This week Bruce is joined by Chief Econ0mist for the California Association of Realtors, Leslie Appleton-Young.
Leslie has had a tough job for the past few years, but things have changed for the better this year. Leslie can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and people’s expectations of the market have become more realistic. People are not as afraid of the downturn. However, she does not feel that this is true in all price bands. Over the next 24 months, the upper end of the market will experience many more price reductions. In the moderate to low end of the distressed market, Leslie predicts that prices will remain flat, and possibly increase slightly. The upper end of the market has seen some adjustment, but nothing like the lower end of the market. As the economic turmoil hits upper end markets, sellers will have to be more realistic about what they expect to get for their homes. In Riverside, there are some great homes with loans on them worth $1.5 million, but they cannot even sell for $700,000.
The lower price, subprime inventory has been absorbed, and that part of the market seems to be coming back. The stimulus for first time buyers and the decreased rates have had a significant influence on home purchases.
Every area in California is unique and different, but the dichotomy in today’s housing market has more to do with price than location. Part of the problem is that people are having trouble qualifying for loans. Demand for homes at the low end of the market exceeds the supply, but the opposite is true for the high end.
In the past, Bruce has found that inventory levels are pretty accurate leading statistics. When you are below a certain months level of inventory, you can often reasonably assume that things will turn around. There are a lot of lenders with properties that are not on the market. Default rates have also exploded, but the lenders will not file NODs. There is a penned up group of buyers, and there may also be a penned up group of buyers. Leslie thinks that government intervention will determine how this problem is rectified. It is difficult to predict how the government will deal with this problem.
California has benefited from the stimulus programs. We are starting to see more green shoots, and Leslie thinks that the iPad may have positively affected our economy. The state deficit has decreased over the last few months. California is an outlier. We boom harder, we sell more, and we improve quicker. However, our recovery is generally rather flat. We had a 5.9 percent GDP growth in the 4th quarter of 2009, and 4 percent of that was inventory restocking. Leslie wonders how much of our retail sales growth is tied to all those homes that are behind on their mortgages. We are not out of this downturn yet, but we are improving. The government stimulus is going away, and that is why there is some uncertainty about the outcome of the second half of this year. We will likely see interest rates increase. They have already increased a bit, but only by a quarter point. If interest rates climbed above 6 percent, Leslie thinks that there would be a strong negative reaction in the market.
Sometimes when rates increase, people feel encouraged to buy before rates become unreasonable. It is important for people to remember that it is not clear that prices have bottomed in all categories, but it is pretty clear that rates will be higher in a year than they are now. People need to measure the tradeoff between the cost of increased rates and decreased prices.
When Bruce became an investor, he refinanced his home in 1981 at 17.5 percent. One year later, he was delighted to refinance at 12.5. Very smart people told him that rates would never go below 10 percent, but now many people would feel jipped if they bought at a rate above 6 percent even though that is a historically incredible rate.
One thing that is really different this time around is the role of equity, or the lack of it, has played in the cycle. If you don’t have equity, you are not a homeowner. The policies for home buying and selling during the boom caused many of our current problems. When you have to pony up 20 percent, and you have equity in your home, you treat home buying and selling very differently than someone who is buying without documentation and zero down. In 2006, 40 percent of Realtors working with first time home buyers said that the buyers did not put down any money.
Bruce thinks the timing of the no down program was atrocious, because the price to income level was absurd. However, Bruce actually thinks we should have a no-down program in our current market. We have to create households that are fit to own. We have just taken back hundreds of thousands of homes from people that wanted to be owners, which are now credit damaged and cannot re-enter the market. We could make a no-down payment program, but when somebody doesn’t make a payment, we could let the loan go forward to the next owner without qualifying just like how the FHA once operated. The other option is to let the opening bid for the next 5 years to consist of just the late payment. If we used this program, there would never be an REO. The nothing down program would create a lot of interest in new owners, and we might retain the current percentage of homeownership that we already have. Bruce fears that we will have a national decline in the 62 percent range, and California will have another downturn in homeownership. Bruce loves the statistics that Leslie puts out.
There is a big difference between the net dollar amount coming to the seller now in comparison to the past. It was once around $200,000, but now its only about $50,000. One-third of these sellers sold at a lost. This creates a negative perspective on real estate which discourages people from investing in a home in the future. In a recent survey, 60 percent of past homebuyers claimed to have no future interest in buying again.
California homes are very affordable right now, because of the price decrease and the low interest rates. However, we are still feeling that it is necessary to encourage potential buyers to enter the market. The tax credit was truly a present to first time buyers. First time buyers are now approximately 50 percent of the volume of current home buyers.
We now have a healthy volume of sells. For 19 consecutive months, we have had a pace of over 500,000. We never even passed the 500,000 pace until 1999. The accumulative dollars are very different now from the peak. Commissions earned by realtors are very different from 2006 and 2007. Incomes have changed the membership of CAR, but not as much as Leslie was expecting. In 2007, there were 211,000 realtors in California. This year, we will probably have around 172,000. That is a significant drop, but considering the significant drop in profit volume, that is a rather small drop. This isn’t surprising though because the economy has not left with people with many other job options. If you work hard enough, you can still be successful. This market works well for the first time agent because there are a lot of first time buyers.
Website presence is critical right now. A recent buyers’ survey asked, “Did you look in the newspaper during your home search?” The results showed that only 10 percent of people were using the paper as a reference. People are searching for homes using very different methods, but it is actually very cheap to advertise online. All of the brokerages have cut back on overhead and expenses. A realtor may not have an office, but they can still be visible online if they have a laptop.
The internet has allowed the consumer to shop around without spending the realtor’s time. However, Leslie has found that 85 percent of home buyers were shown their current home by an agent. Perhaps the internet is presenting too much information for uneducated buyers. Also, in a market where properties are selling quickly, you need to have an agent helping you to be the first potential buyer in line.