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Austin’s hottest neighborhoods aren’t necessarily what you think they are

The perils and pleasures of planned communities

The Mueller community from above
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In late January, real-estate site Redfin published a list of the “10 hottest neighborhoods to watch” in 60 of the country’s large metro areas. Presumably, though scorching, those places don’t need to be watched like a hot stove, but rather because hordes of homebuyers are moving there, and more are looking to do the same.

To choose which neighborhoods are trending, Redfin looked at year-over-year home-price growth and traffic on Redfin’s listings pages, then spoke to some real-estate agents. What emerged is a picture of buyers overwhelmingly prioritizing affordability over other neighborhood perks (such as nightlife, walkability, or green space, to pick just a few possibilities). Thus, according to the study, trending neighborhoods “may not meet the conventional definition of ‘hot,’” but are still among the most sought-after in their cities.

Hot or not?

What’s the takeaway for Austin? you might be asking (if you haven’t already skipped ahead). While none of the city’s neighborhoods made Redfin’s national top 10, the site did list Austin’s three hottest, according to its criteria. All three, as it turns out, are master-planned communities and, indeed, only one of those even loosely fits the “conventional definition” of neighborhood hotness. Two of them—Wells Branch and Brushy Creek—are located far north enough to be neighbors of Round Rock and were first developed in the 1970s and 1980s (they’re suburbs, in other words).

The third is Mueller, which is closer in, newer, and arguably has zazzier amenities, such as Alamo Drafthouse, local restaurants, and a farmers market that takes place under a historically and architecturally significant former airplane hangar. Nevertheless, it can be subject to the criticisms of bland sameness levied at many planned communities—something that’s hard to avoid when much of the housing is built at the same time by the same developer.

Hotness by the numbers

The median sales price for the three communities ranges from $300,000 to $578,000 (Mueller being the outlier, surprise!)—from somewhat below to well above the current median home price for the Austin metro area, which Redfin puts at $317,000. (A recent report from the Austin Board of Realtors put the 2019 median home price at $318,000 for the Austin-Round Rock area and at $395,000 within Austin city limits.) Homes in all three sell from 29.7 percent to 35.7 percent above list price and spend an average of just six to 10 days on the market—some of the shortest sales periods of any of the neighborhoods in Redfin’s report.

Clearly, then, affordability is just one of the components that make these unlikely-seeming suburbs hot. Here are some of the nuances that tell the story of what makes each of these Austin neighborhoods appealing—a story that’s partly about statistics but just as much about personal experience.

Wells Branch

Affordability does tell a lot of the story for the hottest neighborhood on the Austin list: Wells Branch, a fairly tiny community in Far North Austin. The study puts its 2019 median home price at $300,000. Redfin’s site puts the January average—not median—at $244,000, and both the report and the neighborhood’s current page on the site agree on a median of six days on the market.

The community was originally developed in the mid-1980s, with walking trails, a park, and a neighborhood elementary school. Many of the homes have been updated and upgraded since that time.

Family fishing, Wells Branch
WBNA Wells Branch Neighborhood Association Facebook/Tom Zimmer

For some, such as longtime resident Rebecca Forbes, the suburban aspects are part of the appeal, as is the diversity that has come to characterize many such areas across the country. “My neighbors celebrate diverse cultural heritages” as well as being economically diverse, she says. She also appreciates its activism, which can take many forms, from a nearby church providing cold-weather shelter for people experiencing homelessness and meals for people experiencing food insecurity to a neighbor running for U.S. Congress. “The structure of the shared spaces encourages connections that I never experienced before moving here 19 years ago,” says Forbes.

In addition to homes being updated, Forbes notes that “over time, the neighborhood has expanded and improved facilities put in by the developer,” working with the Texas Parks Department to bring its pond and greenbelt “to a more natural state.” There’s also a long list of recreation- and community-oriented improvements, including a skate park, a library, and a meeting space. Its location between I-35 and MoPac, with easy access to US Highway 45, is also a plus, she says.

Not that Wells Branch is exactly the hinterlands: It’s two miles from an HEB and convenient to the Domain, as well as being near the new Apple campus. The latter will likely only turn up the heat on the suburban sweet spot.

Brushy Creek

Brushy Creek is also in Far North Austin, not far from Wells Branch, but is considerably larger. The Redfin study lists its median sales price last year as $352,000, with around 32 percent of homes going for more than their listed price and spending 10 days on the market.

The planned community, part of which is in Williamson County, was developed over a longer period of time than Wells Branch (the late 1970s to the early 2000s) and that, combined with its larger size, makes the homes more varied.

Located about midway between Round Rock and Cedar Park, it’s also close to current and future tech campuses and, perhaps equally or more important, in the much-praised Round Rock Independent School District.

Unsurprisingly, families with young children have a special appreciation for the suburb. “We moved here after living at the Y at Oak Hill, and before that Crestview,” writes resident Monica Maldonado Williams in an email, “and for raising a family, nothing beats Brushy Creek. My kids can walk to their highly rated schools, neighbors make a point to know each other, homes are great, with just enough yard for little kids but not so much to make them ostentatious.”

Williams calls the Brushy Creek Community Center its “heart and soul” for both its encouragement of healthy lifestyles and “some of the most fun events in Austin.” The community’s “miles-long trail system is gorgeous and widely used,” she adds, “and I love that just about anywhere we go in the neighborhood, we know—or my kids know—someone. It’s the third home that I’ve owned in Austin and my favorite neighborhood so far.”

Mueller

The planned Mueller development took awhile to get going after Austin’s old city airport at the site closed in 1999, but since 2007, it has made up for lost time in energetic and prolific fashion, although it’s still a work in progress, with more phased expansions underway.

Redfin lists its median sale price at $578,000—quite a bit over both the Austin metro and city medians—but it’s still drawing homebuyers in droves. (It has also had an affordable housing component in place since it opened, and those numbers are likely not included in the report.) According to the study, almost 30 percent of home sales are above asking prices, and homes are on the market for an average of 10 days.

Mueller on the Fourth
Shutterstock

Mueller probably has the most varied housing stock of any of the three neighborhoods in the report, including single-family homes, townhomes, row houses, and garden homes, as well as a growing number of condominiums and rental apartments. It also features mixed-use buildings with a variety of businesses, including restaurants, bars, retail, and an Alamo Drafthouse; the Dell Children’s Medical Center, Thinkery children’s museum, and a new HEB are also nearby.

While Mueller is a younger neighborhood than Wells Branch and Brushy Creek, its central location and a development path meant to follow the prescription of what was then New Urbanism have brought some of the pressures (in addition to the prices) associated with older, central Austin neighborhoods.

“Watching Mueller expand since I moved there in 2008 has been a real journey,” explains photographer and designer Shelley Hiam in an email. “What felt like a small neighborhood has evolved into a small town. The lake and trails make it easy to enjoy a short stroll to many retail and dining options—the twice-a-week farmers market is a personal favorite.”

In some ways, the challenges are inherent in its popularity—although unlike Downtown, parts of South Austin, and the neighborhoods adjacent to them, it’s popular in part because it offers a close-in alternative to noisier and more touristy parts of town or those seeking more change and excitement.

“The density of the neighborhood forces neighborliness (or highlights unneighborliness),” writes Hiam, “and the majority of amenities, neighborhood events, and shops lean heavily family-friendly. The density occasionally leads to parking issues and anxiety-inducing HEB trips, but that is easily outweighed by convenience and overall friendliness of the neighborhood.”

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