What will $23.5 million buy you these days?

Try the highest-end new-home community in Wake County, N.C.  with 323 single-family lots once worthy of $4 million spec homes, a Tom Fazio-designed golf course with a $5 million pro shop, a 13,000-square-foot family activity clubhouse, and walking trails.
Toll Brothers recently snapped up the property, called Hasentree, from SunTrust Banks of Atlanta, which had bought it at a foreclosure auction a year ago for $32 million. That was even $6 million less than the principals of Hasentree paid for the land when it was raw, devoid of roads, the golf course, or any infrastructure, in 2005.

The development, appraised for tax purposes at $76.4 million, is a perfect case study for what has happened to high-end developments that were unveiled as the market was peaking and beginning to plunge.

“That development is the high of the high end,” said Tom Anhut, Toll Brothers’ Raleigh division president. “The previous developers were some of the best in the market.”

But those developers also seriously missed their timing with the new community. The Raleigh market held up longer than the rest of the country, but when it started to fall in 2008, it fell fast.
The original developers started selling lots to custom builders in 2006. At the time, there was a flurry of sales, 39 in the first month and a total of 66 lots within a few months, then sales began to fall off, though there was another bit of a flurry when the golf course debuted in 2007, Anhut said. Developers expected million-dollar homes on most of the 500 lots.
“They swung for the fence on this one,” said Anhut. “Unfortunately the fence got moved. When the market slowed down, the type of buyers they were counting on and that demographic” just stopped buying.

Plus, there might not have been that as many buyers with that kind of wealth in the Raleigh area as they thought. “The market was not that deep,” said Anhut. “It was a push then, and it certainly is now.”

At the peak of its market in 2007, the average existing home sales price in Raleigh was $207,000. It’s now $175,000, according to John Burns Real Estate Consulting.

The area’s high-income job sectors, which had been growing by more than 6,000 jobs in 2006 and 2007, started losing jobs in 2008 and lost 3,300 jobs  last year, John Burns’ reports said.

Toll Brothers, which has been seriously searching for low-cost land for high-end houses, bought the Hasentree land quickly. “It’s the shortest due diligence I have ever been involved with,” said Anhut. Yet there are no fears about the community’s worth.
“It’s a very special place,” Anhut added. And, despite the financial problems, it has been kept in good shape. The golf course, for instance, is now rated 30th in the state.
Because the sale occurred fast, Toll Brothers is in the process of deciding price points, development schedules, product types, and other plans for the property. Only about a third of the lots Toll bought are improved. The rest are raw.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Anhut said. “We know we’ve got something very special here, so now we need to come out of the ground with something that is appropriate for it.” 
Teresa Burney is a senior editor for BUILDER and BIG BUILDER magazines.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Raleigh, NC, Atlanta, GA.