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Vertical Living

Living The Good Life

As a relatively young city--when compared to New York or Chicago--with lots of land, Houston traditionally marketed itself as a family city with green lawns and two-car garages, but now that is starting to change. As the city has grown into a 10-county region with more than 5.2 million people and residents from across the globe, the urban life concept has become increasingly popular.

Long accustomed to expansive cuisine, educational and business options, the region now offers new residents a truly diverse set of housing options. Houstonians may choose sleek high-rises, gated townhome communities and mid-rise condos dispersed throughout the region, historic lofts downtown, brownstones in The Woodlands and much more throughout the 10-county area.

"Houston is maturing and has settled into a more sophisticated, international city," said Dovie Morgan, senior vice president of Karpas Properties and past chair of the board of the Houston Association of Realtors(R). "With that, more people have come to Houston from across the world. For example, in large cities, like Mexico City, people are accustomed to high-rise living and like the convenience.

"Also, in Houston we are now seeing a huge desire to be close in. Land costs are growing, and we cannot have redevelopment everywhere inside the Loop. At some point, we had to go up."

Lofts

Houstonians have enjoyed amazing downtown redevelopment in the past 10 years and nowhere is that more obvious than the transformation of many of Houston's historic buildings into fabulous lofts. The Franklin Lofts, Rice Lofts (www.postproperties.com), Bayou Lofts, Herman Lofts, St. Germain and Foley Building all have one thing in common--they all have been renovated into lofts. These historic buildings show off Houston's architecture at its finest. The Foley Building offers its owners the Victorian Italianate style of architecture, while the Rice Lofts building is Neoclassical in design, with a dramatic marble entry. Most of these buildings offer residents aged brick walls, exposed beams and utilities and a soothing juxtaposition of both industrial steel and warm wooden elements. More information on Houston's historic downtown lofts is available through the Downtown Historic District at www.downtownhistoricdistrict.org or through www.downtownhouston.org.

Newly constructed, modern lofts also are dispersed throughout the region. The Woodlands Waterway Lofts (www.waterwaylofts.com) offer newcomers the best of both worlds. People living here are in the center of town and can walk to fine bistros and restaurants and shop in some of the region's most exclusive boutiques, all while still living in a luxurious setting with an urban feel. And the views of The Waterway(R)--well they are absolutely stunning.

High-Rise Living

Where Houston's lofts are open, eclectic and invoke warm feelings, Houston's high-rises are modern, sleek and everything that makes one think of a contemporary international city. Houston's high-rises offer renters and owners alike every amenity imaginable in all of Houston's most popular locations--Downtown, the Texas Medical Center, the Galleria/Uptown and River Oaks, to name just a few.

Many people think of the Houston region as being full of concrete, but they are quite mistaken, and any high-rise building in the region is a great place to prove nay sayers wrong. As Minnette Boesel of Minnette Boesel Properties described it, "From the top of a high-rise in Houston, people look down on a canopy of green trees, with the city rising out of the middle; it looks like the 'Great City of Oz.'"

The Royalton at River Oaks (www.royaltonatriveroaks.com) is one such building. Nestled at the edge of River Oaks and across from Buffalo Bayou, this building offers breathtaking views. This 33-story building offers amenities such as triple-crown moldings, surround sound speakers and "five-star service." The building is even topped with a sculptured crown that serves as its emblem and logo.

Dominion Post Oak (www.dominionpostoak.com) sits one block away from the Galleria and offers its tenants 24-hour concierge service, valet dry cleaning and a controlled access parking garage.

The Mercer Condominium (www.themercerhighrise.com) is a 30-story high-rise in the Galleria area with 12-foot ceilings, gourmet appliances and a wine closet, and the recently renovated luxurious Commerce Towers (www.commercetowers.com) offers its owners more than 50 floor plans, climate-controlled storage, pet elevators and a private-party facility.

According to Boesel, empty nesters and the baby boomer generation are discovering the ease of the lifestyle they can enjoy in a high-rise. Many high-rises offer services that complement their lifestyle such as cooking demonstrations, bridge rooms and coffee bars.

"Baby Boomers can afford it, are still young with grown kids and looking for an easy lifestyle. And, if they like to travel, they can just lock the door and run away," said Morgan. "They don't have to worry about the lawn or painting the house."

Mid-Rise Developments

According to Sandra Gunn of Sandra Gunn Properties, the general definition of a mid-rise is a residential building of less than eight stories. This definition evolved into an insurance issue because the city's hook and ladder fire truck that can reach only to 75 feet (or eight stories). Now, Houston is seeing a mid-rise craze. Morgan believes it is the price point that makes mid-rises so popular, and they are conveniently spread throughout the region, including the Post Oak area, Texas Medical Center and Sugar Land, to name just a few.

"Mid-rises offer a lot of amenities," said Morgan. "Plus young people know they need to buy something, but they are not ready for the maintenance of a single-family home. This gives them a solid investment, younger people can afford them, and they can walk to local hot spots."

One such example is the Briarglen. Located just inside the 610 Loop, it offers residents hardwood floors, granite countertops, balconies to enjoy the view and an onsite porter. The Valencia Condominiums (www.thevalenciaapts.com) sits adjacent to Houston's METRORail line in the Texas Medical Center and is an excellent option for Houston's younger knowledge workers who work in the medical center or Museum District. City Plaza at Town Square (www.cityplazatownsquare.com) in Sugar Land has some of the region's coolest shops on the first floor, including Anne Taylor Loft, Starbuck's Coffee and Z Gallerie, with contemporary condominiums on the second, third and fourth floors that include bamboo floors, a full-sized stacked washer and dryer and granite countertops.

Townhomes

There is no doubt that Houston's townhomes and low-rise condominiums, for sale or lease throughout the entire region, are a popular urban solution. As a matter of fact, almost nine percent of all housing transactions in the Houston region involve townhomes and condominiums, according to the Houston Association of Realtors.

Simply put, townhomes can be another excellent affordable housing option for young singles or young married couples just starting out in life. For young, single women, gated townhome communities can be just the right investment.

"Gated townhomes and patio homes are great for young people, especially women, because it gives them a sense of security and comfort," said Morgan. "Many offer in addition to a gated entry, an alarm system that can be monitored by the local police department."

New residents also can enjoy very luxurious townhomes homes in this market. One example is the brownstones located adjacent to The Woodlands Town Center. According to its Web site, the Park Place Brownstones (www.parkplacebrown stones.com) are modeled after urban neighborhoods in New York, Chicago and Boston and are typically three stories with fine stone and brick-work detailing and wrought iron accents.

Amenities

Depending on the location, people looking for the urban, carefree life may expect certain amenities such as ground maintenance or a concierge service. But in today's competitive urban market, people relocating to the Houston region can generally expect everything from wine tastings to bridge lessons to a supermarket located in the building to a valet service.

According to Boesel, "Competition is fierce, so companies are trying to outdo each other. People can expect amenities such as roof-top terraces or granite or marble slab counters in the kitchen."

In downtown, the Lofts at the Ballpark is an apartment loft, mid-rise located adjacent to Minute Maid Park, and it offers residents cooking demonstrations, parties, coffee bars and wine tasting to allow the residents to network.

For those looking for a second home, Emerald By The Sea (www.emeraldbythesea.com) includes amenities for the entire family. Located on the east end of Galveston, this 15-story high-rise condominium structure currently is under construction; however, it is already sold out with some units on the resale market. This new beach-side condo offers owners an infinity pool, swim-up pool bar, movie theater, fitness center, children's play land, teen game room, guest suites and private wine rooms.

Fees and Costs

With regards to actual pricing, purchases may run from the $100,000s to more than $1 million. For leasing, newcomers will find the same wide range. It all depends on the type of property, location, condition of the property and current market conditions. Obviously a penthouse at the Four Seasons Condominiums (www.houstonhotelresidences.com) is going to cost a lot more than a second-floor loft apartment a mid-price-point rental community. However, according to Gunn, Houston is still more affordable than most major cities and price per square foot tends to drop as the size of the home grows.

"Every builder starts with the same basic construction cost to run the wires and utilities or to add windows and walls, so the price per square foot will be greater for a smaller location, but as the size increases the price per square foot will drop because the basic costs have already been absorbed," said Gunn.

Like any other vertical living environment, lofts, high-rises, townhomes and mid-rises that are purchased all are going to have a homeowners' association (HOA) fee. This fee will cover most amenities, depending on the property, so it will include the concierge service or wine tastings. According to Personette & Associates, in addition to the "fun stuff" it also may include homeowner's insurance (for the physical property only--not the contents--but check with each building for more specific details), waste disposal, garbage pick up, water, cable, exterior maintenance, lawn maintenance, pool and security costs.

"Typically though, once the developer completes the building and the HOA takes over the management, the residents will decide on the amenities," said Boesel. "After all, they may decide they do not want to be in the food service business with a supermarket on the first floor. The beauty is they decide."

In a rental, typically the leasing management establishes the amenities, and the fees to cover costs are included in the rent price.

So who would be best suited for the urban lifestyle? Most Realtors(R) see specific groups: empty nesters, young singles, young married couples, reverse commuters or international people who relish the urban environment as the perfect fit for the urban experience.

"The people I see love their lofts. For young professionals it is so convenient. Typically, they work so much that they don't have time for a commute," said Boesel. "I can walk into their lofts and all they have in their refrigerator is beer and ice cream. They can simply walk to the restaurant downstairs for a really good meal.

"I also see a lot of empty nesters. They love the concept of urban life. It's almost as if they get to date again. They can walk to theater or to a sidewalk cafe. But sometimes they're hesitant to take the plunge, so I tell them to rent for six months. Once they rent, they always come back."

Newcomers to the region have a lot of decisions to make regarding their housing and may look for the help of a professional. For a Realtor, log on to www.har.com. Some Realtors in the Houston region cater specifically to the vertical living market. When looking for a rental, new Houstonians can find a leasing agent through the Houston Apartment Association at www.haaonline.org. For information about whether to rent or lease, turn to page 146 for points to consider.

Houston offers its residents everything from a one-bedroom loft in the historical district to a walk-up brownstone in The Woodlands and everything in between. No matter what style of housing newcomers choose, they will still reap the benefits of one great region. It truly is a region of choices, and all of them are good options.

"All of the marketing hype surrounding Houston recently has been very good for us. Our urban centers have been portrayed in a positive light. The Super Bowl, All-Star Games, World Series--they all depict Houston as the fun city that we are," said Morgan. "Houston is growing up. We're not just a western oil town anymore. It's really very exciting."

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