Glut reaction: NYC’s unsold condo inventory is finally receding

A long-awaited auspicious sign has developers hopeful for a market rebound

New York Issue /
Sep.September 20, 2021 07:30 AM

After years of drowning in unsold inventory, New York City’s condo developers reached perhaps their most desperate hour this spring, a year into a pandemic that had their prime buyers fleeing the city. Discounts abounded as builders rushed to fill units, repay lenders and avoid foreclosure.

Buyers pounced on the concessions. When the dust settled, the second quarter had seen more Manhattan condo sales close than any quarter since 2015, reducing overall inventory, according to appraisal firm Miller Samuel. Citywide, new development sales soared to record highs in April and again in May, according to data from Marketproof.

The number of new development condominiums on the market is finally starting to fall, reversing a six-year trend, but analysts say sellers eager to seize back the market will need to be patient.

Non-shadow condo listings in Manhattan were 4.4 percent lower in the second quarter of the year than in the same period of 2019, according to Miller Samuel.

“[The year] isn’t finished, and we haven’t had the second sales bump of the fall,” said Miller Samuel CEO Jonathan Miller. “2021 is looking like it’s going to be the first year since 2015 where we’re seeing the number of years to sell out on the decline.”

An August report by Brown Harris Stevens Development Marketing, which factored in shadow listings, found that new development listings in the second quarter fell 11.5 percent from 2019.

“We are seeing active inventory decline, in part because the high end of the market — whether it’s a new development or a resale — has seen a more active market in 2021,” Miller said.

It’s been years since Manhattan’s new development market was humming. In 2013, frenzied buyers were purchasing homes with nothing more than floor plans to go on, driving up prices and coaxing more developers into the space. By 2015, sales were so brisk that the existing supply of new development condo units would have sold in 2.3 years, a third faster than the usual 3.5, Miller said.

Stubborn surplus

Then, everything changed.

With a large batch of units in the pipeline, more units were being added than sold, said Garrett Derderian, director of market intelligence at Serhant. The brokerage says 14,672 units were brought onto the market between 2015 and 2017. Lenders saw the glut developing and got cold feet.

“It became increasingly difficult for developers to finance condominiums,” said Kenneth Horn, president of Alchemy Properties, a Manhattan-based condo developer and investor.

Lenders and equity providers argued that there were too many condos on the market and at unattainable prices, Horn said.

Developers began to respond with concessions, but just as they did, the luxury sector suffered several blows, including a strengthening U.S. dollar that reduced foreigners’ purchasing power and state lawmakers’ passage of a 4.15 percent mansion tax. Buyers pulled back even more in the second half of 2019, forcing sellers to consider uncomfortable decisions such as bulk sales.

“By the end of 2019, we started to see a slight turnaround in the market through January 2020,” Derderian said. “We forecasted 2020 initially to be a strong year, but of course with Covid that changed.”

The perpetual struggles of the past few years might have done some good. Sellers were forced to become less aspirational with their pricing, presenting buyers with offers that led to sales picking up speed.

Turning point

In May, the Financial District had the most unsold units of any neighborhood in the city. Since then, sales at buildings such as 130 William Street, 25 Park Row and the Broad Exchange Building — coupled with a lack of new supply — have eroded the number of unsold units by 10 percent, according to Marketproof.

That isn’t to say the condo glut is gone. The neighborhood still has more than 1,300 units waiting to be sold. Many of them have yet to be listed.

But the surplus has shrunk. Unsold inventory fell 2.5 percent across New York City over the past year, according to Marketproof. In Manhattan, it fell 2 percent, with the number of available units declining in two of the past four quarters. The second quarter saw fewer project sales launch while the pace of sales remained relatively strong, Marketproof said.

Last year, the time it would take to sell out all new development condos in Manhattan peaked at 8.7 years, Miller said. Thanks to an uptick in sales, it’s now at 7.2 years — still the second-slowest pace he’s tracked since sales peaked in 2014, he added.

On the bright side, if the trend continues, that number could fall to six years by 2022, Miller said.

“Over the next year or two, we’ll see sales continue to be relatively robust compared to previous years, assuming rates stay where they are and Covid is brought under control,” Miller said.

Easing of travel bans is expected to bring more international demand, and discounting and negotiability are sure to decline, he added.

When it comes to unsold units, Manhattan sits between two of its neighbors. In Brooklyn, the number of unsold units dropped 13 percent over the past year and listings have fallen for four consecutive quarters, according to Marketproof.

Queens, on the other hand, saw inventory increase by 10 percent, driven by larger buildings launching sales in the first half of this year. At 88-08 Justice Avenue, 184 units were listed in the first quarter, and 41-62 Bowne Street listed 95 in the second.

Horn has seen this happen repeatedly over the course of his 30-year career. His strategy: develop countercyclically.

Horn credits some of his most successful buildings to this strategy, and with inventory starting to fall, he’s betting that his decision not to lay low at the height of the glut will make 378 West End Avenue, his new luxury development on the Upper West Side, another win.

“I see it every three years, every four years, it’s the same thing. There’s an oversupply, and the participants and the lenders scale back,” Horn said. “That inventory gets eaten away, and lo and behold there’s a scarcity of units in the marketplace because no one developed at the correct time.” 

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