Monday, December 1, 2008

From small town to boom town

Liberty Hill defies real estate downturn with many new neighborhoods
By Charles Ealy


Sunday, November 30, 2008

At least one area in Central Texas is thriving these days despite the real estate slowdown: Liberty Hill, the small town just north of Cedar Park and Leander.

In fact, Liberty Hill is in the only real estate zone in Travis, Williamson, Bastrop and Hays counties where more homes have sold this year than last. Through October, 150 homes have sold there, with a median price of $217,000. That compares with 112 homes sold through October 2007, with a median price of $229,840.

"We're not growing as much as we were, and sales are flattening out a bit," says Shane T. White, a broker/owner of ReMax Town & Country in Liberty Hill. "But we're still doing OK."

And he thinks the area is "on the verge of explosive growth" once the economy bounces back, mainly because of its proximity to Austin, which is about 40 minutes away if you drive down the new 183-A tollway. "183-A opened us up as a bedroom community," he says.

White and other real estate agents say one of the big draws for the area is the quality of schools. The Texas Education Agency rates the district as "recognized," which means that 75 percent of all students taking TAKS exams earned a passing grade, with a high school completion rate of 85 percent and an annual dropout rate of no more than 2 percent. Less than 23 percent of the state's school districts have that rating, and less than 3 percent of districts get the higher "exemplary" rating.

"Our family moved out to West Texas for a year, and I can tell you that the Liberty Hill schools are far more advanced," says Christie Weems of City Real Estate and Mortgage.

"There's a real sense of community here, and everyone turns out for the high school football games, even people who don't have children in school," she says. Part of the reason, of course, may be that the Liberty Hill Panthers are two-time Class 3A state champions.

Neighborhoods spread like wildflowers

But there are other reasons for Liberty Hill's growth. A big factor: More subdivisions are going up in what was once a rural area.

Christie Weems and her husband, Ronnie, are working on their own Liberty Hill development, Stone House Estates, with 29 lots of about 5 to 6 acres each. Six of those lots back up the North San Gabriel River and sell for $189,000 to $235,000. Lots that aren't on the waterfront start at around $80,000.

"To my surprise, we've had much more interest so far in the more expensive lots on the waterfront," Christie Weems says. "I guess it's because waterfront lots in Central Texas are so rare these days."

The development is off County Road 200, about six miles north of Texas 29. Its centerpiece is a remodeled ranch house with an old red barn, as well as a recently remodeled guest house.

The 3,300-square-foot house with the barn is on the market for $423,000, while the smaller house, with 2,370 square feet, is listed for $365,000. Weems has both listings.

While Stone House Estates is still in the early stages of building, other new developments are also being built, with some near completion. They include:

* Cierra Springs, with 36 lots of about one acre and houses built by Drennan Day Custom Homes . Lots are priced from about $30,000 to $45,000. Drennan Day homes typically start at about $200,000. Cierra Springs is on County Road 214.

* Cierra Vista, with 80 lots of about 1 acre, also being developed by Drennan Day. It's along County Road 200, the same road that leads to Stone House Estates. Houses go for about $235,000 to $320,000. White has a listing for a four-bedroom house with 21\/2 bathrooms at 204 Howard Lane in Cierra Vista. The asking price: $290,000.

* Sundance Ranch, another Drennan Day development off of County Road 200. It's a gated equestrian community with more than 270 lots of about 5 acres each. Only a few lots are still available.

* Gabriel's Overlook, a Drennan Day development about halfway between Georgetown and Liberty Hill, off Texas 29. It's also gated, with lots of 1 to 4 acres, some overlooking the San Gabriel River and others abutting Avery Lake. Home prices range from the $200,000s to the $400,000s.

* Stonewall Ranch, with a first phase of 37 home sites and houses ranging from about $139,000 to $161,000. When complete, the master-planned community owned by Buffington Capital Holdings and built by Texas Classic Homes will have more than 1,000 houses.

* Rio Ancho Ranch, between Liberty Hill and Bertram, along the San Gabriel River, near the intersection of County Road 322 and Texas 29. Lots go from the $50,000s to the $90,000s.

Other communities include Boulderwood Park, Carrington Ranch, Deep Lake, Durham Park, High River Ranch, Indian Oaks, Post Oak Ranch, Quarry Lake Estates, San Gabriel Oaks, Saratoga Springs, Silver Creek, Stable Oaks, Stage Coach and the Overlook. Summerlyn, a 169-acre development on U.S. 183 in North Leander, is just south of Liberty Hill.

Small-town charm but thinking big

Despite its recent growth, Liberty Hill still has a small-town feel. The historical downtown area has cozy shops and dining spots, a quaintness that survives despite the nearby bustle along Texas 29.

And land along the highway is poised for even more rapid development, mainly because a new sewer system is going in, which is expected to bring an influx of fast-food restaurants and other establishments, White says.

"McDonalds has already bought the Star Burgers site," Weems says of a funky-looking local burger joint off of Texas 29.

Not everyone is excited about the growth prospects. Proposals to widen Texas 29 from Georgetown to Liberty Hill have stirred up controversy in recent months, and some landowners are worried about whether they'll be forced to sell their property.

But construction probably won't begin for 20 to 25 years, Williamson County officials say, and they expect that wider roads will be necessary because most of the county's growth is expected to be along Texas 29, west of Interstate 35.

Whatever happens, Liberty Hill residents probably won't have to drive so far to get to the city in 20 years. It looks like the city is coming to them.