; a community pool; a 15-acre lake park; and a “safari trail” featuring life-size bronze statues of elephants, giraffes, gorillas, and other exotic animals. Add to that fishing festivals, community yard sales, outdoor movies, and chili cook-offs, and the social calendar is always packed. The community also enjoys a stable employment base with plenty of government or similar jobs at the nearby Air Force base, with the border patrol, and Raytheon, a defense contractor.

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    Courtesy Del Webb

    Anthem at Merrill Ranch
    Pulte Homes & The Communities of Del Webb
    Phoenix
    2009 net sales: 294
    Anthem at Merrill Ranch is actually a side-by-side development venture offering fun for the whole family. Anthem Parkside is all about young families, offering a 43,000-square-foot community center and an on-site K-8 school, with 31 single and two-story home plans ranging from 1,483 to 4,071 square feet. Its sister community, Sun City Anthem, is an age-restricted active adult enclave of smaller homes from 1,099 to 2,849 square feet. Serving up what some retirees consider the ultimate in multigenerational bliss, The Del Webb neighborhoods allow grandparents to live within visiting distance of their grandkids, while still having space to call their own. Some residents love it so much that they frequently serve as Anthem "sales ambassadors," hosting tours, dinners, and golf outings for prospective buyers. The community offers a hospitality suite for visitors who want to stay overnight and give the neighborhood a test-drive.

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    Courtesy Sunbelt Holdings

    Vistancia
    Phoenix
    Shea Homes/Sunbelt Holdings
    2009 net sales: 283
    Many MPCs have found success in the downturn by diversifying their product offerings. This 7,100-acre master planned community includes three villages, each with its own distinct flavor. Family-friendly Vistancia Village is all about kids, while Blackstone Country Club offers estate homes in a quiet, resort-like golf setting. Trilogy, an age-restricted playground for active adults, earned a J.D. Power & Associates customer satisfaction award for its killer clubhouse, the 35,000 square-foot Kiva Club. The backbone of this sunny community is a four-mile “Discovery Trail” linking neighborhoods and amenities, and more than 1,000 acres of open space.  Recent energy-efficiency retrofits in landscape lighting resulted in a 31% cost savings for Vistancia in just six months.

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    Sienna Plantation
    Houston
    The Johnson Development Corp.
    2009 net sales: 280
    Everyone loves a community with a rich history, and Sienna Plantation fits that bill. The land, which was first settled in 1824, was formerly home to a 6,500-acre sugar and cotton plantation. Now its pastoral neighborhoods have racked up more than 2,000 fans on Facebook--suggesting why many developers now devote as much as 95% of their marketing budgets to Internet strategies, according to RCLCO research.  Fueling the buzz, the community website isn't shy about touting the area's better-than-average employment stats. Fort Bend, Texas stands as one of the nation’s leading employment markets, with a strong and growing job base in the energy and healthcare sectors.

Let there be no doubt that master-planned communities took a direct hit in the downturn. 

Even in the nation’s best-selling communities, sales plummeted from a collective 20,000-plus homes at the peak in 2005 to fewer than 5,000 in 2009, according to the Washington, D.C.-based real estate advisory firm RCLCO, which tracks master-planned communities' performance on a year-over-year basis through an annual survey of more than 400 developments. Total net sales continued to fall from 2008 to 2009 even in the healthiest communities, many of which saw their sales volume decline by between 16% and 32%, depending on the development.

But performance is relative, and success is measured a bit differently in these lean times. Cinco Ranch, the Newland Communities development outside of Houston, was this year’s top performer with 887 total net home sales in 2009, followed by The Woodlands, also in Houston, which came in second with 633 net sales for the year.

In fact, four Houston communities made this year’s top 10--a reflection, in part, that the oil town's economy has fared better than most in the downturn. "All four Houston communities also happen to be located in what are now considered infill locations," notes Gadi Kaufmann, CEO and managing director at RCLCO. "Three are along the energy corridor to the south and west, and The Woodlands is its own employment corridor. There is a trend reemerging of people wanting to move back closer to jobs and services, rather than choosing exurban bedroom communities that are devoid of these elements." 

Equity is another key factor, he adds. "In a down market, there's a flight to quality. As buyers have become concerned with the health of the market, there's a sense that master-planned communities may be a better investment."

All of the front-runners on this year's list are in Sun Belt states. Outside of Texas, other leaders include two communities in Las Vegas, two in Phoenix, one in Salt Lake City, and one Tucson. 

Absorption may not be what it once was, but the master-planned communities (MPCs) that are holding steady do share some other common attributes, according to Kaufmann. These developments tend to be established, well-known community brands offering a broad range of housing types, including smaller homes on smaller lots to meet current economic conditions. And they are apt to include a handful of lifestyle anchors that buyers consider vital, such as good schools, parks, walking trails, community pools, town centers, playgrounds, sports, and other organized activities. While no community on this year's list owes its success to a single overriding factor, these top-selling developments do tend to share several of these attributes.

This year's survey also indicated some good news about the long-hoped-for housing recovery. Roughly 60% of the RCLCO survey's respondents expected home sales to increase moderately in 2010, and 70% anticipated that prices would rebound and begin to creep back up by year’s end.

What's the long-term prognosis for MPCs? "It may take years before we see a lot of new entries into the marketplace because the economics are not going to be conducive to starting a new community until existing inventory is sold and prices rise," Kaufmann says.  And when new plans finally hit the starting block, they are unlikely to be developed in the same way. 

"I think the size of projects will go down," he predicts. "You won't be seeing communities of 20,000 to 40,000 acres, or even 20,000 to 40,000 units. Developers will be starting with smaller increments in five-year phases.  They will want to do things in bite-size portions rather than making a huge investment and roads and sewers with no guarantee that they will end up with the rooftops to support it. We will see downsizing and more incremental types of development models." 

Jenny Sullivan is a senior editor covering architecture, design, and community planning for BUILDER.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Houston, TX, Phoenix, AZ, Tucson, AZ, Las Vegas, NV, Salt Lake City, UT.