First Time Home Buyer In Denver…..May Wish to Reconsider

I know I am a realist; I guess that comes with the three decades in the business and having been through three regional boom and bust cycles. Personally I was fortunate concerning the housing market; I bought my first house in 1989 for the grand sum of $140,000 ($285,000 in 2019 Dollars) the seller had purchased 5 years prior during an up-cycle i.e. the oil and gas boom of the 80’s before the S&L crisis had paid $200,000 ($238,000 in 1989 Dollars, $486,000 in 2019 Dollars) for the house. When I purchased the home, the seller still owed $160,000 on the mortgage and a 6% ($9,600) brokerage commission at the time of the sale. Yes I was fortunate concerning timing and insights i.e. in 1989 it was more advantageous for me to purchase based on the mortgage payment coupled with tax benefits (15 yr mortgage with 20% down) than the monthly rental of a comparable residence.

Thus it was disheartening to review the following article in this past weekend’s New York Times titled The Best Places to Be a Buyer – and the Worst. Spoiler alert, Denver was at the top of the list; for worst places to be a buyer followed by Los Angeles.

Denver was once a city and region which attracted the brightest and motivated with its mix of affordable housing, varied styles/neighborhoods, great climate and many more attributes, to many to list. Yet in the span of one generation housing has become not necessarily shelter but more of an investment. We also have collectively short memories i.e. the mid 1990’s when the Wednesday HUD foreclosure listings in The Rocky Mountain News were as thick as the newspaper itself and more recently The Great Recession of 2008-2010.

My gut is Denver will always be an attractive place to live and attract the brightest, most talented and entrepreneurial. However if we do not witness prices return to levels in-line with regional incomes and move beyond housing speculation we will be at risk of “Killing the goose that laid the Golden Eggs“.

The reality is there are a lot of cities in the Midwest, South and Southwest that would welcome the young, best and brightest coupled with a much lower cost of living. If our housing prices and challenges to ownership continue unabated the outcome may not be what we collectively desire.

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When Future Housing Value Forecasts Disagree    

A while back I posted a blog concerning Zillow and how their valuation of a specific home was off by 20% as their valuations are based on data from public sources yet does not necessarily account for tangibles including specific location, neighboring uses, traffic impact and so forth. Here is the link: https://denverrealestateinsights.wordpress.com/2017/11/13/the-internet-says-my-house-is-worth/

Thus I was intrigued when Zillow predicted a 4% gain for the Metro Denver Housing Market for 2019 yet the Colorado Association of Realtors (CAR) predicts a loss for the same market.

Let me be clear I do not know the methodology of Zillow or CAR. However I am inclined to go with the CAR forecast.

  • Anecdotally we as brokers witnessed a slowdown in the market concerning both sellers and buyers.
  • CAR using local MLS data including market activity i.e. price increase, decrease, withdrawals and so forth probably has a more accurate prediction of the market.
  • Houses entering the market at present may have languished prior, taken off the market and placed back on; a micro indicator of market conditions i.e. did not sell, try, try again
  • All of the above coupled with slowing in-migration.

Even a 1% loss is not worrisome as the housing market continues to outpace inflation. Also the run-up we have witnessed since the end of the Great Recession while impressive if you are a homeowner or seller has various negative externalities.

Back to the forecast; while data mining and algorithms are important and valued the reality is local and regional knowledge based on eyes and ears on the local scene is generally more accurate.

When did the tide turn? I believe we need to go back to the Savings and Loan crisis of the late 1980’s to 1990’s. Before the era of mega-banks that crossed state lines mortgage origination and appraisals were handled locally. The local bank would actually offer and service the mortgage. In the purchase process the local bank would hire the local appraiser and so on. The end result realistic valuations and risk assessment based on local conditions.

Yet the Savings and Loan crises in part began with banks lending beyond their markets thus beyond their local/regional market intelligence, using appraisers that were not familiar with the local/regional market and the desire to secure highest and best returns without assessing risk.

Does not sound much different than the Great Recession of 2008/2009 when real estate markets such as Las Vegas, Phoenix and others boomed based on speculation versus true market demand from employment and in migration and other factors that influence a local housing market.

Personally I can share two examples when appraisers not familiar with the local market showed how lack of knowledge of the local market can truly under-value and at times over-value a subject property.

  • Lexington Avenue versus Fifth Avenue, NYC: The two apartments were identical i.e. building design, floor plan, interior condition, date of construction and so forth. Yet the 5thAvenue apartment was on the market for 50% more than the Lexington Avenue sale within the prior 6 months.
  • The appraiser used the Lexington Avenue apartment as a comparable and based his appraisal of the 5thAvenue apartment on the prior sale. HOWEVER the Fifth Avenue apartment not only has a direct view of Central Park, 5thAvenue is considered one of the most highly valued and sought after residential streets in the world on par with Eton Square in London, Avenue Foch in Paris and Peak Road in Hong Kong.  Needless to advise the appraisal was challenged.

Locally here in Denver when selling a row house in Cherry Creek North I had to supply the appraiser with comparable and subsequently challenge his valuation. While the property was located in Cherry Creek North he was using comparable sales from Congress Park and The Hale neighborhood i.e. within one mile of the subject property. Also he was using condos and townhomes yet the row house had an individual land plot and thus was unique in that respect and more valuable. Finally he used a comparable in the complex yet the subject property went through a gut renovation one-year prior interior and exterior including windows, mechanicals and related. The comparable adjacent in the original condition and state of disrepair from 1984.

Granted appraisers only have access to so much information usually provided via the MLS and pictures. However as brokers we literally deep dive and understand market nuances that may not be evident in pure market statistics or within an algorithm. Thus while I am a fan of technology, AI and all the opportunities coming down the pipeline, considering real estate, I am old school and realize humans while flawed can actually make subjective judgments that are more accurate versus objective data driven information.

The Brady Bunch may wish to consult with middle sister Jan as she has been quite successful concerning real estate investing

A few months back all over the popular news was the story of the North Hollywood home at 11222 Dilling Street used as the model for The Brady Bunch being placed on the market. The home subsequently sold to Discovery Inc.‘s HGTV network and is now bring renovated by the Brady siblings with additional guidance from The Property Brothers.

While the Brady kids have varied careers including Christopher Knight AKA Peter Brady who now produces a furniture line the siblings may wish to look to Eve Plumb AKA Jan Brady the misunderstood middle child; as real estate investor she as been quite savvy on the East and West coasts and definitely not misunderstood.

At present Ms. Plumb and her husband’s Ken Pace just listing a property on the  Upper West Side of Manhattan at 2025 Broadway for $735,000. The unit 22-J is on the 22nd-floor, 716-square-foot co-op is in a full-service building by Lincoln Center and Central Park. For those who may not know Manhattan, a desirable area. Of note Ms. Plumb purchased the unit for $589,000 in January of 2013, not a bad profit at all.

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Back in 2016 Ms. Plumb purchased a penthouse at 330 East 49thStreet just east of the heart of Midtown Manhattan for $1,557,000. The unit, a 2 bedroom is approximately 1,100 SF yet has three (3) setback terraces which are most desirable in an open-space starved city. In addition, the penthouse features a windowed galley kitchen, two marble bathrooms, hardwood floors and lots of closet space, according to the listing.

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The two buildings in Manhattan are known as post-war construction which usually trails the market versus pre-war apartments and of course the new in-demand curtain wall designs yet savvy investors know such apartments in these buildings usually have locations that cannot be replicated and can be purchased for 20-35% below comparable new and pre-WWII constructed apartments. For more about NYC apartment styles the following is an excellent primer: Postwar, Prewar and Everything Before

Yet most impressive is probably Ms. Plumb’s first foray into real estate. In 1969 at the age of 11 she purchased with the assistance of her parents a beach cabin (850 SF – pictured above) in Malibu for $55,300 or $377,225 in today’s inflation adjusted dollars. The bungalow style home, which is located on Escondido Beach Road and thus on one of Malibu’s most picturesque beaches, includes three bedrooms and 1.75 bathrooms and NO heat or air-conditioning. Of note the quite modest home sold in 2016 for $3,900,000 off an asking of $4,150,000. “Way to go Jan“.  Below the smaller home on the foreground.

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Tuesday’s Real Estate News Should Signal Caution Now and in the Immediate Future

OK, I am the first to admit I have an alert concerning local real estate. I usually receive updates from The Denver Post, The Denver Business Journal, BusinessDen and other local sources of business news. However Denver and Colorado are not an island in a vast sea and at times we seem to forget we are part of a larger country and may be missing signals concerning the overall national housing market.

Last week a grouping of news came out on the same day that cause me to suggest proceed with caution. Granted many of my peers suggest I am a pessimist, however with almost three decades in the real estate business I have witnessed everything from exponential growth in prices to foreclosure listings offered by The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) when published in the newspaper secured their own pullout multipage section.  Thus when the following news hit the wires last week I said to myself “The Dow is at 26,000 however the tea leaves concerning housing seem to be advising caution”. The following is a longer than average blog post for me, thus highlights are in BOLD and there are various links as well.

Home DepotThis retailer is actually one of my favorite indicators concerning the housing market. In flush times Home Depot’s stock is in-demand due to being a favorite supplier for independent contractors, homeowners and related entities. This is a stock so sensitive to housing that when a Hurricane hits a populated area not surprisingly Home Depot stock price rises and the company has its own Hurricane Command Center.

On Tuesday 2/26 Home Depot reported fourth-quarter earnings and sales that missed analysts’ expectations and offered a weaker-than-anticipated outlook for fiscal 2019. With U.S. home sales and prices under pressure, fewer shoppers are heading out to buy materials for home projects and renovations. For much of last year, confidence in the U.S. housing market soared, benefiting Home Depot and Lowe’s. But with mortgage rates climbing, attitudes have since started to turn sour. This may lead to home prices rising at a slower rate and the market cooling down, which has sparked some fears for the sector.

Housing Starts: The number of homes being built in December 2018 plunged to the lowest level in more than two years, a possible sign that developers are anticipating fewer new houses to be sold this year. The Commerce Department said Tuesday (2/26/19) that housing starts fell 11.2 percent in December from the previous month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate 1.08 million. This is the slowest pace of construction since September 2016.

Over the past 12 months, housing starts have tumbled 10.2 percent. December’s decline occurred for single-family houses and apartment buildings. Builders have pulled back as higher prices have caused home sales to slump, suggesting that affordability challenges have caused the pool of would-be buyers and renters to dwindle.

The S&P/Case-Schiller Index: I have profiled the Case-Shiller Index in past blogs and is one of the statistics that I am most interested in and intrigued by as it offers an immediate snap-shot of the market’s health as well as historical reference and thus while somewhat complex concerning its data; the empirical information provided is invaluable.

Home prices increased 4.7 percent annually in December 2018, down from 5.1 percent in November, according to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index.That is the slowest pace since August 2015. The 10-city composite annual increase came in at 3.8 percent, down from 4.2 percent the previous month. The 20-city composite rose 4.2 percent year over year, down from 4.6 in the previous month.

Las Vegas, Phoenix and Atlanta reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities. In December, Las Vegas prices jumped 11.4 percent year over year, followed by Phoenix with an 8 percent increase and Atlanta with a 5.9 percent rise.Three of the 20 cities reported greater price increases in the year ending December 2018 versus the year ending November 2018. Of note impressive gains for Las Vegas and Phoenix; two cities that represented the irrational exuberance of real estate speculation during the 2000’s only to be the symbols of foreclosures and negative equity during the Great Recession.

In addition affordability is at the lowest in about a decade, and home sales were sharply lower at the end of 2018. Prices usually lag sales, so it is likely price gains will continue to shrink until sales make a move decidedly higher.

According to the National Association of Realtors sales of existing homes were 8.5% lower in January 2019 compared with January 2018, Homes are now sitting on the market longer and sellers are cutting prices more frequently.

 I am the first to admit anyone can manipulate statistics yet it seems there is a convergence of cautionary news out there. I do not see myself as a pessimist, more of a realist. Yes real estate is emotional, it is not liquid like equities and for most of us it represents the largest purchase and subsequent debt servicing of our lives. Thus why I suggest proceed with caution and be rational.