Vegas Condos Go Cold

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Now that several high rollers in the Las Vegas condo-hotel game, with properties linked to the likes of Michael Jordan and Ivana Trump, are either folding or selling their holdings, a growing number of players are losing their taste for big bets on high-rise residential real estate development.

Over the past two years, as high-rise fever spread across town, prices for the luxury apartments ballooned, fetching as much as $500 to $1,000 a square foot—or up to $1.5 million for a one-bedroom— at the peak. Buyers, mostly interested in flipping them for quick profits, eagerly anted up five-figure down payments, while developers planned more than 70 luxury towers holding a total of about 43,000 units on or near the Strip and downtown. But the intense competition for the city's limited supply of contractors sent construction costs skyrocketing 30% last year, just as lending policies tightened, interest rates climbed and sales started to slow.

Currently, just 18 projects are under way, and nervous developers have called off three high-profile projects over the past seven months. A number of others, including one backed by a group including George Clooney, are being either revised or postponed. Experts now forecast that only a quarter to half of the six dozen originally proposed projects will ever be built. Brian Gordon, a principal at Applied Analysis, a real estate research firm, says the developers with experience building luxury high-rises, whose properties are located on or near the Strip and carry a strong and recognizable brand name— such as Donald Trump, Hard Rock and MGM Grand— are the ones playing winning hands in Vegas now.

Back east, the luxury condo markets that have had similarly explosive growth in Miami and New York, where high-end apartments can command from $2,000 to $4,000 a square foot, haven’t slumped yet. Still, experts say the abrupt reversal of fortune in the desert, where the mainstream residential real estate and hotel markets are still quite healthy, shows just how quickly the odds can change in even the most affluent markets if runaway speculation and overzealous development take hold. “It’s another case of irrational exuberance,” says John Restrepo, head of a Las Vegas real estate and economic consulting firm. “There is a market for high-rise condo hotels here; but it’s not as deep as people thought it was. The days of the two guys from the East Coast or Canada coming into town and promoting a condo development with a website and a dream are over.”