Loblolly pines still tower above the gently rolling, wooded land you find some 30 miles north and west of Houston. After years of timbering, though, far more populous young pine trees shoot up amid hardwoods—oaks, gums, and clusters of dogwoods that catch your eye in some sunlit glen, and etch their beauty into your memory of the topography. Unpaved timber trails snake through through the woods and wetlands of Woodard Ranch, in southwest Montgomery County, about 12 miles north and west of Interstate 45. Even a Ford Expedition can get stuck in a bog on those timber roads. In fact, it happened to Roger Galatas a month or so ago, as he gave an executive tour of the 6,634-acre ranch to a party interested in bidding to buy it for development. As the car heaved back-and-forth in the muddy rut, the chances for a deal suddenly spun from slim to none.

“We thought we were going to have to walk out,” quips Galatas, who made his name in Houston and beyond guiding The Woodlands master planned community (MPC) from uncertain days in the 1970s to the stature it enjoys today as a 75,000-resident, 35,000-job, 28,000-acre, eight-village role model for how successful an MPC can be. “Fortunately, we extricated ourselves. I don't know if it had any bearing on it, but that particular buyer elected not to move ahead with a deal. If you've got a choice, don't get stuck.”

Galatas, who's helping owner Larry Woodard sell the ranch, has hosted about a dozen such tours recently. He's courting local and out-of-town community developers, big public and private home builders active in the Houston market, and pure-play financial interests, as they check out the big tract in one of the nation's hottest single counties for growth, a stone's throw from The Woodlands, where some 40 local, regional, and national builders sell 1,200 homes a year.

“I believe we will align the property with a qualified developer or builder-developer with in the next 12 months,” Galatas says. “Within two years, you could have housing on the ground.”

“It's not a question of if, but when,” affirms Mike Inselmann, president of market research consultancy MetroStudy, an expert on Houston. “Roger knows how to create a community. The challenge is when would be the right time to buy. If you're a builder, you don't want to get in there before you can start selling houses.”

SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR Hence, Woodard's chicken-and-egg quandary of location and timing. Will a buyer “steal” the land at a low-end market range of $4,500 to $5,000 an acre? Or could this prize, so close to The Woodlands, which itself is entering a wind-down in residential building in the next three to five years, fetch an amount like high-end prices of recent deals in the hot corridors of the Houston market of $20,000 an acre?

Until farm-to-market roads that serve as access to the land today get widened to four lanes, production home communities would simply be too far, time-wise, from jobs and daily conveniences. By the same token, until there are rooftops, and residents clamoring elected officials for highway improvements, state and county governments may tarry years before they budget that kind of funding to widen the roads.

Galatas's confidence that Woodard's parcel will find a taker or three—at market price for prime MPC ground—in the next few months, comes not merely because Houston has delivered in excess of 45,000 new-home sales annually for the past several years, and not merely because Montgomery County is currently Houston's hottest market for new-home sales, and one of the top five counties in Texas. Nor does his optimism spring from a conviction that big builders will keep indiscriminately buying up every parcel in sight to restock their pipeline of lots as they close on half-million homes a year.

Mostly, he believes that MPC offspring of The Woodlands are now due for development. He also feels he can market a place for what it can be tomorrow, versus what it is today. Any less sure of his timing and he might recommend that the owner hang onto the piece another five years, letting the Houston market, and particularly its road system, come to him. But Galatas is convinced the time to sell is now. His reasons for an asking price upwards of $12,000 to $15,000 per acre, while they make sense, include intangibles as much as they draw on cold hard cash value of today's legal tender.

No single tract for sale today can nearly typify hundreds of thousands of lots, mostly in the top 75 new-home growth markets, developers and builders will take down this year—50, 100, 250 at a time—as they replenish owned and optioned inventories that total in the millions, and, on aggregate, average six or seven years' supply of land under builders' control. However, the home building market has begun sending signals of a correction from unsustainable growth levels during the next two years. Developers and home builders may be a more than a little averse to intangibles and escalators than they might have been 24 months ago. Money from investors, private or public, is less patient as risks mount.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Houston, TX.