Why Continued Positive Comments About the Housing Market Scare Me

As a broker I make my living assisting clients purchasing and divesting of their real estate holdings. In this market of ever seemingly positive news I should be thrilled. Yet as a 20+-year broker licensed in two states I have some serious concerns on the macro level, which truly reverberates beyond home sale statistics.

At present the Denver market as well as the US market looks very healthy. Demand is high, employment and wages are growing, and mortgage rates are low.

However based on reports out this past week, if one reads between the numbers and taking into account history and growth trends, the market is quite challenged. Not at present but longer term we may be setting ourselves up for a dramatic shift in the economy and wealth accumulation.

There is continued strength in the overall national housing market with prices 6% higher than the same period one year ago. Some local markets continue to show double-digit growth in prices. Metro Denver’s year over year was 7.9%. Such numbers are driven by the simple law of supply and demand and specifically the limited supply at the lower end of the market. Thus lower end homes are witnessing significant price appreciation due to more competition while higher end listings are languishing or having price reductions (see my last blog).

While I have mixed feelings on Zillow and similar sites, their insights and digesting of data is always an interesting read: “It sets up a situation in which the housing market looks largely healthy from a 50,000-foot view, but on the ground, the situation is much different, especially for younger, first-time buyers and/or buyers of more modest means,” wrote Svenja Gudell, chief economist at Zillow in a response to the latest home-price data. “Supply is low in general, but half of what is available to buy is priced in the top one-third of the market.”

So why is the inventory and supply on the lower end of the market so challenged? A few reasons and many can be seen in your local neighborhood:

Conversion of Inventory from Home Ownership to Rental: During the Great Recession which many of us brokers also call “a housing crash”, investors from large hedge funds to Ma and Pa purchased 100’s of thousands of foreclosed properties. While some were fix and flips, the vast majority became income-producing rentals. At present according to the U.S. Census there are 8 million more renter-occupied homes than there were in 2007.

Granted some renters may be scared off from purchasing and while the investors could cash out and after paying simple capital gains have a nice windfall, at present the cash-flow on rentals is one of the most attractive investments in the market coupled with the underlying equity appreciation of the real estate; thus the motivation to sell is limited. In turn lower end and moderate homes are not coming on the market in meaningful volume.

New Home Sales are Down: In August 2017 there was a 3.4% monthly drop concerning new home sales. If demand is so strong shouldn’t new home sales be booming? Well, it is again simple economics and in this case pricing.

In August just 2 percent of newly built homes sold were priced under $150,000, and just 14 percent priced under $200,000.

Builders advise they desire to build more affordable homes yet profit margins or the lack of is causing constraints. Builders blame the higher costs of land (exurbs with lower cost land is falling out of favor with 1st time home buyers who desire to be closer to urban centers), labor, materials and regulatory compliance i.e. building and zoning codes (and this is before the hurricanes decimated Houston, southern Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands which will demand laborers and materials to rebuild leading to eventual inflation in those industries and supply chains.

One could argue that market forces will eventually realign the housing market. Yet when this will happen is anyone’s guess. Considering we are still in a “Goldilocks economy for housing i.e. jobs and income continue to grow, interest rates remain at historically low levels, financing rules have become more flexible and inflation remains tame at below 2% annually. So what is the problem?

At present our inventory of new and existing homes is static with numbers similar to those found in the mid 1990’s a full 20+ years ago HOWEVER during those 20+ years the country’s population has expanded by 60M. Couple this with a mismatched market as home prices will not come down as long as there are buyers out there willing and able to spend more and more money for less and less house as we have witnessed in hot markets i.e. San Francisco Bay Area, The Northeast and other markets.

Longer term is my concern. We have witnessed locally in Denver our market moving from purchasers to renters. Good for investors not so good for individuals concerning personal wealth. Homeowners are known for making big-ticket purchases i.e. appliances and upkeep and maintenance sustains the construction sector i.e. additions, roofing and so forth.

If we move towards a renter oriented housing market fewer Americas will be able to save and grow their money associated with the ownership and upkeep of a personal owner-occupied residence. Due to demand rents may continue to rise (as less inventory on the market) and thus renters will have less disposable income to spend which will ripple through the economy beyond housing.

Yet Denver may be the litmus test for the national economy as follows:

Upper-End of the Market: is slowing dramatically as prices rose to fast and thus not sustainable. Upper-end buyers are usually market savvy and thus will be more cautious entering the market. Even in the Country Club neighborhood I have witnessed price-drops and re-listings at lower prices all in an effort to generate activity; would have been rare one year ago

Lower-End of the Market: Supply is outstripping demand with the average home in Metro Denver over $410K; yet incomes/wages have not kept up as the average worker is slowly being shut out of the market and thus will be a perpetual renter,

Rentals: The vast majority of new rental buildings are priced at luxury levels (just look at the cranes in Cherry Creek North). Yet that market is slowing and many of the existing buildings are struggling to attract tenants and now offering rental incentives. Yet additional buildings continue to come out of the ground.

Zoning and Entitlements: In Denver while zoning has allowed additional density and not without controversy i.e. slot homes in Cherry Creek, while beneficial to rental development, most rentals are oriented to single and couple households, with few exceptions most new multi-family buildings are not designed for families or larger households.

The above is just some food for thought. Add an existential crisis and this housing “House of Cards” may come to an ugly resolution. While I am not predicting another housing crash, the off-balance market is not sustainable and the overall repercussions to the overall economy have not been considered, quite dangerous.

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As a Buyer What Your Broker Wants You to Know

As the real estate market in Metro Denver slows or as many of us believe moves towards a more balanced market between sellers and buyers, choices and opportunities will expand for all in the marketplace. In discussing market conditions with peer brokers we began to discuss what we desire the buyers we represent to know before and during their house hunt.

Knowing One’s Budget and Realistic Expectations: One of the issues related to historically low interest/borrowing rates is buyers are looking at a monthly payment versus actual valuations. Coupled with low down payments in an up valuation market this is not an issue. However in a traditional market when a 2% appreciation may be considered healthy i.e. matching inflation such a pro-forma can be an issue when one believes homes should rise 10%, 15% or 20% per year as the norm and may be projecting such a forecast into their future planning.

What most brokers (including me) suggest is to immediately us a home affordability calculator. While not perfect this tool will allow prospective buyers to have a general baseline concerning affordability i.e. a budget and price range. The second step we suggest is to secure a mortgage pre-approval letter; a process involves a lender reviewing a client’s finances and determining how much it’s willing to loan for a home. No matter the market listing brokers and their clients i.e. sellers understand a pre-approval (not to be confused with a pre-qualified) letter shows intent and seriousness. Finally we look at smaller yet potential challenges i.e. real estate taxes, upkeep/maintenance costs and lifestyle i.e. condo, single-family residence and other factors which may not be part of the initial calculus concerning home ownership.

Do Not Contact the Listing Agent: As brokers we know with the Internet and other marketing tools information about a listing is ubiquitous. And yes the Listing Agent would probably be the most knowledgeable about the residence he/she is selling. Of note, the information provided on the web through various distribution channels is only as accurate as the original input.

Yet the Listing Agent is the advocate for the seller. As a buyer it is important to communicate through your buyer-broker whose fiduciary interest is to you. By allowing us, your buyer broker to interface with the selling broker we are showing A) you are represented by a knowledgeable and competent professional and B) We have a strong working relationship. When one contacts the listing broker directly this can undermine the working relationship AND place a buyer in a secondary position with the Listing Broker whose fiduciary duty is to their seller (unless one becomes a Transaction Broker which is rare).

 Silence is Golden: On the rare occasions I host an open house I am always amused at the conversations I overhear. It is similar to the home-flipping shows in which a hidden camera and microphone are set up to capture before and after comments (I will not opine on the ethics of such actions). Yes as brokers we ask probing questions i.e. are you working with a broker? How many houses have your looked at? Any general impressions you would like to share and so forth. If I am listing the house I am representing the seller and the questions I am asking will facilitate my marketing efforts. However the answers may provide insight concerning the prospective buyer; information you may not wish to share except with your buyer broker i.e. motivations, budget, timing and so forth. This is truly proprietary and should only be shared with your buyer broker.

Thus (and a lot of brokers will be angry with me), when attending an Open House please keep your comments beyond ear shot at a minimum. In WWII there was a quote “loose lips sink ships”; while not as dire, go against human nature and discuss the home outside or be sure you are out of hearing range of the broker or their confederates. Even better see if your buyer broker is available to attend with you or set a private showing with your broker so you can discuss the home sans others overhearing.

Trust Your Broker; The Internet is Not Truly WYSIWYG: I actually enjoy when my client’s forward listings they have found on the Internet and I am one of the few. Their actions suggest to me they are serious and doing research. Yet I also understand the frustration of brokers. Many clients will send every listing within a 50 mile radius or similar. A few tips:

  • WYSIWYG: Known as What You See Is What You Get is not necessarily true. Listings on the Internet like most marketing channels are promoting the finest attributes of the property. Do you really believe the listing broker is going to post a picture of the freeway adjacent to the home or the junkyard across the alley? Of course not! Tip: if there are a limited number of pictures or pictures of the neighborhood dominate I would be more skeptical. Even the smallest of residences have a wealth of images available. The reality is your broker probably knows the neighborhood, possibly the residence and has access to information from title companies, assessors records and other sources to provide a truly balanced picture of the residence on the market.

 

  • Billboarding: It is amazing when you input an address of a home for sale and the results include every broker in the market showing the listing. With today’s technology when a listing is loaded into the local multilist service with few exceptions the information is distributed to multiple channels. Thus the information is now in the public domain. Of note my firm is even more proactive as we have a company intranet, which promotes our our listings to our offices worldwide if we wish. The issue is the information presented in the public domain may be inaccurate.

For example my personal residence, which I sold and closed in April 2017 continues showing as “For Sale” on multiple sites including one of the most popular valuation sites 5 months after closing. I once had a listing which was presented on a “Owner Will Carry” site sans my permission; all the calls I received were from prospective buyers looking for a specific product i.e. an owner will carry option, unfortunately a financing method my client would not entertain. The service billboarding the listing was doing a disservice to their clients many who paid for access to this supposed proprietary list of residences available with a seller who is willing to carry a mortgage.

  • Your Broker is In the Know: Your broker will have access to the most up-to-date information and as mentioned prior is your advocate and communication channel with the listing broker and their seller client. Even if a property is Under Contract your broker can inquire if the seller is entertaining back-ups, if the existing contract may fall through and so forth. Thus use your broker and their experience and expertise to your fullest advantage.

Fear of Commitment: I am probably one of the rare brokers who has not continually bought and sold during their career for their own account. Readers of my blog know I was in my previous residence for 27.5 year! This has to do more with not a big fan of change and it was and still is a great residence yet my lifestyle changed. I do, as most brokers do understand the purchasing of a house is a big commitment and not one to be taken lightly.

Buying a house, especially one’s first residence is a big step and commitment. As part of our client review and why we request pre-approval letters and so forth is a sense of commitment from our clients as in general brokers are not compensated unless a transaction closes. We also understand life presents us all challenges as no one’s employment is ironclad and other issues can question one’s commitment concerning home purchase into doubt. Yet with careful planning and foresight coupled with communication, commitment phobia can be curtailed.

As I advise clients a residence is not necessarily a ball and chain (and trust me there is the same look every one has when they review the mortgage repayment schedule at closing, I call it the Ball and Chain look). There are always options from resale to rental to refinancing and so forth.

An acquaintance I met while walking in my neighborhood one day mentioned a unique situation; she is single, a senior citizen with a larger home yet straddled with a sub-prime mortgage and job loss. If she sold her home; even with a strong market the proceeds would just cover the outstanding mortgage and penalties accrued over the past 6 months. Thus her credit report would be healthier yet she would be homeless.

As an acquaintance and not a broker we discussed and I suggested checking out the following blog on Seniorly concerning programs for seniors looking for roommates or housing. The upside for the owner of the home, the opportunity to collect some income, dig herself out of the financial hole and have a peer in residence. While not for everyone a viable alternative to selling and having no equity to fall back on or worse, foreclosure and being forced from the house.

As Brokers we are truly your advocates. As there some bad apples out there? Of course just as in any profession. However the vast majority of brokers I know and trust are those who truly look out for their client’s best interest and desire to build long-term relationships and a referral network based on honest quality service.

Happy House Hunting.

Is Irrational Exuberance Giving Way to Rational Behavior

I recently enjoyed a conversation with a friend who is about to list their residence in one of Denver’s most affluent neighborhoods (of note I was NOT in the competition for the listing). He mentioned what they plan to list the home at. I asked if they were planning to use the broker whom they have a personal relationship with and they advised no as what they wish to list the home at, the broker would not take the listing feeling the asking price was overly aggressive. Another broker has since been retained to market and sell the home.

Full disclosure, the home is spectacular from a conservative design perspective including solid pre-war construction, beautiful curb appeal, and a park-like oversized lot professionally landscaped and so forth. Of course there are some minor deficiencies yet nothing insurmountable. However when I was advised of the asking price my immediate reaction based on my experience in the present market was “Good Luck”.

I personally went through a similar situation with clients in 2011. Due to a change in employment status and other factors including owning the largest home on the block purchased at an inflated 2006 price, a challenging layout  and across the alley from a primary school  the sellers and this home had multiple challenges. At the Listing Presentation with a peer broker in attendance we advised the seller the asking price should be between $710,000-$720,000. The seller requested I place the house on the market for $839,000 (their purchase price was over $800K plus interior upgrades leading to a cost-basis in excess of $840,000). As a friend first and broker second (and I have since learned my lesson) I did as requested. After one month, multiple open-houses and two formal showings the sellers agreed to lower the price. The new asking $739,000, still above what was advised the prior month. Fifty yes 50 showings later and 9 months on the market not one offer! We decided to part ways. The seller hired another broker, within one week did a price reduction and subsequently sold the residence for $715,000.

It took the seller ten(10) months to sell for $715,000 which I had advised, from day one AND at $4,000/month mortgage, do the math, $40,000 before interest deduction, not exactly the most brilliant strategy.

Thus based on the above examples and seeing signs of a slowing market and for my own edification I decided to look at market activity both present and looking back at Sold Activity over the past 6 months.

Let’s start with Country Club (the borders are from Downing St. to west-side of University Blvd, 1st Avenue to 6th Avenue).

Sales Activity over the last 6 Months Country Club Neighborhood of Denver:

  • # Of homes sold: 7
  • Avg. Finished SF: 3,510 SF
  • Avg. Total SF: 4,482 SF
  • Average Sold PSF Finished: $568.38
  • Average Sold PSF Total: $445.01
  • Average Days on Market: 24 Days

On the Market at Present:

  •  # Of homes on the market: 8
  • Avg. Finished SF: 3,186 SF
  • Avg. Total SF: 4,419 SF
  • Average Sold PSF Finished: $557.31
  • Average Sold PSF Total: $424.36
  • Average Days on Market: 68 Days and counting

Based on size the differences between the Sold’s and on market is marginal and same concerning the Price per Square Foot however what is telling is Days on Market (DOM). The Sold’s over the last 6 months on average sold in 24 days. Yet those on the market today is average 68 days and counting. The difference, over one month, almost a month and a half.

I admit one could argue the homes on the market at present may have challenges from location to upkeep however as asking prices based on a Per Square Foot basis stayed relatively the same, the issue is the longer on market time. Number of days on market has more than doubled. Yes there are seasonal factors however many pundits argue the selling season is now year round.

My personal view is market demand is softening and asking prices are yet to adjust to the new market realities.

Of note, Country Club is a small, insular neighborhood with limited inventory and limited turnover. Thus I also looked at Cherry Creek North (1st Avenue to 6th Avenue, University Blvd to Colorado Blvd) to provide a more balanced view, granted however balanced one of the metro’ area’s most affluent neighborhoods can be. However with the diverse housing stock and density, a clearer picture may emerge.

Sales Activity over the last 6 Months Cherry Creek North Neighborhood of Denver:

  •  # Of homes sold: 53
  • Avg. Finished SF: 2,396 SF
  • Avg. Total SF: 3,335 SF
  • Average Sold PSF Finished: $436.10
  • Average Sold PSF Total: $332.28
  • Average Days on Market: 53 Days

On the Market at Present:

  •  # Of homes on the market: 94
  • Avg. Finished SF: 2,393 SF
  • Avg. Total SF: 3,416 SF
  • Average Sold PSF Finished: $595.36
  • Average Sold PSF Total: $412.07
  • Average Days on Market: 95 Days and counting

Again as with Country Club based on size the differences between the Sold’s and on market is marginal and same concerning the Price per Square Foot however what is telling again is Days on Market (DOM). The Sold’s over the last 6 months on average sold in 53 days. Yet those on the market today is average 95 days and counting. As with Country Club the difference is almost a month and a half.

Conclusion: In both neighborhoods asking and closed prices have stayed somewhat status quo. However in a hot housing market the number of days on market is telling. Granted one could use the seasonal differential argument. Maybe; however in both neighborhoods we are seeing the Days of Market mirror each other i.e. almost a month and a half difference.

I may be incorrect and I admit when I am however I believe the market is definitely showing signs of slowing based on Days on Market coupled with levels of inventory. Yes the two markets are considered luxury markets yet what happens at the upper-end of the market historically trickles down to other market segments. What will be interesting is when we will begin witnessing price adjustments.

It seems the pinnacle of the market may have been 6-12 months prior and the market is now possibly taking a well-deserved breather or maybe showing signs of a changing business cycle.

Considering interest rates have remained stable; actually still close to historic lows, the stock market continues to flirt with record highs and the recent issues with N. Korea are too recent to influence the housing market.

I believe the optimists will advise it is a natural seasonal shift, me being the conservative pessimist would advise, hang tight if you can it may be a bumpy ride ahead.