Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Bubble or not, high home prices can hurt 5/5/2005

By Sue Kirchhoff, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Pamela Harness has never seen the market this hot.

This house in a Baltimore suburb sold for $230,000 in 1987; $665,000 in 2005.
By Tim Dillon, USA TODAY

The Phoenix-area real estate agent's clients include a couple who made a $150,000 profit by reselling a house they held for just six months, an investor who paid more than $300,000 for a home he plans to put back on the market by year's end, and buyers facing months-long waiting lists at area home builders — if they can even get on a list. (Related graphic: Housing prices increase across the USA)

"The market here is just absolutely nuts," says Harness at West USA Realty in Chandler, Ariz. "I get investors calling; they want to buy a home. I tell them they're a day late and a dollar short at this point."

This was supposed to be the year the housing sector, which has expanded at a record-setting pace since 1998 (except in 2000), started to cool. Instead, existing-home prices rose in March at the fastest pace in two decades, and new-home sales hit another peak in the first three months of the year.

The strong housing sector has buoyed the economy and local governments, through construction payrolls, increased property tax revenue and consumer spending tied to high home equity.

But it also has economic downsides. High prices are keeping buyers out of the market, making it harder for firms to attract workers in pricey markets and breeding high consumer debt and speculative buying.

Many economists warn a major swath of the market is at risk of a price correction.

"Home buyers appear to be irrationally exuberant," Jan Hatzius, economist at Goldman Sachs, said in an April report to clients, recalling Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's comment about stock market investors in the 1990s. Hatzius identified frenzied coastal markets, such as Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Washington, Miami and San Francisco, as especially hot.

Prices double in California

Nationally, home prices have jumped an average 50% in the past five years, doubling in California and rising about 80% in Nevada and Hawaii, according to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO).

In an April USA TODAY poll of 55 top economists, three-fourths called housing overheated, though they differed on whether they expect a gradual cool-down or a sharp drop in sales and prices. Forecasts for a soft landing expect robust job creation to offset the negative effects of the Federal Reserve's interest-rate increases.

Those forecasts were buoyed Friday, when the government's April jobs report showed stronger-than-expected job creation. But other recent data show a somewhat softer economy than forecast, with wages lagging behind inflation.

A few economists warn of a national housing bubble, but most say local housing and job markets vary so much that a countrywide downturn is unlikely. But price reductions in big urban markets could have a broad effect on the economy. That is why there is plenty of concern about signs of speculative buying: the fact that prices are rising faster than rents, when the two usually move more closely in tandem, and price inflation that can't be justified by low rates or supply.

For their part, industry officials are irritated by "sky is falling" predictions. Home builders say the current, elevated level of about 2 million housing starts a year is not enough to meet higher-than-predicted household growth, fueled by immigration. Supply is tight in some areas because it can now take years to get developments approved by zoning authorities.

Further, affluent baby boomers, rather than selling homes as they near retirement, are buying second houses. Investment homes were nearly a quarter of all purchases in 2004, and vacation homes were an additional 13%, says the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

Joel Rassman, chief financial officer of luxury home builder Toll Bros., a publicly traded firm based in Pennsylvania, reviews the finances of recent customers every few months to gauge how well the company could weather altered economic conditions, such as an interest-rate surge. At last check, his average buyer could pay at least 38% more.

"I still have so many people overqualified, I should be able to sell houses as long as I've got housing in the right location," Rassman says.

Nationally, an NAR survey shows affordability still in a healthy range. But in a number of cities, soaring prices are pushing not just lower-income workers but middle-class families to the sidelines.

In California, on average, only 18% of the population could afford a median-priced home in March, according to the California Association of Realtors.

That's down 3 percentage points from a year ago. The minimum household income needed for a median-priced home, at $495,400, was $115,910 based on a 5.81% interest rate and 20% down.

In Montgomery County, Md., a suburb of Washington, officials say people making the county median income of $84,446 could still afford median-priced existing town houses and condos but won't be able to in a couple of years if current trends continue. New town houses and existing homes are out of reach.

In Minneapolis, where appreciation is more modest, the non-profit Family Housing Fund says lower-paid employees such as cashiers and child care workers can't afford a typical $189,000 home.

At the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245 in Walnut Creek, Calif., about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco, housing is on the agenda in coming contract talks. Union officials will press for higher pay in cities with stratospheric prices, such as San Francisco. The plan is controversial with union members who have opposed wage differences based on geography, gender or other factors.

IBEW Communications Director Eric Wolfe says there is no choice because high prices are distorting the local economy. Fewer workers want jobs in expensive cities. Experienced workers with seniority rights are claiming openings in cheaper rural locations. Mass migration from pricey areas to affordable ones, dubbed the "salmon run," creates its own problems.

"Like the plague in the Middle Ages, real-estate-price inflation is being spread by the people who are fleeing it," Wolfe wrote recently about the bargaining stance.

Another telling sign

There is another telling sign of consumer stress: the growing use of alternative financing. Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs), which carry interest rates that rise in tandem with market rates after a set period, have been setting records and now account for more than a third of recent home lending, even though rates on 30-year fixed loans remain below 6% — lowest in decades.

In the subprime market — higher-priced loans for consumers with impaired credit — more than 80% of purchase loans are adjustable rate. So-called 2/28 products, in which an interest rate is fixed for two years, then can rise annually or semiannually, is the main subprime-purchase loan, according to David Kogut, a senior economist at mortgage giant Fannie Mae.

Based on past experience, ARMs should have only about 20% of market share, Kogut says. The rise in ARMs shows that borrowers are stretching to buy, because ARMs offer lower interest rates, and therefore lower monthly payments, in the early year or years of a mortgage. At the Web site LendingTree, which connects consumers with lenders, about half the customers in the past six to nine months have opted for adjustable-rate, zero-money-down, interest-only or similar mortgages.

"As rates go up higher and as real estate prices continue to firm, people will look at alternatives, and a bigger percentage of consumers will get into these non-traditional loans," says Anthony Hsieh, president of LendingTree.

The risk of waiting

Potential buyers see warning signs of a speculative market but worry they run a bigger risk if they wait and prices jump still higher. "People have been saying for years now, 'The bubble is going to burst.' It hasn't happened, and my friends who bought three years ago have tripled the value of their property," says Bridger McGaw, 30, seeking a Washington, D.C., condo.

McGaw has lost out on several properties, including one in a bidding war that pushed the cost $70,000 over the $319,000 listing.

Phoenix's Harness and Bob Waldron, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker in Los Angeles, say buyers trying to break into the market are being hurt by speculators snapping up lower-priced homes that have more appreciation potential.

Home builders are trying to tamp down speculative buying by writing contract clauses allowing them to cancel a sale if an owner does not live in a home or to take a share of the profit if a house is quickly resold.

Home prices don't always go up. In Boston, median home prices fell 6% in the early 1990s, and were down 13% in Worcester, Mass. In New Haven, Conn., prices dropped 21% from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. Since the late 1990s, prices and volume have moved at a heady pace, lately fueled by Fed interest-rate cuts.

Today, a typical existing home costs 3.5 times a median family income, compared with a longstanding 2.7 ratio, according to Goldman Sachs, which says affordability is still not too bad because interest rates are low. But in hot markets on the coasts, price ratios are near peak levels of 1981 and 1989, which were followed by some sharp corrections. The earlier price-ratio peaks occurred when interest rates were at highs, not lows, however. If the price gains continue, affordability could become the worst ever in those pricey areas within the next year, the firm says.

Prices have not been rising uniformly, however. Prices from late 2003 to late 2004 rose 32% in Nevada, 23% in California and 23% in Washington, D.C., but less than 4% in Indiana and Ohio, according to OFHEO.

"It's like a cake when you open (the oven door), and it sinks in the middle and gets burned around the edges. There really is not a housing bubble in the middle of the country," says David Kelly, chief economist of Putnam Investments.

Mary Kuhlmann, a real estate agent at Woods Bros. in Lincoln, Neb., tells sellers it takes 45 to 60 days to move a home. The average price for a new starter home is $165,000 to $199,000.

"In the last four months, our homes probably have been lingering a little longer. We went through a downtime, unusually," she says, adding spring sales are heating up.

But Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research says the fact that prices haven't risen as fast in parts of the Midwest and South isn't much cause for solace.

"There is an argument there is no national market. Fine. There are regional markets where prices are sufficiently overvalued. ... They are sufficiently large that it affects the national data," says Baker, adding he thought the real estate bubble would have popped by now.

The slowdown that wasn't

For a time late last year, it looked as though the long-predicted slowdown was arriving. Katherine Race Brin, 29, entered the Washington, D.C., market gingerly in November, but she and her husband, Lawrence, ended up getting the first house they went for.

"Our Realtor was saying all these people were talking about how the bubble may be bursting. ... For our house, in a pretty sought-after area, there was only one other bidder, and we only had to pay 1% above what they were asking," says Katherine Race Brin, adding that the sellers got 35% more than they paid for it two years earlier.

Since the first of the year, the local market has heated up, with prices rising 10% to 15%. A friend of Brin's bid on, but didn't get, a house down the block, which went for $100,000 above the asking price.

Existing-home sales and new-home sales both posted large gains in March, with existing-home prices up 11.4% on a year-over-year basis — the biggest gain since 1980. Interest rates, which briefly rose to about 6% for a 30-year fixed mortgage are back to about 5.75%.

The NAR expects existing-home sales to decline about 1.2% this year and new-home sales to slip 2.5%. Prices are expected to rise 7%.

But most say after years of such predictions, who knows?

"In 2004, the market had an adjustment during the last two quarters," says Waldron, the Los Angeles real estate agent. "Then in January, it started all over again. Boom. It's back into multiple offers."

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