ST. PETERSBURG — Glance up at night at the four newest waterfront condo towers in downtown St. Petersburg and it's hard to believe: They are almost all sold out. For all the horror stories of Florida's real estate market it seems the gleaming high-rises are far from languishing.
Signature Place at 175 First St. S has just two units yet to sell for the first time, while 400 Beach has one. The tony Ovation at 180 Beach Drive NE, has 11 developer-owned units still on the market. Parkshore Plaza at 300 Beach Drive NE sold out a while ago.
The fact that 44 percent of the owners don't list their urban condos as their primary residence explains why the towers don't look more occupied.
"The uncertainty is gone. The uncertainty of what's going to happen at 400 Beach and what's going to happen at Signature is gone," said Tom Hallis, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate on Beach Drive, who reels off downtown sales, square footage and prices as easily as his Social Security number. "They are almost all sold out. It's incredible. … We're stabilized now."
There are a total of 47 units on the market, most of them resales, at Signature, Ovation, 400 Beach, Parkshore Plaza, Bayfront Tower, Vinoy Place, the Florenzia and the Cloisters.
"Once they dropped the prices, that really stimulated things," said Jean Schramm, a sales associate with Remax Action First in St. Petersburg, who recently represented several buyers of downtown condos. "These people who are buying now are getting a fantastic deal. They thought they could never afford to be on Beach Drive or downtown."
After foreclosing on 400 Beach, Wells Fargo cut prices on the remaining 18 units there by about 35 percent in February. Eight units sold within a few days. Almost all sold within two weeks. Then in March, 500 people crammed into a hotel ballroom for a live auction of Signature Place. Fifty-four units sold.
"That repriced the building. They went for market value," said Deborah C. Newman of Newman & Associates Real Estate and the broker of record at Signature Place. She continued selling at "auction prices" that were about $100 a square foot lower than Signature's original prices. In April, 26 condos sold, 14 went in May and the closings trickled through the summer until there are just two left.
Deals and profits
As the Times reported last week, Signature developer Joel Cantor said he still made a profit despite big price reductions along the way.
There were definitely deals to be had downtown this year.
"A lot of people who bought a few years ago are probably never going to get out what they put in," said Jack Bowman, a broker with Keller Williams Realty Gulf Coast and developer of the Cloisters, which went up on Beach Drive in 1999. "A lot of these were bought as investments and people are going to realize it will be difficult to hold on to them long enough to see the market coming back if you bought at the top of the market."
A Times analysis of Pinellas County Property Appraiser sales data found buyers at 400 Beach and Signature who bought when the buildings first opened paid significantly more than those who bought March through July of this year.
At 400 Beach, early buyers paid $432 per square foot compared to recent buyers who paid $301 per square foot. So a 2,000-square-foot condo would have sold for $864,000 in early 2008 compared to $602,000 in 2010.
Early buyers at Signature Place paid $356 per square foot compared to recent buyers who paid $248 per square foot. Again, a 2,000-square-foot condo would have sold for $712,000 in the summer of 2009, compared with $496,000 in 2010.
The average price per square foot at Parkshore Plaza has risen $1 to $296 from the summer of 2006 compared with sales in 2010. At Ovation, the average price per square foot went up $43 from the fall of 2009 compared to sales March through July.
"We have not adjusted (prices down) yet. I don't know that we will," said Sue Haddad, Ovation marketing director. The building at 180 Beach Drive NE has 45 units, with just two on each floor. Standard units range in price from $1.5 million to $2.2 million for 3,660 square feet. Penthouse units boast 5,400 interior square feet and 800 square feet of terraces.
All four sold out a while ago, so Ovation developer JMC Communities is combining two separate units on the 22nd floor into a single, 8,000-square-foot home with eight terraces. It's priced at $4.8 million.
"Customers who have large, single-family homes are ready to be free of all the upkeep but they don't want to compromise their space, their lifestyle, the privacy, the security, the location," Haddad said. "The penthouses, we can't get over the demand and popularity of them."
Signature Place has the widest range of spaces and sizes. The two developer units left on the market are a three-story, 4,177-square-foot penthouse priced at $1.4 million and a 1,630-square-foot home priced at $390,000.
Newman at Signature said she knows of at least two original buyers who have broken even when recently reselling their Signature condos because the developer offered them 25 percent off at their closing in hopes of keeping them from walking away from their contract like many others did.
Sold, but not occupied
The fact that there is no longer an oversupply of condos downtown is great news for developers, bankers and real estate associates. But if 40 percent to 50 percent of those sold units sit empty, that's not great news for downtown businesses.
"I think downtown has been making it from the people who live in the community rather than the people who live in the high-rises," Bowman said. "Beach Drive has an energy because the demographic of St. Petersburg has changed a great deal. It's a lot younger than it used to be."
Hallis said some out-of-town buyers he has sold to, whether in Tampa or New Hampshire, say they plan on leasing their condo a year or two and then retiring there. "They are not snowbirds or investors, but they are not ready to move yet and they wanted to get in on the good prices," he said.
Even with 53 percent of Signature Place owners listing a different mailing address, nine of them out of the country, Newman said the building seems lively.
"I know that the people in our building are very involved in the community. Some are working with the Dalí Museum doing a fundraiser," she said.
Signature allows owners to sublease their units three times in 12 months for a minimum of 30 days. Most other buildings have stricter policies that allow just one sublease a year for at least six months.
So with about 30 downtown condos on the resale market, is there a need for a new building to rise up?
"I don't think you will see anybody building condos in downtown St. Petersburg for quite a while," Bowman said. "I think that as we start to turn these things over we've got enough inventory to satisfy the demand for a long time."
Times computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or firstname.lastname@example.org.