Sunday, April 24, 2005

Wanna buy this house? Send your résumé.


| Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor
A headshot and bio is standard protocol to get an audition for a TV show or a play. But are they really necessary to buy a house?

They are in some neighborhoods of Los Angeles where, in addition to offering as much as $75,000 over the asking price, buyers are sending flowery bios, pictures, and letters to sellers.

"I just oohed and ahhed my way from room to room," read one letter to Jane Centofante, who was selling her 2,000 square-foot home in Westwood, a tony L.A. suburb, for a cool $1.49 million. "I gather from your [house] that you are warm and smart and bring incredibly beautiful detail to your world," read another. Ms. Centofante was stuck - deciding between the family who included a photo with their dog and the young screenwriter who wrote a flattering two-page letter - when other events put the sale on hold.

Welcome to America's frothy real estate market, where in some places enthusiasm and excess have reached a point that, to many, seems eerily similar to the dotcom craze of the late 1990s.

Of course, housing prices don't rise and fall like stock prices. They move more slowly and because of different dynamics. Still, it's hard to imagine the intensity of today's market continuing indefinitely, experts say.

"There is a conceptual limit that we have gone beyond," says Susan Wachter, professor of real estate and finance at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "And we are more vulnerable to price volatility. But complicating the issue is that there is no simple measure of a bubble."

Instead, there are anecdotes that would have seemed unbelievable 10 years ago. For example:

• Bidding wars in California are forcing real estate agents to write recommendations on behalf of their clients who are attempting to buy a new home.

• Real estate trade groups in Massachusetts are calling on state officials to approve more housing construction to improve prospects for buyers.

• Retirees moving to Florida are living in hotels for weeks and even months at a time as they scour the state in search of affordable places to live.

Most baffling to economists, and even those who reject the notion of a bubble, is that the supply of homes for sale continues to dwindle in places like Florida, southern California, and Massachusetts. Thus, there is no clear sign that the real estate market has peaked. All of these places experienced double-digit increases in home prices throughout 2004, some repeating their cloud-piercing performance for the third consecutive year.

Big gain in one year

In February, the median price of a home in Florida rose 25 percent to $201,400 when compared with the same month a year ago. The West Palm Beach-Boca Raton area of the state continues to register the biggest leaps in home prices, climbing as high as 34 percent in the fourth quarter of 2004.

Multiple bids keep coming through, says Marilyn Jacobs, who sells homes in Boca. And more often than not, her sellers are rejecting a lot of people.

"They've had to kiss a lot of frogs before they find their prince," says Ms. Jacobson, a native New Yorker. "But those other frogs will find their palaces, too. There are still plenty of opportunities."

Not so in Massachusetts. The state has seen a precipitous drop in housing construction, keeping demand taut and prices aloft. The conditions have worsened in three years, evoking a theme akin to the late 1980s.

At that time, housing prices throughout Massachusetts were appreciating rapidly and they didn't correlate with the annual rent a house could command - a relationship economists scrutinize to detect a bubble. The result: a real estate recession that knocked prices down and drove investors away from the housing market.

Despite the evidence, "I don't believe there is a bubble right now,'' says Maggie Tomkiewicz, president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, who argues that today's supply-and-demand conditions don't contribute to a real estate bubble. Interest rates were also trending downward in the late 1980s.

Effect of interest rates

But economists today are forecasting that interest rates will rise, a notable characteristic of a cooling trend for the real estate market. The danger is that until interest rates rise, home buyers will continue to snap up real estate they can't even afford. Zero percent down and 100 percent financing are influencing many homeowners to live beyond their means.

"It's like you have all of these people driving around in fancy cars and drinking expensive wine because they feel rich,'' says Christopher Thornberg, a senior economist with the University of California at Los Angeles Anderson Forecast. "The problem is there is all of this money floating around and something has to break.''

Mr. Thornberg's prognosis: "The whole US is in a bubble right now. And it could go on for another year.''

Or burst in the next six months, according to Harvey Dent Jr., author of "The Next Great Bubble Boom." He bases his prediction on a recent estimate from the National Association of Realtors that 23 percent of last year's home sales were second homes purchased by investors.

That made sense when real estate proved a better investment than poor performing stocks. But as interest rates rise, Mr. Dent says, they will push investors out of real estate and back into stocks or bonds. "That's why I'm renting an apartment in Miami Beach," Dent says. "I don't want to get stuck owning some overvalued piece of property."

Delay in the deal

Unfortunately, Jane Centofante has yet to sell her home in Los Angeles. An inspector found traces of creosote - a mixture of potentially toxic chemicals - throughout her home. Since the finding, she has lost four potential buyers during escrow, that critical period of time when a buyer and seller work out the money and other requests when transferring ownership of a home.

"I'm ready to sell. And I want to sell. But now I can't," says Centofante, who hopes to have the creosote problem remedied before the market sours.


53 Comments:

At 10:50 AM, Anonymous Jason said...

"That's why I'm renting an apartment in Miami Beach," Dent says. "I don't want to get stuck owning some overvalued piece of property."


Get this guy's contact info. I have a tinfoil hat to sell him

 
At 2:19 PM, Blogger BadTux said...

In the Silicon Valley I'm renting an apartment right now because my rent is less than half what I would pay in mortgage note and property tax for a condo. That's nuts. Utterly insane. No tinfoil hat required.

As for why housing market is tight despite a ton of new construction and (in some places like the Silicon Valley) population declines: Investors. Even today I can rent a condo for $1500/month where, if I bought it, it would cost me $3000/month in HOA dues, mortgage, and property tax. It doesn't make sense, why rent out the house if you can't even get positive cash flow out of it? Unless you're an investor, who desperately wants to believe that, despite negative cash flow, you're going to sell it in a few years and making a killing...

The question then is: a) how long can investors maintain a negative cash flow before they're forced to put the house or ocndo on the market, either voluntarily or via foreclosure? b) will enough of them be forced to do so at the same time to flood the market? c) what happens to Fannie and Freddie when other real estate loans start going sour? If things crash, the Feds will have to bail out Fannie and Freddie, and the only way they can do that is by printing money (i.e., inflation). Which is arguably the right solution (since one of the primary causes of the Great Depression was deflation, which meant that people were unable to pay off their loans using now-scarcer dollars, leading to further deflation as more banks collapsed), but it's unclear what economic effects this will have.

One final wrinkle: The neo-cons are intent on continuing their campaign of perpetual war for perpetual peace and possibly even furthering it into new frontiers such as Iran or Syria, yet are running out of people willing to volunteer to wage their wars even using the most unethical of recruiting techniques (see the recent recruiting scandals, which are eerily reminiscent of Revolutionary War era British press gang tactics). Top administration officials vehemently deny that a draft is in the works. If there is no draft in the works, then there's only one other way to get the soldiers required: drop the economy into recession in order to make enough people desperate enough to volunteer to be shot at by crazed jihadis in Iraq. Could it be that the administration *purposely* primed the pump on a housing bubble, and is now poised with a needle to puncture it? *NOW* we're talking tinfoil hat territory... but as the late Hunter S. Thompson once put it, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you."

- Badtux the Tinfoil-coifed Penguin

 
At 8:18 AM, Anonymous cbk said...

It's Harry Dent, not Harvey, and he's right on target. I sold my home, put the money in CD's and now rent it back from the "investor" I sold it to for a pitance of what he could have been getting on the price he paid (the negative carry he's bearing is huge . . . . and no property taxes, no homeowners insurance and no maintenance costs . . . . I love it and will be back in the market to own after the crash in about 2 years. Oh, by the way, my home hasn't appreciated at all in the last year according to the realtor who sold it for me. Not all real estate is appreciating contrary to the media's pounding of this subject. In fact the high end priced real estate in my area (Sacramento) has actually gone down over the last 2 years and Sacramento is supposed to be the hot spot in the nation . . . . it is at the $250-350 K level but over $500 . . . . it's blahsville.

 
At 8:57 AM, Blogger JLP said...

I live in Southeast Texas. Even though prices are rising here, it is not the craziness we are seeing in other places like California and Florida.

I hope we never have to sell our house and buy another one. I don't think I could handle it.

JLP

AllThingsFinancial

 
At 2:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why no updates for the past few weeks??

 
At 2:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please post some more; I liked this blog. OR else post something saying you're on hiatus. Thanks!

 
At 9:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

housingbubble.net is being auctioned on ebay!!

 
At 2:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow - housingbubble.com is on ebay and someone has bid $1000

 
At 8:01 PM, Blogger HBB said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 8:03 PM, Blogger HBB said...

golden state bubble said...

A Federal report on home prices
on all housing markets came out
last week.
Here are some of the highlights.
And also year-over-year appreciation
for the major markets for last 5 yrs.


Ntional Home Price Appreciation Tracker

 
At 8:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Overvalued is a understatement. People are paying more than top dollar now and will be taking great losses as interest rates go back up.

 
At 3:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Home prices continue a 13-year rise

People may be talking about whether there's a housing bubble ready to burst, but Harvard economists see little reason for homeowner gloom: U.S. home prices have been climbing for 13 years, with the rise in 2004 the largest annual jump since 1979.

In a report released Monday by the university's Joint Center for Housing Studies, economists said the market is fueled by easy credit, low interest rates, affluent baby boomers buying second homes and the continued growth of immigration. Also, thanks to an expanding economy, regulatory constraints and a limited supply of land for development, they see no sign of a slowdown.

Most housing indicators set records in 2004, the report noted, including homeownership rate, new and existing home sales and single-family housing starts.

But some Americans have been left out of the party. Renters face a diminishing supply because rental-housing construction fell to a 10-year low in 2004 and many can't afford the higher-end units being built.

The price hikes in the purchase market have caused anguish for would-be first-time homeowners, particularly those in high-priced markets such as Southern California, New York, Florida and the District of Columbia. In 33 of the nation's 110 metropolitan areas, median home prices now are about four times median incomes.

http://www.latimes.com/classified/realestate/printedition/la-re-update19.1jun19,1,5266089.story?ctrack=1&cset=true

 
At 9:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the biggest red flag out there that the market will turn around sometime next yr and possibly cause another recession if jobs are not created in other sectors.

http://finance.myway.com/jsp/nw/nwdt_rt.jsp?section=news&feed=bus&src=202&news_id=bus-pek292938&date=20050711

 
At 12:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Despite the evidence, "I don't believe there is a bubble right now,'' says Maggie Tomkiewicz, president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, who argues that today's supply-and-demand conditions don't contribute to a real estate bubble."

Anybody notice that the pom-pom girls are usually working as things like "Economist for California Realtors"? Caveat emptor, amigos.

 
At 3:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Preach on cbk!! Preach on!!! We sold our condo in Culver City (West LA area) a year ago March for 3 times what we paid for it in 1998. We're chillin' and grillin' while leasing here in the hot bed of real estate, Irvine - Orange County CA, while watching people all arouond us pay absolutley absurd prices for stucco and stick shacks, and we're paying lease payments that are less than half of their adjustable IO mortgage start rate payments!!!
We figure about another 8-12 months and we'll be a couple of Fed hikes higher than now, and the party will begin to break up, and it's gonna be ugly ya'll!!
Those doors at those distressed properties that are being closed in my face now, will be open with lips puckered in about a year or so. I've got nothing but time and a whole ass-pocket full of equity funds from the place I sold.
Yep cbk, the time for those of us with some patience is just about upon us. And a glorious day it will be!!!

 
At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Robin Amer said...

Hi there-

My name is Robin Amer and I'm a producer with Open Source, a public radio show based in Boston. Our host is Christopher Lydon, original host of NPR's the Connection. You can find out more about us at www.radioopensource.org.

I'm writing you because we're working on a show about the housing bubble, and I'd be very interested to talk to you about your take on this issue. (I think you may have recently done an interview with my friend Benjamen Walker. He pointed us in your direction.)

If you're interested, please email me at robin@radioopensource.org or call me at 617-497-8097.

thanks so much. I look forward to speaking with you.

best,
Robin Amer

Open Source
www.radioopensource.org
617-497-8097
robin@radioopensource.org

 
At 11:33 AM, Anonymous asdfdsaf said...

Read this from the Sac. Bee:
http://www.sacbee.com/content/home/real_estate/story/13282940p-14125161c.html

Realtors say the local market has peaked.

 
At 4:56 PM, Blogger Cole Kenny said...

Renting is really the best way to go in this market. There are so many signs of a bubble pop right now you're really throwing your money into the equivalent of a slot machine if you buy in this market in LA. More at bighousingbubble.blogspot.com

 
At 9:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yo Anonymous 5:48,

I find yo arraginse tu be sikenin and typikul of duh south'n Califonian mind. You shood be happy dat you has been so fotunit enuff to find yoself in dis sichuashin. Insted, you chews tu be little those indavidyooalls who you knowinly f#$%ed out of der life savin's. The reality is dat you was very lucki to have bot in '98. Soon you will have duh oppertunity agin to capitaleyes off anothu persons miss fortunes. Yo greed is no diffant den dat po sucka dat bot yo condo.

Unfotunitely, fo all of us, even dose who was not involv in dis game is gunna get scroode in duh end.

 
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At 11:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My View:

Both myself and my wife make a pretty decent living, we have a child with little debt. Like most we felt pressure to get into the market because everyone said you had better before it was to late. I did and found myself with a 1100sq ft. box that needed work in an ok neighborhood with a $3100 mortgage. While we could afford it we had to consider more that just being homeowners. Like quality of life, savings, a huge questionable commitment, risk of buying in a Bubble or just at the wrong time, getting stuck in a little house that's really was only worth half of what we paid.

We sold the house a year and a half later, invested the cash, rent a 1500sq ft. 3bed condo for $1900 in a very nice part of Irvine. We take the $1200 we save and take a trip every month or save it.

I have watched several friends and co workers purchase homes in the last 2 years, some even refinancing more than once to take out cash. Now while some may be able to afford their new homes some of them are already feeling the pain and not one has a 30 fixed as the ARM option is the only way they could make it work (and it dont get better than that).

One friend even refinanced to help cover his monthly bills, "fool". Two others are selling because NOW they realize (reality) that under current market conditions home ownership is risky and is a huge financial commitment that has gotten out of hand. One slip, problem, broken car, lost job etc... and life as a whole could easily take a turn for the worst.

On another note: I have a couple of friends and family members who are Realtors or in lending. Like a lot of sales people they will tell you what they need to, just close the deal.

If your selling, you better hurry before the market takes a dive, dip, bust etc...

If you buying, then you better get in the market, now is a excellent time to buy, prices will only go up etc...

My realtor after getting to know him and once we were close to closing said he thought it was better to sell now than take a gamble and get stuck. Also, its a game he hates playing but he has bills that need to get paid.

Even good people will take advantage, "As much as I hate it, I would".

 
At 12:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello. Ok, I've never blogged in my life before, but here I go. I try and pride myself as being a smart person, but some of the economics are out of sorts when it comes to housing. I have owned a home since the age of 19, and my family and I now find ourselves renting for the first time. We live in Southern CA, and feel that it would be a much to risky thing to get back into the housing market. We recently sold our house in March, and are renting for 1/2 the price in a better area with excellent schools. Now I have to say that the there are challenges to overcome with a family living in a rental situation, and it's not my preference, but you have to do what makes sense for your family and situation. I'm from the old school that says you get a 15-30 year fix morgage and put as much towards the principle and limit the interest payment. There are a couple of factors that I believe are affecting the market, and those factors have not been in play before..so I don't believe that anyone has a crystal ball to read what really will happen. You have the new 2 year rule about capital gains, if you live in the home and don't pay taxes. Look back at 1998, and you will find that the market started taking off after that law came into effect, and that was with higher interest rates then we have today. You also have that coupled with low interest rates, and that spells opportunity for most people who can add. Now, I have to say that the economy is not limited to just a couple of factors, and a multiple and complex system, so to say that this or that will make a difference, you need to take a step back. Stastics will not lie and facts are facts. The housing industry has created more jobs in the last 7 years, and I believe that the rough number is about 50%, now say that you take out those jobs from the market place, and also those who believe that now they are financially free to leave their jobs beccause they have "invested" in the realestate market. Even if the pricing of the market slows down or stabilizes, there still will be effects for those in the market, and their new found incomes. I have run into more realestate agents who own their homes for only 2 years, and have multiple properties, and I have to say that if they don't get the sales in or out, they will not be able to support their past endeavors. There are so many markets that will be affected by a "slow down" or even a leleveling off, I am not looking forward to hearing how this might play off. I personally work in the biotech sector, and when investors pull out of investing it's the same as the banks saying they will not lend more money, who will they have to go to for funding? I know that this is a long winded message, so I hope that you are getting some enjoyment out of it, so my apologizes. One other factor to consider is that businesses today are not the same as they were in the past. I am taking an extended learning class on economics at Berkeley and with the influence on shareholder value, businesses are trying to run lean as ever and that is not a good sign for job creation. The message for any sector should not be how cheap or expensive it is, rather look at who will be buying and how many cars, houses does anyone need. Something is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it, and when there isn't income to support those purchases we all know the answer to the statement.

 
At 4:09 PM, Blogger William said...

Fantastice blog you got here, I will deffinitely be back to see the updates you have made. I have a website that you might find interesting. It pretty much covers
california real estate

california real estate

 
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