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Wide-open spaces: Austin homebuyers build their dream homes on empty lots out of town

Many, like Austin blogger Jane Ko, are opting to build homes on empty lots instead of buying preexisting homes. (Jane Ko/A Taste of Koko)

Austin homebuyers have been through the wringer in the past year—tales of offers well over asking price, sales in under an hour, and months-long supply chain shortages have become commonplace in the city's cutthroat housing market. So it's perhaps no surprise that many homebuyers are looking for greener pastures as they stake out large empty lots along the city's outskirts.

After casually searching for a home for years, Austin influencer and blogger Jane Ko experienced the pandemic housing surge firsthand when she found an empty lot near the airport in the summer of 2020. Stretched thin by high demand and limited supply, Austin's median home prices had already reached a then-record of $435,000 in August of that year, while new inventory grew by just 0.1% in that month.

Due to seemingly ever-increasing demand, Austin's homebuilding market has been busy—if not strained. New listings were up 6% in November 2021, while median home prices had cooled ever-so-slightly to $470,000. The area was ranked the fifth-busiest metro in the country for single-family homebuilding permits in August 2021, according to a National Association of Homebuilders report.

Austin influencer Jane Ko build a semi-custom home on an empty lot near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. (Jane Ko/A Taste of Koko)

"I think for those of us that have been here, we've seen prices rise in the last five years and I kind of figured if I don't buy now, then I probably won't be able to," Ko said. "I kind of stumbled upon it and I think for a lot of people that's been really the only way to find real estate since the market is so hot."

Austin's inventory has remained somewhat low, especially in the center of town, leading some to believe that homebuyers are being "priced out" by the city's limited options. Area suburbs are reflecting that—the Kyle-Buda-San Marcos region saw 2,900 new home starts from September 2020-21, more than any other Austin submarket.

But with new developments working to keep pace with demand, 2021 Austin Board of Realtors President Susan Horton told Austonia the trend just reflects customer desires.

"I don't think that folks are being pushed by any means," Horton said. "Folks that want to buy out in the rural areas are buying for personal reasons and they're buying because they want the land and privacy. Folks really, truly want to be out. If you want a big lot, it's there."

Like many homebuyers during the pandemic, Ko was happy to scrap Austin's downtown for more space. Because she works from home, she said she and many of her friends are looking for bigger homes and bigger lots in hot areas like Dripping Springs.

Ko had the option of moving into already-built homes within the neighborhood but opted for a custom-built home instead—something that Horton said is another draw for prospective homebuyers.

Austin influencer Jane Ko remodeled her kitchen after building her semi-custom home. (Jane Ko/A Taste of Koko)

Ko's kitchen remodel took months due to supply chain delays/ (Jane Ko/A Taste of Koko)

"The desire to be away from the person next door is really most of the time the deciding factor," Horton said. "And then there are those that want to have a house simply because they want to design it themselves, and so those are the aspects that make buying that raw land and building a house really important."

But building a custom home has its drawbacks. Horton said construction loans, land surveying, zoning restrictions and road access are all hoops that can be jumped through with an experienced realtor.

But even through the tedious and stalled homebuilding process, Ko said it's been worth it to create a home made just for her.

"This is a place that I'm hopefully going to stay in for a very long time," Ko said. "And I think because I do a lot of entertaining at home and shoot photos at home, it's really important that my space looks the way I want it to."


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