Las Vegas’s allure of warm weather, no state-income tax and low property taxes—plus an overabundance of world-class dining and entertainment—are reliable draws for affluent types in search of a sunny desert locale to call home.
One of the fastest-growing metro areas in the U.S., Las Vegas has been setting all kinds of real estate benchmarks. While the city has slowed some since the heady days from late 2020 through 2022, limited inventory has continued to keep the market moving. Led by a $21.25 million sale in The Summit Club in Summerlin, Las Vegas just saw its luxury home market record its best August in history, with the most sales since June 2022, according to Las Vegas Realtors.
But that strength has made finding the right home at the right price more difficult, so here are a handful of other desert spots that offer their own distinctive charms and lifestyle advantages, often with less eye-popping price tags.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Situated where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, Cabo San Lucas (population: 200,000) boasts a mountain-desert-ocean environment unique in the Western Hemisphere. Long a favored destination among Californians looking for a nearby escape, Cabo has grown to attract home seekers from farther afield, many of whom are drawn to the relative bargains afforded by Mexican peso-denominated costs.
According to Juan Diaz Rivera, managing partner of the Agency Los Cabos, the area used to be primarily thought of as a place where Americans came to buy second homes, but the pandemic changed this dynamic forever.
“With its low population-to-resources ratio, dry climate and ocean air, Cabo has become a haven for Americans and, for the first time, Mexicans looking to live here full time and commute to work,” said Diaz Rivera, who notes that townhouses that were worth US$500,000 are now selling for over a US$1 million, and that in-demand communities like Pedregal have no inventory under US$2.5 million.
“The ability for Americans to feel like they can fly in and out—or in the worst case, drive 18 hours north to the border—is now matched by wealthy Mexicans that have the best quality of life in the country and can fly to work a few days a week,” Diaz Rivera added.
Susanna Powell of Sotheby’s International Realty said while Cabo San Lucas offers a less established real estate landscape when compared to Las Vegas, the potential for substantial growth in Cabo is higher.
“The lifestyle in Los Cabos is truly something that can’t be replicated. The unparalleled fishing, golf, culture and food scene combined with ocean living puts Cabo in a unique position,” Powell said.
Because the highest-priced real estate has predominantly been nestled along the beachfront, Powell observes, “the limited supply of these beachfront properties can’t catch up to demand, making them coveted investments that are poised to appreciate significantly over time.”
Powell also has noticed steady interest in Cabo’s golf scene, citing the destination’s distinctive blend of desert landscapes, ocean vistas and mountainous terrain as a major draw. “This unique fusion of elements sets Cabo’s golf courses apart from Las Vegas, where such differentiators are not readily available,” she said.
The strong market performance observed in 2021 and 2022 has led to a limited supply of high-priced residences in 2023, supporting current pricing and creating a reasonable expectation for further appreciation, according to Powell.
“The region has healthy market conditions and its tourism industry is remarkably resilient. Five major new resorts are coming to the region,” she said. “Investment-wise Cabo is hard to beat.”
With a population of just over 5,000, Moab, Utah, is surrounded by two national parks (Arches and Canyonlands), an assortment of well-maintained state and city parks, and an extensive trail network.
“For those looking for a best-of-both-worlds scenario, Moab is the perfect blend of a scenic desert landscape and a winter getaway. With a more temperate summer climate than Las Vegas, plus the benefit of a short, mild snowy winter, residents can enjoy all four seasons within a stunning desert backdrop,” said Molly Jones of the Agency Salt Lake City.
Famous for its clean air and dark skies, Moab is located in a county where more than 95% of the land is public.
“Quality of life for the outdoorsy person is phenomenal. You can drive in any direction in 10 minutes and be in beautiful desert solitude with bluebird skies. Many folks move here to improve their mental or physical health,” explains Becky Wells of Summit Sotheby’s International Realty.
“It’s a place where you can get to know the owner of the restaurant or art gallery and I see people moving from bigger cities who really like that. It’s exciting to them to be recognized and greeted rather than living in a sea of strangers,” she added.
As of September, according to Jones, the median list price in Moab had increased by almost 4% year over year, and days on market had cut in half, going from over 150 days to just over 60 days.
Continued expansion of high-end hotels and retail venues has helped drive the luxury market, and the presence of a regional airport with service from Salt Lake City and Phoenix is making the area more accessible than ever.
“There are a handful of new luxury communities in their first phases of development, as well which offers unparalleled opportunity to get it now before all the amenities are fully built out and demand and pricing increases,” Jones said.
Moab’s luxury real estate prices are still quite affordable, according to Wells.
“When you compare us to other resort towns that offer similar outdoor lifestyles, you can get a lot more for your money here. You can look to spend between $500 to $800 per square foot, rather than $1,000 to $2,000 per square foot in neighboring resort towns.”
“Second homes and investment properties perform really well due to our high visitor count. A lot of our newer residents in Moab came here on vacation and were so moved by the scenery, they either relocated or bought a second home here. It’s truly a special place and connects people with nature,” Wells said.
Palm Springs, California
Nestled in Southern California’s scenic Coachella Valley, the region’s most famous address, Palm Springs (population: 45,000), has firmly positioned itself as a more convenient alternative to Las Vegas.
“We’re better than Vegas because if you ever want to take a daytrip you can be in the mountains, beach or downtown L.A., Orange County, San Diego in two hours or less by car, “ said Eric Meeks of Re/Max Desert Properties. “If Leonardo DiCaprio, Gary Oldman and the Kardashians think the desert is a hot place to own, who’s to argue?”
Lured in part by a thriving arts and cultural scene, headlined by the Coachella Festival and the newly-opened Acrisure Arena, a whole new generation of millionaires are moving to the Palm Springs area, according to Meeks.
“Under Covid, an entirely new demographic moved to the desert in search of free space to ride a bike, suntan, swim, hike and enjoy the outdoors. I call them techno-urbans, and they’re still coming,” he added.
Palm Springs was one of a handful of U.S. markets to see a triple-digit increase in luxury sales volume in 2022 compared to the pre-pandemic era in 2019, according to MLS data, and the luxury housing market shows no signs of easing.
The increased interest has depleted the supply of homes available for sale, driven up prices, and created a heated environment where buyers transact in cash, forgo standard home inspections and appraisals, and even pay the sellers’ closing costs to confirm the deal before a higher offer comes along.
“Luxury home buyers from various markets are seeking the allure of Palm Springs’ gated communities, where desert opulence seamlessly intertwines with peace and security,”” added Jeff Kohl, director of architectural properties, Desert Communities, at the Agency.
The booming city of Scottsdale (population: 245,000) combines natural splendor and urban elegance amid the enchanting Sonoran Desert. Throw in the near-constant sunshine and mild winters, and it’s easy to understand why the outdoor-oriented lifestyle continues to attract transplants from around the world. A wide range of nationally lauded resorts and spas are scattered throughout the city, which has its own private airport and offers close proximity to Phoenix Sky Harbor’s myriad connections.
“ Scottsdale offers a multifaceted appeal that surpasses Las Vegas,” said Scott Grigg with Grigg’s Group of the Altman Brothers. Grigg called out the more than 200 golf courses, resorts, hiking trails, nightlife and tax advantages.
Scottsdale’s real estate market is a well-kept secret for those in search of luxury properties, according to Grigg.
“What’s surprising to many is the affordability of these homes when compared to major metropolitan areas,” he said. “In the luxury market, demand remains robust. … Several new residential developments and luxury communities have been in the works, aiming to meet the growing demand for upscale housing options.”
Scottsdale was coined “the West’s Most Western Town” by the local chamber of commerce in 1947, and while the city has completely changed since then, many of the elements that originally brought new residents to Scottsdale remain alive and well, according to Allison Cahill, designated broker and luxury agent for the Agency, and president-elect for the Scottsdale Area Association of Realtors.
“There is something magical about the sunsets, … and even though Scottsdale is located in the desert, there are plenty of places to enjoy boating, kayaking and paddle boarding, including floating down the Salt River and enjoying the scenic Bartlett Lake nestled in the Tonto National Forest. Both are just minutes from the city center,” Cahill said.
In an analysis of the Scottsdale luxury market (defined as properties over $2 million) for 2023, Cahill found that the median sales price since January remained unchanged at approximately $2.7 million, with an average list price of $697 per square foot and the average sold price of $665 per square foot.
“To put our average pricing in perspective, it’s interesting to look back to data of our last normal market, which was in October of 2019,” she notes. “At that time, sales were at US$484 average sales price per square foot and average list price at US$511 per square foot.”
While saying the numbers show a balanced market, Cahill notes it is because inventory is still historically low and demand is just below a normal market.
Sedona has often been seen as a new-age mecca, offering the opportunity for renewal via endless outdoor adventures. With its stunning Red Rock cliffs and awe-inspiring mesas, Sedona feels much farther away than the two-hour drive that separates it from urban Phoenix.
“Unlike the bustling entertainment scene of Las Vegas, Sedona provides a serene environment, making it an ideal location for those seeking tranquility without compromising on luxury. The tax rates in Arizona are competitive, and the real estate market in Sedona has seen consistent growth, making it a sound investment with a huge upside on lifestyle,” said Jack Johnson, an agent with Legacy Sedona.
According to the local MLS, there has been a noteworthy increase in the average home sale price in Sedona; last year, the average stood at $1.63 million, and in 2023 it has risen to $1.75 million.
“This suggests a positive trend regarding the value of luxury properties in the area,” said Tod Christensen of Russ Lyon Sotheby’s International Realty. “The allure of Sedona, with its natural beauty, combined with its proximity to the various amenities in Phoenix, continues to make it an appealing destination for retirees and second-home buyers.”
Sedona has limited real estate inventory because it’s surrounded on all sides by National Forest, and so, in the long term, local real estate prices are sure to rise due to supply and demand, said Victoria Wylde of Re/Max Sedona.
“Since the pandemic, Sedona was put on the map as a luxury travel destination and we have been experiencing an influx not only of affluent travelers, but also affluent home buyers who have a desire to own a primary or secondary home here,” Wylde said. “
According to Wylde, the current median recorded sales price for a luxury home in Sedona (defined as homes over $1 million) is $1.4 million, with an average price per square foot of $589.
“Buyers will find incredibly unique neighborhoods and homes nestled amongst the red rocks,” Wylde added. “Sedona is famous for its Southwest style architecture but there are cutting edge builders and architects here that offer a wide variety of styles to suit almost anyone’s taste.”