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Tiny Vegas home sits at center of housing craze

There is perhaps no better evidence of the condo fever raging through Las Vegas’ real estate market than the $1.2 million asking price on former waiter Manuel Corchuelo’s tiny, untidy home.
Manuel Corchuelo's 700-square-foot house in the Las Vegas neighborhood of Naked City, purchased for $30,000 in 1978, is currently on the market for $1.2 million. The tract home is rapidly being surrounded by high-rise condominium projects.
Manuel Corchuelo's 700-square-foot house in the Las Vegas neighborhood of Naked City, purchased for $30,000 in 1978, is currently on the market for $1.2 million. The tract home is rapidly being surrounded by high-rise condominium projects.Jae C. Hong / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Its front windows wish you “Feliz Navidad” in paint that won’t wash off. The landscaping consists of four shriveling cacti and a patio piled with empty cat food boxes. Inside, it’s 700 square feet of confirmed bachelor’s clutter.

And it can all be yours for $1.2 million — cash.

There’s perhaps no better evidence of the condo fever raging through Las Vegas’ real estate market than the asking price on Manuel Corchuelo’s home. Once considered deadlocked in the wasteland where the Las Vegas Strip fizzled into a decaying downtown, the World War II-era home is now happily nestled in the shadows of billions of dollars of new and proposed high-rise condominium projects. Corchuelo is sitting on much-coveted land.

From his front lawn, Corchuelo likes to smile up at the cranes and listen to the clang of construction.

“It’s a good sound,” he said.

The former catering waiter and Colombian immigrant bought the home in 1978 for $30,000. He worked more than 20 years serving high rollers and conventioneers. He never married, saved some money and lost $15,000 of it on the stock market. Ten years ago, he started reading about investors’ plans to build condominiums outside his door. He cut the clipping from the newspaper and put it in a three-ring binder.

A few years later, he put his house on the market. He is still holding out for an acceptable offer.

At last count, there were 93 luxury condominium projects, totaling 175 towers, proposed, planned or under construction in the Las Vegas valley in the second quarter of this year, according to a report released in September by Applied Analysis, a Las Vegas-based consulting firm. Though Brian Gordon, an analyst for the group, estimates that little more than one in three of the 93 will ever open its doors, 15 projects representing 10,000 units are expected to be completed by the end of next year.

Developers tout the boom as the Manhattanization of Las Vegas, the move to “verticality” instead of sprawl. They promise an urban lifestyle, skyline views and celebrity neighbors. They court the young, rich and out of town.

About 85 percent of condo buyers are non-Nevada residents or investors, Gordon said.

Most of the projects are huddled on or around the Strip.

“It’s sort of like beach-front property. They’re not making any more of it. Everybody that’s within a stone’s throw thinks their property is worth $20 million an acre,” he said.

The hype is fueling increases throughout the city. The cost of a vacant acre in the Las Vegas area has hit $601,600 — an 88 percent increase over last year.

Corchuelo’s home is one block off Las Vegas Boulevard and across the street from the future home of the Allure, a 41-story luxury complex under construction.

Five years ago, his initial asking price of $350,000 attracted few offers. His agent dropped the listing. Corchuelo continued to collect articles about the market, filling three binders full of stories and notes handwritten in Spanish. He studied the moves of the city’s real estate tycoons.

“Even Trump makes mistakes,” he said, citing a sale he says cost real estate mogul Donald Trump millions. “You have to know the area. Steve Wynn, he knew what he was doing. He had experience — 20 years building hotels. He knows everything moves in cycles.”

Corchuelo found an agent who, like him, is convinced they’re riding an upturn that hasn’t peaked. The pair has upped the asking price several times and are looking for a buyer who doesn’t need financing.

“It’s happening. It’s all going to keep going,” said Paul Miotke, Corchuelo’s agent. “The one thing we know is it’s not going down in value.”

Few would have said that about Corchuelo’s block just a few years ago. In the 1950s, the neighborhood was home to card dealers and strippers who used to sunbathe in the buff to avoid tan lines, giving the place its nickname, Naked City. By the 1980s it had become a pocket of prostitution and crime.

Now the streets around Corchuelo’s home are lined with a mix of small, well-kept homes, residential hotels and public housing. Visitors are as likely to see speculators and real estate agents cruising the place as pimps.

In 2000, the city removed building height and parking restrictions in an attempt to lure development to the area. It took a few years, but builders eventually began to eye Naked City for what planners call “higher-intensity housing units.”

“We had to expect there would be developers seeking to consolidate smaller properties,” said Margo Wheeler, the director of planning and development for the city of Las Vegas.

That’s where Georgia James comes in. She is a Prudential agent who cruises the neighborhood in her bronze Cadillac DeVille daily. She calls herself the mayor of Naked City and is one of several people coveting Corchuelo’s property. James says she has bought and sold more than 200 properties in Naked City, some of them five times. She’s just finished assembling a 5-acre site on behalf of a group of Miami investors. The plot includes 150 feet of Strip-front property and backs up to Corchuelo’s parcel. It’s listed at $10 million an acre.

James says she doesn’t need Corchuelo’s plot, but it would be nice. She thinks his asking price is unrealistic.

“He’s basing it on the highest price paid for the top property on the Strip. If Wynn paid $250,000 a square foot, Manuel wants $250,000 a square foot,” she said. The house next door sold about six months ago for $520,000.

Corchuelo thinks the owner should have held out for more.

James says she hates to see the 64-year-old man waste time.

“He’s so old and he’s sick. He’s going to end up dying, and he has no children or anything else,” she said, as she drives down Corchuelo’s street. “So, what is he trying to do? They can build around him.”

It’s been done before, she said, adding that tide of development will likely consume all of Naked City in the next decade. The low-income housing will have to be relocated. The flop houses will be leveled to make way for progress.

“You can’t have slums next to your high-rises. I think the city’s got to find land and give it to these people,” she said. “But this land, this is too close to the Strip, it has too much potential.”

Corchuelo isn’t the only thorn in James’ side. A handful of Naked City holdouts — some residents, some California investors — are keeping her from assembling the neighborhood like a puzzle. She dismisses most.

“It’s part of my job. I’m patient,” she said.

And so is Corchuelo.

“I’ve been waiting 30 years for this,” he said, adding that he knows exactly what he’ll do with the money once he sells.

“Buy another house,” he said.