Master-Planned Communities

Master Plan Success Stories: What Really Worked in 2020

Jody Kahn

Jody Kahn

January 25, 2021

All 50 of the top-selling master-planned communities achieving a place in our annual ranking are winners, as they sold at least 437 new homes in 2020. Beyond that commonality, these master plans, or MPCs for short, also embody several trends that our team chronicled in client reports, a podcast, and articles we released in 2020. These themes include:

  • The home sales boom supported by massive numbers of buyers working and learning from home
  • A shift to the suburbs (and sometimes other metros) from higher-density urban locations
  • The search for outdoor spaces and ways to exercise and play while socially distanced
  • The balancing of our human need for connection with separation for safety and sanity

Buyer urgency drives a new top 50 sales record. No doubt the low mortgage rates helped, but home buyers’ urgency to improve their living spaces contributed significantly to the burst in sales. Together, the top 50 master plans sold 37,305 new homes in 2020, setting a new record in our ranking history. Our updated ranking includes a few adjustments to sales numbers and developer names from those quickly shared with us in the first 2–3 days of the new year. We publish actual sales provided by our developer contacts rather than estimates 98% of the time.

Work-from-Home Propels a Home Buying Boom

Work-from-home has proven to be a sweet freedom amid a year of COVID-19 restrictions. For many, work-from-home flexibility eliminated the need for proximity to an office. The usual trade-off between a dream home and a dream job evaporated, as quickly as a ready supply of toilet paper. Master plans’ new home sales boomed across the country as work-from-home opportunities became permanent for many, and commute times became a drudgery of the past. Our consulting associates connect this newfound flexibility to skyrocketing sales in 2020.

Ken Perlman, Managing Principal and national masterplan expert, notes: “Seattle’s tech companies have embraced working from home, and employees who do not plan on returning to offices five days per week are willing to drive further to find their ideal communities. Master plans such as Tehaleh in Tacoma offer family-oriented outdoorsy lifestyles and active adult housing that are attractive to Pacific Northwest buyers.”

Dean Wehrli, Principal and Northern California consultant, consultant, adds: “The River Islands master plan in Stockton had already established itself as a destination within the Central Valley new home landscape before the ripple effects of the work-from-home trend amplified its 2020 sales. With water features, landscaping, parks, high-achieving schools, and prices well below that of homes in locations closer to job centers, River Islands was perfectly situated to absorb the booming demand of Bay Area buyers now able to telecommute. This migration led to a record 640 sales in 2020 for River Islands, crushing its previous high.”

Zac Nyberg, Senior Consultant in the Florida and Southeast regions, summarizes: “The Westlake MPC experienced record sales in 2020, adding an active-adult neighborhood and additional builders during the year. Residents enjoy the attainably priced homes and expansive outdoor amenity offerings including an aquatics center, sport courts, and a BMX park. This West Palm Beach community benefited from the normalization of working from home, as one of its previous drawbacks (far commute times to the region’s major employment centers) is now less relevant to many home buyers.”

Adjusting to Life in a Pandemic

COVID-19 changed everything—the way we live, work, and most notably play. People often move to master plans because of the lifestyle component. The MPCs offer unparalleled access to resort-style amenities, not replicable by your average community. When the pandemic began, many of these amenities were forced to close until scientists understood more about the virus. However, the quick-witted developers behind these communities swiftly pivoted, offering options such as virtual cooking sessions, fitness classes, and amenities used by appointment, while altering their messaging to be sensitive of the times. Several MPCs utilized the Alosant platform to build out community-branded applications, which serve as digital engagement hubs for each of their master plans. These quotes from our consulting associates highlight some of these concepts.

David Jarvis, Senior Vice President and leader of our Texas consulting team, adds: “Houston’s Sienna continues to rank nationally because of its broad spectrum of home buying options, exceptional amenities, and all-inclusive lifestyle, from year-round resident events and sports leagues to on-site shopping, restaurants and retail. At the core of Sienna’s popularity is its vibrant lifestyle. Parks, lakes, trails, and green space foster outdoor fitness and recreation, and an award-winning lifestyle team maintains a full calendar of resident events. During the pandemic, the community app, allowed residents to make reservations to use amenities to allow for social distancing. Thousands of residents utilized these systems over the past many months.”

According to Oliver Radvin, a Consulting Manager working across the Southeast and Florida regions: “Buyers searched for new homes during 2020 online or remotely more than ever before. Nexton’s compelling website is a rich resource for online shoppers and details the lifestyle benefits of living in the community (amenities, housing, schools, and services), all while promoting a true sense of community and the value of ‘home.’ The strong website, in combination with this powerful messaging, helped to drive home sales in Charleston during this period of uncertainty. Nexton incorporates both conventional and active adult housing, which allows families to connect more easily, while also providing distinct spaces to safely social distance.” 

Finally, Oliver also notes, “Nocatee is a premier place to live in Jacksonville and is often the first choice for buyers relocating to the area due to its strong reputation as well as its highly regarded schools.  During COVID-19, Nocatee’s marketing emphasized the opportunities for outdoor recreation and fitness at the community, including the extensive trail system and focus on watersports. This messaging resonated with home buyers who were seeking fun activities while safely social distancing.”

We expect a master-planned community to have:

  • A range of home sizes, types, and prices and a variety of builders (with rare exceptions for especially large and well-segmented communities)
  • Consistent themes, such as signage, landscaping, lighting, street names, mailboxes, etc.
  • Shared or reciprocal amenities and activities for a variety of lifestyles
  • Branding and marketing that give the community a unique and well-recognized identity

2020: The Year All Buyer Segments Boomed

Nationally, the housing market recovered from the initial COVID-19 slowdown in three phases that played out in the masterplans as well. 1) The entry segment was the first to soar in the early stages of the pandemic, supported by renters moving from dense urban locations. 2) As the stock market recovered, rates plummeted, and people were forced to work/school from home, the move-up market accelerated. 3) Finally, the 55+ market experienced robust sales in the last quarter of the year as consumers anticipated the vaccine rollout early in 2021. Our consultants highlight the strength of new home sales across all buyer segments in the MPCs:

Scott Wild, Vice President of Consulting, summarizes: “Otay Ranch is one of the few remaining San Diego locations with the combination of an ample supply of land and the political will to support large-scale new home development. Much of the current sales volume in Otay Ranch is from higher-density product targeting price-points attainable for San Diego workers. Otay Ranch’s proximity to the naval facilities around San Diego Bay make this is a popular location for military families.”

Zac observes: “New home sales in the Lake Nona MPC are fueled by its diverse product offerings and lifestyle. The master plan is attracting high-profile businesses such as KPMG, the United States Tennis Association, and the Guidewell Innovation Center (innovation hub for tech and health care start-ups). These businesses are bringing high-paying jobs to Orlando, and Lake Nona offers quality homes for all life stages.”

Finding the Whole Package in Suburban Masterplans

Most home buyers are seeking just the right floor plan in a well-designed and maintained community that offers access to good schools, shopping and local services, outdoor spaces and recreational resources, and a sense of community. In short, buyers want “the whole package.” Unshackled from the need to live near work, many buyers headed to the suburbs, finding the right blend of everything they wanted in our top 50 master plans. The master plans offer a variety of home sizes and prices to cover most buyers, and increasingly include rental options. Our consultants note the appeal of finding everything you need in one place.

Dean Wehrli adds: “Roseville is one of the most dynamic and active new home nodes in greater Sacramento, with great schools, a varied and attractive retail profile, and safe neighborhoods. Fiddyment Farm is part of the west Roseville area where the surging growth of this community is centered. The master plan’s diversity of housing, parks, and exceptional schools—including a brand-new state of the art high school—have long attracted locals. In 2020, that demand was augmented by Bay Area telecommuters to push Fiddyment Farm into our top-selling master plans of the year.”

David notes: “The outstanding natural open spaces in Cross Creek Ranch really resonated with Houston home buyers seeking opportunities to be outdoors safely. All 11 active builders reported increased sales velocity in 2020. Product segmentation captures the Fulshear submarket from the low $300s to $1M+. Cross Creek Ranch has become a great destination for buyers throughout the Houston region, a testament to the Johnson Development team’s legacy.”

Oliver observes: “Cane Bay has been the top-selling master plan in Charleston for several years, and sales success continued in 2020. The community has benefited from increased in-migration to Charleston post-COVID and continues to attract home buyers by offering a wide range of home styles across six different neighborhoods at a variety of price points that target buyers from all life stages. Buyers love the outdoor-oriented amenity programming and lifestyle offerings as well as the convenience of having shopping, restaurants, and other daily services located within the community.”

Balancing Connection and Privacy Needs

Master plans designed to balance family connectivity and at-home privacy exceeded sales expectations in 2020. According to research from John Burns Real Estate Consulting’s New Home Trends Institute, home buyers crave spaces designed for outdoor connection but need separation and sound barriers at home. As everyday interactions move online and homes take on new utility, designs must address this growing need for both closeness and separation. Many of the top 50 master plans achieved this delicate balance by focusing on trails and parks built for families, virtual community events, and home designs able to flex between multiple uses. Our consultants pinpoint which master plans found balance and excelled:

Lesley Deutch, Principal Consultant managing the eastern region, notes: “Babcock Ranch’s home sales exploded this year as the master plan truly established itself as a destination and hometown. Babcock Ranch’s lifestyle appeals to a wide range of home buyers—from great Fort Myers schools, activities and stores for kids and growing families, to nature trails, golf, and restaurants for empty nesters and retirees. The town also offers a wide range of homes with multiple builders offering everything from villas to custom lakefront estates. With a Publix grocery opening in 2021 and more neighborhoods, retail and amenities planned, Babcock Ranch has all the elements to attract new residents who seek community, convenience, and sunshine!”

David shares his insight: “Bridgeland’s success has been driven by a concentration on introducing new and unique architectural styles, often being first to market. In addition, their dedication of 3,000 acres of parks, open space, hike and bike trails, and best-in-class amenities like Dragonfly Park and Josey Lake often put Bridgeland on top of the list for consumers looking to buy in a lifestyle-driven Houston MPC that allows homeowners to connect and engage with nature.”

Ken notes: “When we are asked to describe the elements of a great community, we constantly refer back to Eastmark. Brookfield and DMB are doing an amazing job of promoting a culture that integrates active lifestyles, health, and connectivity among residents. When we wrote about some of the best healthy amenities nationwide last year, we had to admire Eastmark’s bike share program and the Eastmark Great Park that includes play areas for children, an event pavilion, and even a refurbished 1940s diner. Layer in a 2-acre organic farm accessible to community residents, a series of top-performing schools and employment hubs in its technology district, and it’s easy to see why Eastmark continues to be a destination for Phoenix-area residents. The community attracts first-time home buyers, move-up families, and active adult home buyers who want to live close to their kids and grandkids.”

Scott adds: “Although Ontario Ranch is mostly planned for traditional single-family detached homes, builders offering attached homes and age-qualified 55+ neighborhoods are expanding the buyer pool here. This convenient Riverside-San Bernardino location is popular with local Inland Empire residents and commuters to Orange County and Los Angeles County.”

Master-planned community lifestyle will retain its appeal. The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 promises a shift towards a lifestyle more similar to life before the pandemic. The ability to work from home, at least part-time, and our attention to hygiene and wellness seems likely to stick around for many years. At the same time, the end of the pandemic creates some unknowns surrounding housing demand. Buyers have demonstrated significant urgency in their search for living spaces that better meet their needs, which were magnified through the “safer-at-home” COVID-19 experience. It’s too early to opine on the potential localized shifts in demand, but we expect migration to the Sunbelt states to continue. As expressed in our book Big Shifts Ahead, which identifies and explains factors driving demographics and housing-related decisions, the warmth, affordability, and pro-growth stance will attract substantial household growth to the Sunbelt through 2025. The Sunbelt metros also tend to have abundant land supply that supports master-planned community development.

We can confidently conclude that the demand for master plan living has proven resilient. Developers and builders wondered whether the closed amenities would discourage buyers or shift the value proposition. The sales successes of our top 50 master plans demonstrate their continued appeal to buyers, along with a dash of appreciation for creatively adapting to the new normal.

For decades, our team has been helping developers maximize sales by segmenting master-planned communities by life stage, price range, lot size, and a lifestyle built around the amenities and programming suitable for the local market.

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About The Author

Jody Kahn
Jody Kahn
Senior Vice President of Research Surveys
Jody delivers timely and accurate insights on housing market trends at the metro, regional, and national levels. She combines statistics and commentary from JBREC’s independent surveys with data trends, forecasts, proprietary indices, feedback from consultants, and decades of housing experience to give clients insights that support business decisions.

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