HOUSTON -- Norm Frede has sold Chevrolets to generations of Houstonians, but his office is decorated with paintings and memorabilia reflecting his other passion: ranching.
'It's the basis of Texas,' he said. 'Land. Land.'
Instead of sinking his money into stocks or other investments, he spends much of his spare time researching, buying and selling ranch land. He figures he owns 'between 4,000 and 5,000 acres in Texas' in addition to some ranch land in Colorado and he's always in the market for more. Indeed, his son-in-law, a real estate agent named Trey Bonner who deals in ranch properties, dropped by Frede's car dealership office Monday with aerial images of another promising tract.
'It's just deep in you,' Frede said. 'It's part of you. It's just so sweet and fine, you can taste it and you miss it.'
That passion rests deep in the soul of so many Texans, real estate agents report their business is booming. Land prices in Texas rose nearly 10 percent between 2012 and 2013, according to the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University, with small property prices rising almost 20 percent.
'Business is good,' said Jeff Boswell, one of the owners of Republic Ranches, which sells mostly large ranches in Texas and Oklahoma. 'Really, the last three years have been tremendous. We're just seeing more of these large properties move than we've seen in years.'
While the ranch business isn't as white hot as Houston's residential home market, Boswell said his biggest problem is finding inventory. In other words, so many people want to buy ranches, he can't find enough sellers. And properties on the market are generally selling faster, Boswell said.
Take, for example, a roughly 2,000-acre ranch in Waller County on the east bank of the Brazos River, with boat access on a riverside beach and lakes stocked with bass. Asking price: About $15-million. A few years ago, Boswell figured the property would've stayed on the market for about 18 months, but now he expects to sell it within a year.
'The most likely buyers we'd have today would be somebody who'd use it primarily for recreation,' he said.
The booming demand for ranch land is a byproduct of the booming Texas economy, particularly the energy business. Longtime ranch brokers have observed their fortunes rise and fall with the oil and gas industry. Investors are also attracted by low mortgage rates and the paltry returns now offered by bonds and certificates of deposit.
'With low interest rates and the potential for inflation, a lot of people are looking at large rural tracts really more as a hedge against inflation, a tangible asset to put wealth in,' Boswell said.
'I've never known land to go down (in value), because it's a great investment,' Frede said. 'You can see it, touch it, enjoy it.'