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Suburban Lots, Land Sales Rise

by Chicago Agent

While the market for new homes isn’t necessarily improving, investors who buy land for suburban subdivisions might have different feelings. Sales of developed lots and raw land for residential development rose in 2010, a positive sign for the housing market.

According to Crain’s Chicago Real Estate Daily, more investors and builders are reportedly circling opportunities, aiming to position themselves for the next upswing in construction. However, this upswing could still be years away.

A total of 3,327 lots sold in the suburbs last year, almost twice the 1,727 lots that changed hands in 2009 and up from just 237 in 2008, according to RW Real Estate Advisors, an Oakbrook Terrace-based consulting firm.

Sales of raw land — property set aside for residential development — totaled 4,978 acres in 2010, up from 4,480 in 2009 and 182 in 2008, according to the firm, whose data covers a seven-county suburban region.

It seems that although home prices are still falling and local housing starts have decreased significantly, prices for suburban land may have bottomed out. Investors, anticipating a rebound, are snatching up lots and land on the cheap.

“There’s a lot of activity going on that the general (housing) market hasn’t seen,” Lance Ramella, a principal with RW Real Estate, told Crain’s. “But that’s coming.”

“In the last six months, every deal (for land) I’m looking at I’m going up against a number of competitors,” Karen Brunhofer, managing director for the residential investment arm of Deerfield-based Janko Group, told Crain’s. “There’s a lot more optimism today than we’ve had in the last three to four years,” she says. “People are staring to put their money back into the market.”

Much of that had to do with the fear that land prices had further to fall. But lot prices rose last year, with the average suburban lot selling for $22,197, up from $17,080 in 2009 but still well below $63,743 in 2008, according to RW Real Estate, which collects it data from local land brokers and other real estate professionals.

Unlike raw land, lots are improved sites that have sewer, water and road access and are simply waiting for a home to be built. At the market’s peak four or five years ago, some suburban lots were going for as much as $100,000, Ramella said.

Raw land, meanwhile, sold for an average price of $14,437 an acre last year, compared with $12,278 in 2009 and $30,278 in 2008, according to the data.

Many, if not most, of the sales involve developments begun at the tail end of the boom that ran into trouble as home sales cratered and builders struggled to pay off or refinance loans. Last July, Crain’s reported a joint venture including Irvine, Calif.-based developer SunCal acquired 552 lots in seven local projects started by Kimball Hill, the Rolling Meadows homebuilder that liquidated after filing for Chapter 11 protection in 2008.

In February, SunCal and its partner, El Segundo, Calif.-based Roanoke Group, agreed to buy a failed 47-acre residential development in Lake Bluff.

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