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OK. We keep hearing more signs the housing market is improving and this next story is really one of the most remarkable signs yet. This week, the national association of realtors reported sales of existing homes were up more than nine percent in January, compared to the previous year. A lot of people are looking to buy. The trade group also says a seller's market is developing and that is especially true in the place we're going next, Miami, Florida.
Seven years ago, Miami had a big surge in condo construction and then it all came crashing down during the financial crisis. But now, in Miami, most of those once empty condos are occupied. And as NPR's Greg Allen reports, new towers are once again reshaping the city's skyline.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: There are few people who watch Miami's condo market more closely than Peter Zalewski. He's a real estate consultant with Condo Vultures and he's excited.
PETER ZALEWSKI: Overall, in downtown Miami right now, there's about 7,000 units planned and about 19 towers. Ultimately, there will probably be about 25 to 30 towers, probably close to 12,000 units that are all going to be announced or are in the planning stages.
ALLEN: Once again, much of downtown Miami is filled with construction equipment and workers. Chris Gandolfo(ph) is the project manager for one of the big mixed use developments underway, a project called Brickell CityCentre.
CHRIS GANDOLFO: What we're overlooking is the three blocks. We'll have a residential tower, retail and a general office building.
ALLEN: That's just on one block. There will also be a second residential condo tower and nearby, cranes are already at work raising two other residential projects. It's a remarkable comeback for developers and the construction industry in Miami; and according to Stephen Owens, there's a simple explanation.
STEPHEN OWENS: Miami never lost its international appeal.
ALLEN: Owens is the president of Swire, the developer building the CityCentre project. Like most developers, Swire got some bruises during the last condo crash. When the music stopped in 2008, there were 22,000 residential units for sale in Miami, an oversupply, Owens says, that many thought would last for decades.
OWENS: And here we are, there are about 1,200 units of that original 22,000 that remain unsold. So, that says so much about the market.
ALLEN: It's a market largely made up of foreign buyers, Latin Americans, Europeans, Russians, looking for a second home or an investment. When the market collapsed, those foreign buyers, mostly paying cash, snapped up many of the Miami condos at cut-rate prices. With foreign buyers in mind, developers in South Florida are now using a new financing model. They're requiring customers to put down 50 percent or more of the total cost before construction begins.
It's the way residential projects have long been financed in Latin America, and with banks leery about financing new condos, it's now become the norm in Miami. It's one of the ways, Owen says, this condo boom in Miami is different from the last one.
OWENS: It does, very much, take out the speculator. Even if there's a speculator out there, he's not going to tie up very many units at that level.
ALLEN: With more money in the game, it's believed buyers will be less likely to walk away if the market turns down. With so many well-heeled foreign buyers ready to finance new condo projects throughout South Florida, developers are, once again, selling luxury living.
MICHAEL INTERNOSCIA: This is an (unintelligible). It's imported Italian.
ALLEN: Michael Internoscia is a sales director at another new project, Marina Palms in North Miami Beach. He's talking about the sleek cabinetry used in the bathrooms and kitchens on display in the projects model unit.
INTERNOSCIA: And every detail was thought of when we designed the kitchens, knowing what people would want, knowing what upscale would be, kind of what a five-star residence should look like.
ALLEN: Aiming at an even more exclusive market, some developers are selling ultra-luxury, projects with car elevators and private pools on each terrace, priced in the tens of millions. For now, it's a market made up almost entirely of international buyers. For domestic buyers, used to traditional home financing, requiring a 50 to 80 percent down payment is a hard pill to swallow.
But Anthony Burns, one of the developers of Marina Palms, says he believes it's only a matter of time before this new boom convinces banks it may be safe to dip a toe back into Miami's condo market.
ANTHONY BURNS: You know, the banks are obviously - they've been licking their wounds for a long time from the crash that happened down here in Miami. But nothing will get them back in the market faster than seeing the success stories of these first projects that are going up.
ALLEN: If banks come back with financing and domestic buyers reenter the market, Miami's new condo rush could expand to all of Florida. Developers say this boom is more sustainable than the last one, with better financial safeguards. But Burns says there's something else that developers know: It's better to get in at the beginning of the boom than just before the bust. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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