The ‘Malibu of Texas’ Bucks Austin’s Downturn

JPM Real December 5, 2022

When Tim and Robin Wentworth began searching for a second home, they quickly realized that time was a top priority. The Wentworths, both 62, planned to split their time between their homes in northern New Jersey and Austin, Texas.

“We looked at Florida, the Outer Banks of North Carolina and other parts of Texas but realized that Austin is less than a three-hour flight from almost anywhere in the country,” said Mr. Wentworth, retired CEO of Evernorth, Cigna’s health services organization and Express Scripts. “Plus, our daughter lives in Austin and it has a super easy airport.”

The Wentworths landed on Lake Austin, a 22-mile body of water with dams at either end that has become one of Austin’s most exclusive—and expensive—areas. Variously called the “Malibu” or “Napa” of Austin, the waterfront properties in the most sought-after neighborhoods along the lake range in asking price from $6 million for a possible teardown to more than $50 million.

Celebrities and multimillionaires who own waterfront property on Lake Austin include Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Mike Judge, Joe Rogan and Michael Dell. The single-family homes, which include both primary residences and vacation homes, will soon be joined by the Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin, a 179-home luxury community to be built on a cliff overlooking the lake.

“This part of Austin is highly desirable because you get the benefit of waterfront living just 20 minutes from downtown Austin,” said Crystal Olenbush, a real estate agent with “Lake Travis is larger, but it’s 45 minutes to an hour from downtown.”

Lake Austin is part of the lower Colorado River, but the dams keep the water at a constant level, said Jim Olenbush, broker and founder of On nearby Lake Travis, the water level can fluctuate by as much as 50 feet, which affects the view for homeowners and their boat docks, he said.

Waterfront properties tripled in value over the past few years, especially because many buyers wanted to get away from cities during the pandemic, said Ms. Olenbush.

“The thing that makes Lake Austin so special is the scarcity,” said Ms. Olenbush. “There’s a very limited number of waterfront properties along Lake Austin and they’re continuing to rise in value even when other luxury markets struggle. There are so few properties left that could be developed along the lake and buyers looking for vacant lots are often left with no options other than tearing down an existing house.”

Diversity of Properties on Lake Austin

All of Lake Austin offers desirable water views and proximity to downtown, but the most exclusive areas are south of the Pennybacker Bridge and along Westlake Drive.

“The lowest priced property in that area is about $6 million, but that wouldn’t be a flat lot, and the house might need some work or even be a teardown,” she said. “There’s also a stretch along River Hills and Oestrick Lane across from a protected bluff that can never be built on that’s popular with people looking for more privacy. There’s less boat traffic there and you’ll find more gated homes.”

Renovated properties inside the Loop 360, a commuter route into Austin, range from $20 million to $40 million if they’re renovated, Ms. Olenbush said. Homes along Lake Austin outside that loop start at $10 million or sometimes $7.5 million if they need renovation.

“A lot of the homes on Lake Austin have elaborate boat docks, some of them with two-story guest houses with kitchens for entertaining,” Ms. Olenbush said. “Homes on the Tarrytown side of the lake tend to have smaller lots but they’re right on the water and have easily accessible boat docks. Some of the other homes are built on terraces up in the hills with beautiful views and a path or steps down to their docks.”

Many of Lake Austin’s buyers already live near the lake and are upgrading to new homes with a better view or lot. Others live in different parts of Austin.

We’re also seeing a lot of people from California, Chicago and New York and international buyers.

Condos Add to the Luxury Mix

Buyers around the world are the target of the developers at Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin, which is being built on a 145-acre bluff above 3,000 feet of shoreline. Sixty percent of the land will be dedicated green space, said Jonathan Coon, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Austin Capital Partners, developer of Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin. He is also a future resident of the community.

“It’s an unusual site with amazing views of a 90-degree bend in the lake, the Pennybacker Bridge, the Austin skyline and hill country,” Mr. Coon said. “We built a $25 million funicular—basically, two enclosed glass cubes—that take residents from the homes and amenities on the hill to the private marina on the lake.”

The Four Seasons Lake Austin condos, which range in size from 1,900 to 7,000 square feet, are priced from $4.1 million to more than $20 million; 53 of the units will have a private pool.

“Even though each building is a maximum of four stories, the views are like living in a luxury tower because they’re built nearly 400 feet above the lake,” Mr. Coon said. “We worked backward from the views, so each home covers an entire floor and will have a water view, a 12-foot-deep terrace at the front and a 9-foot-deep terrace at the back.”

Most of the buyers plan to make this their permanent residence, Mr. Coon said. About 75% of the buyers are from Austin and elsewhere in Texas so far, with the other 25% primarily from California, Nevada, New Jersey and New York.

“People looking for a lock-and-leave luxury lifestyle are likely to be drawn to the condos at the Four Seasons Lake Austin,” Mr. Olenbush said.

In addition, the amenities, including a private restaurant, a 96-seat theater, indoor and outdoor swimming pools; indoor tennis, squash and pickleball courts, a spa and a marina staffed by the Four Seasons, appeal to people, like the Wentworths, who want all of the relaxation without the need to manage their own staff.

“We thought about buying a single-family home in Lake Austin, but it wouldn’t have been turnkey and frictionless,” said Mr. Wentworth, who bought “one of the largest units,” with 5,000 square feet and 1,500 square feet of terraces. “Time and quality are fundamental to a good lifestyle.” 

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