A Williamson County community has shot up in the rankings to become this year’s fastest-growing neighborhood in Central Texas.
Santa Rita Ranch rose to the No. 1 spot from No. 4 in 2021, dethroning last year’s top neighborhood, Sonterra in Jarrell. The master-planned community, located in Liberty Hill between U.S. Highway 183 and State Highway 29, had an extremely busy 2021.
The community reported 687 housing starts and 480 home closings in 2021, according to Zonda data. According to a different data source, RCLCO, it ranked No. 9 for best-selling master-planned communities in all of Texas and the 38th best in the U.S.
Williamson County saw a larger estimated population gain last year than all but four U.S. counties, according to the latest data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The 3,700-acre Santa Rita Ranch community is one of the largest in the region. Developers have branched out into a variety of housing types. In 2021, sales began on a new age-restricted community there, known as Regency. The 55-and-older community is being built by Pennsylvania-based Toll Brothers.
“We will always be involved in adapting to market demand,” said Santa Rita Ranch developer Ed Horne.
Other builders in the community include CastleRock, Coventry Homes, Empire Communities, Giddens Homes, Highland Homes, Lennar, Perry Homes, Prominence Homes, Pulte Homes, Scott Felder Homes, Sitterle Homes, Toll Brothers and Westin Homes.
Construction is also underway on a new build-to-rent segment of the community, with homes that blend with the aesthetic of the rest of the community. Horne said this area — with about 150 homes — will satisfy the need for what he calls “transitional housing” for people who are moving from apartments or out of town and want somewhere to live before buying a single-family home.
The fast-growing neighborhood isn’t immune to the problems that have plagued the homebuilding industry for the past two years.
“It’s much harder today for builders to build the homes in a timely manner for customers,” Horne said. “Something’s missing. Something’s on back order. Something’s no longer available.”
But the builders in Santa Rita Ranch, he said, have been highly adaptive. Builders used to build to order — customers would choose a lot, select a model, settle on their finishes and then construction would begin. Now, it’s much more common for builders to operate on spec, building homes in anticipation of a buyer.
This, Horne said, has accelerated housing starts not only in Santa Rita Ranch, but across the metro. To close on these lots, the developer is forced to manage the supply chain issues.
Horne said they’ve become adept at delivering lots in anticipation of builders’ needs, planning months and months in advance. In 2020, builders in the community actually ran out of lots to build on, as no one anticipated the massive demand. The builders, too, have begun pre-ordering supplies — like appliances, many of which have extensive backlog times — and storing them.
Santa Rita Ranch’s size, counterintuitively, helps it avoid some labor shortage issues. Many of the builders share major contractors, so it’s easier and more efficient for contractors like plumbers to service the area.
Horne said 2022 looks promising for sales because of the increased number of homes rising. He said as buyer demand remains strong, they’ll focus on maintaining attainable price points in the community.
“Attainable housing needs to be always in the minds of both the builder and the developer,” Horne said. “We’re always paying attention to that. Our objective is to try to have product that fits all the various segments of the market.”
The second- and third-busiest neighborhoods for home starts last year, Sonterra and Sunfield, have both been featured on the list numerous times.
Sonterra had 670 housing starts in 2021, just 17 behind Santa Rita Ranch. It’s been growing swiftly for years: The community was the ninth-best selling neighborhood in the U.S. in 2019, according to RCLCO. Builders in the 1,400-acre community include Century Communities, D.R. Horton Homes and Lennar Homes, among others. According to the homeowners’ association, more than 8,000 residents live in the community.
Sonterra is one of the more affordable neighborhoods in Central Texas, with prices ranging from $168,000 to $372,000.
Sunfield in Buda, developed by Scarborough Lane, was the fastest-growing Hays County community by a long shot. The community had 587 housing starts in 2021, up from 511 in 2020. The community, located just 15 minutes from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, spans more than 2,400 acres.
The communities on this year’s list are all benefitting from unprecedented demand for housing in Central Texas. Since the onset of the pandemic, home prices in the metro have skyrocketed, reaching a median of almost $500,000 in February, according to the Austin Board of Realtors.
Master-planned communities are home to some of the more affordable options in the metro. All of the top 10 on this year’s list had starting prices below $300,000.
Even before the pandemic, Central Texas was experiencing a population increase. Between 2010 and 2020, Hays County south of Austin was the fastest-growing county in the U.S., according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
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