MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In Miami, there are signs of restored confidence in real estate. For months, tens of thousands of new empty condo units have served as a daily reminder of the real estate bust.
But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, prices in Miami have dropped and condos are starting to sell.
GREG ALLEN: If you've visited Miami recently you've seen the new additions to the city skyline. They have distinctive names: Marina Blue, Icon, Epic Miami. There's also dramatic architecture inside and out.
(Soundbite of a waterfall)
ALLEN: At one newly completed condo tower, Brickell on the River, a small waterfall cascades down the wall in the lobby. This is where I met Peter Zalewski. He's a real estate broker and consultant who runs a business called Condo Vultures. Last year the Miami condo market was just about dead. Thousands of new units were being delivered, but buyers were nowhere to be found. But now...
Mr. PETER ZALEWSKI (Managing Principal, Condo Vultures): It's really been a crazy, hectic time in South Florida. It sort of reminds you of 2005 all over again.
ALLEN: 2005, as in the height of the boom when people were lining up to pay top dollar for condos that were years away from completion. Now, like then, many investors are looking to get a piece of Miami real estate. The difference is that now they're looking to get it on the cheap.
The upswing in sales began earlier this year with this twin tower development, Brickell on the River. Condos here had been priced around $400 per square foot - and they were sitting. But when prices were cut in half to about $200 a square foot, it quickly sold out. Zalewski says other condo projects followed suit and the market was reborn.
Mr. ZALEWSKI: So, at $200 a square foot, as soon as a building hits that magic price number - you'll see a building burn out in downtown Miami within six to eight weeks. And these are all cash buyers, primarily foreign nationals.
ALLEN: It's a price that's attracted buyers like Frank Kanayet, chairman of an energy company in Colombia. Kanayet recently invested in 10 condos at Brickell on the River. He says he expects to hold them several months before selling at a profit, perhaps to other buyers from Latin America.
Mr. FRANK KANAYET (Investor): Most of the people in Latin America, Miami is just like their second home. This is like a word of the mouth situation - you buy, you tell a friend, a friend tells another friend. So, pretty sure they will go out quite quickly.
ALLEN: A decade ago, officials in Miami welcomed nearly every new condo project that was proposed - a strategy aimed at bringing people downtown and improving the tax base. But now there's little question that Miami built too many condos too quickly. The result, says Rodrigo Nino, president of Prodigy International, a real estate company, is an overbuilt market full of bargains.
Mr. RODRIGO NINO (President, Prodigy International): You can literally buy a unit, you know, in Miami for less than you can buy a unit in Caracas or in Bogota. So, that's really enticing, you know, for a lot of internationals particularly from Latin America. Which is a huge market, you know, for Miami.
ALLEN: But although prices are good and buyers are back, there's still something missing in the Miami condo market - and that's financing. Last year, as the housing collapse continued to worsen, mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac rewrote lending guidelines in a way that essentially blacklisted the entire Miami condo market.
Since then, Fannie and Freddie have relaxed their guidelines. But Peter Zalewski of Condo Vultures says financing is still very hard to come by, and that's hurting first-time homebuyers and others looking to move to downtown Miami.
Mr. ZALEWSKI: They were rejecting most of these applications 'cause many lenders do not want to get involved with financing a condominium in greater downtown Miami where the inventory has tripled within seven years.
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Mr. ALICIA CERVERA LAMADRID (CEO, Cervera Realty): This is recycling area. Here's what I want you to look at, which is...
ALLEN: This is one of the newest and most opulent of the new Miami condo projects. It's called Icon Brickell. Real estate broker Alicia Cervera Lamadrid shows me the spa, an open and airy space she calls: the water living room.
Ms. LAMADRID: You have three plunge pools and the reflecting pool. They have different oils in them so that - to enhance moods. And two are warm. One is cold.
ALLEN: The developer here, The Related Group, has also recently reduced prices, although not to the fire-sale levels seen in some other condos. One thing they do have, though, is financing. Banks involved in building the project have agreed to offer buyers short-term, five-year mortgages. Ken Smuts, a vice president with Related, says buyers are looking for value. And he thinks some buyers are looking not for a Chevy, but a Cadillac.
Mr. KEN SMUTS (Vice President, Related): We have sub-zero refrigerators. We have a Hansgrohe plumbing fixtures. We have Wolf ranges. So, when you're buying a unit here, it's significantly different and of greater value than something else down Brickell Avenue.
ALLEN: In Miami there is still a substantial inventory of unsold units — nearly 9,000, according to one estimate. Prices, though, have begun to rise and that's enough encouragement for at least one developer, who plans to break ground on a brand new 35-story condo tower in downtown Miami later this year.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.