Does the Record Sale of Steele Creek Apartments Cherry Creek Signal a Top

I remember when Steele Creek Apartments were proposed for the Southeast corner of Steele Street and 1st Avenue, at the time occupied by a few Class C buildings and a discount dry cleaner.

With the news hitting that the building set a new record on a per-unit basis for the sale of an apartment building of $570,000 per unit does the valuation make sense even considering future equity appreciation?

Working in both New York and Denver such numbers are not surprising as in NYC such a deal would be a steal especially for a newer construction building minus any rental controls, statutory affordable housing or long-term leases. Yet Denver is not New York.

Granted we have seen other close to blockbuster deals in Central Denver concerning rental properties as excerpted below from my morning daily read BusinessDen including but not limited to:

However are these deals good money-chasing returns, which are far from guaranteed? One could argue Denver at present is in an up cycle with record high rents (even though some buildings are offering rental incentives). Yet I am concerned as follows:

The New Rental buildings are oriented to deluxe and luxury tenants offering studio to 2-bedroom configurations limiting marketability to affluent singles and couples. In New York and San Fracisco the highest prices on bith a per-unit and PSF basis are “family-oriented” apartments considering of usually 2-4 bedrooms and minimum 2 bathrooms where a family can be reside comfortably.

Is there a glut on the horizon in the marketplace? Between Lower Downtown and Cherry Creek along the Speer Boulevard/1st Ave. corridor we are witnessing new buildings sprouting up like weeds with the assumption that demand for luxury rental apartments will continue unabated.

The Millennial Generation Will Age: I am witnessing it in my real estate practice; millennial’s are pairing up, starting families and due to price pressure are looking at homes to purchase in outlying Denver and suburban neighborhoods; not much different how Brooklyn became chic when Manhattan rents became unaffordable (with some help from Michelle Williams and Maggie Gyllenhaal and for us old timers, Patty Duke lived in Brooklyn Heights).

If the Influx Slows Who Will Rent these Apartments? While certain buildings have a reputation for attracting empty nesters (25 Downing Street) and those whose change in lifestyle may necessitate move to an apartment from a home (The Seasons at Cherry Creek), while renting is an option, many opt to purchase. Again anecdotally I know two empty-nest couples who moved from Country Club to condos, one in downtown, one in Cherry Creek.

What is Trendy Today is a Maintenance Headache Tomorrow: We see this in buildings throughout Capitol Hill, the party rooms with the naugahyde chairs on brass wheels and the pool table that has seen better days or the pool which requires constant expensive maintenance and upkeep.

While I understand the attractiveness of the cost on a per unit basis when compared to other in-demand cities including San Francisco, The Northeast Corridor (from Boston to Washington DC), Los Angeles and so forth those cities have physical geographic constraints and draconian rent-control laws which circumvents true market supply and demand laws thus raising rents on the free-market inventory.

Thus I do not see how the numbers work based on existing rental rates even when factoring in equity appreciation and nominal inflation. Granted there is always the option of conversion from rental to condo. The process includes upgrading the common areas and interiors of unitsoriented to the for-sale market AND developing a legal condominium, HOA and so forth. Not unheard of in Denver i.e. The Barclay (which when first converted were offered with developer backed below-market financing), Brooks Towers and other buildings have experienced such conversion.

However at present transaction cost per unit, is there really the demand for the $600K one bedroom condominium? We have seen such sales in smaller boutique developments including 250 Columbine (which does have a Starbucks on the retail level), but it is rare and definitely a niche market.

From experience such condos sell to those looking for a pied-a-terre in which their primary residence is NOT Denver or potential investment however for a decent cash-on-cash return the rents do not justify the selling price.

In New York City developers take the opposite approach developing condos and if the plan if sales do not meet the pro-forma then re-branded as a rental with the option to sell individual units when the market strengthens.

At present looking at prices coupled with construction activity I would be “short-selling” the apartment market if such a vehicle existed. Long-term I may be proven wrong, however within the three-five year time horizon and even in the present as leasing entities/developers are offering rent concessions, I would be more concerned versus excited at the blockbuster record prices being recorded.

 

 

 

 

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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.

Does the Seller Really Want to Sell

While the metro Denver market continues to hum along and there are a few “blockbuster” sales on the upper-end, anecdotally I am seeing signs of stress especially on the upper-end of the market. Some listings are coming on at inflated/fantasy prices and within 1-2 weeks a price reduction. Granted some reductions are more symbolic i.e. still priced above market and I never fault anyone for holding out hope of that blockbuster sale. However as an experienced broker I look for various signs showing that a seller is serious and motivated.

Yet first some signs advising the seller may not be so serious:

Will Not Close until Replacement Property Secured: In such a situation the seller is driving the transaction. You as buyer are in a holding pattern literally beholden to the seller and their timing and wish-list concerning finding a replacement property which in a hot market may not be so easy. In commercial transactions this can be a common occurrence and is a tactic used in 1031 Exchanges. Concerning traditional residential I would be more cautious. Not to dissimilar from a reverse contingency i.e. usually buyer will purchase contingent on the sale of their existing property. Instead here the seller will sell and close once their replacement residence is secured.

Holdover or Leaseback in Excess of 30 days: Holdover i.e. occupancy once the house is sold and closed is not so uncommon. I usually suggest 30 days or less; there is even a pre-printed Colorado Real Estate Commission Form known as the Post Closing Occupancy Agreement for such an event. For longer periods (and again if you are an investor the criteria may be different) I would be more cautious. Basically the seller is looking to cash out and lease their house back. I have been involved with situations concerning relocation when this is quite accepted. However barring a relocation situation my immediate concern is for the buyer. The seller is desiring to cash out and lease back. Again in commercial real-estate not uncommon, in residential may indicate seller may believe market is adjusting downward and desires to cash out at prevailing market conditions and assumes paying rent is safer than a mortgage associated with a downward trending asset. Yes the seller may need the cash out of the house; there are additional options from HELOC’s to Reserve Mortgages, thus a sale is more drastic.

Again the above are basic guidelines, not the gospel and each situation is truly unique.

The signs seller is truly serious:

Buy Me: Even in a hot market a property may go through multiple price reductions. Granted this could be an indicator the listing was over-priced to begin with. However when coupled with other indicators i.e. priced well-below market value, being offered “as-is” or desiring a cash transaction can possibly construe the seller is very serious.

Of note, be forewarned as some brokers will purposely list a property at below-market to instill excitement of prospective buyers and more importantly bids and offers. In a hot market such a tactic can be a benefit to the seller. However in a market trending downward such a strategy may place the seller in a losing situation i.e. full price offer at the below-market price and by not accepting barring contingencies the broker may demand a commission if seller does not sell.

Curb Appeal or Lack Thereof: Anyone who has owned a home knows landscaping takes time and money (even DIY’s i.e. materials, water, maintenance). While brokers usually advise an investment in curb appeal, a seller who may not have the time or capital to attend to the landscaping may be showing signs of motivation by their inaction and lack of investment. Such signs I look for include:

  • Overgrown or dead lawn/shrubs/flower beds.
  • Weeds and other decay i.e. trash, dead leaves, and overgrowth.
  • Newspapers that have not been picked up and/or fliers in the door.

Such signs could also point to an absentee owner, landlord or similar situation. I have used such visual cues to procure listings by researching public records and other databases.

Interior is Half Lived In: Hey I am all for staging and a staged house usually suggests a motivated seller i.e. the investment in staging. However dig deeper especially if you believe the house continues to be owner/seller occupied. Are the closets ½ empty? Is the furniture mismatched or haphazardly placed? Are walls showing signs of art having been removed and not replaced? Such indicators may indicate divorce, destitution, already moved out or similar. Usually when a home is in such condition, the seller is motivated. Please note there is a difference between purging and having moved on.

Of note, in Japan in the 1980’s some listings were not only staged but also included a live multi-generational family pursuing their daily routine during open-houses to show how the home functions and meets the needs of a multigenerational family as buyer. Trust me somewhat disturbing seeing children doing their homework during an open house yet also true early adopters of the precursor to virtual reality.

Family Dynamics have Changed: I see this quite often; the signs may include a child’s crib in one of the social rooms i.e. living, dining, home office or similar. Or on other side of the spectrum oxygen tank or other medically oriented items. Such indicators may suggest a new addition(s) to the family from a child to an aging parent or illness. This may be a situation where the owners desire to move for more space to accommodate and thus at present a not optimum living situation.

Estate Sale: Usually estate sales are when the owner passes and/or the present sellers are by descent. Such sellers may be more motivated to unload the property for various motivations from estate tax liability to not desiring the upkeep and maintenance. In the Denver Multilist there is a check box for type of seller and one option is Estate. If your locale does not indicate such type of seller and it is a deed of trust state, investigate what type of deed is being offered. Is it a Personal Representative Deed or similar? May be an estate. Of course some experienced brokers review obituaries and similar to look for listings; an old pastime in New York City which is practiced to this day (not to mention treating estate lawyers to lunch).

Providing Too Much Unrequested Information: In Colorado we have what is known as the Seller Property Disclosure, a 7+ pages form executed by sellers to provide information to the best of their knowledge concerning the residences condition and state of repair. Of note I advise seller clients to be truthful and honest as its both a legal and ethical course of action not to mention most buyers will engage the services of a home inspector prior to closing.

However some clients can be more forthcoming and mention issues and potential remedies before being prompted. In general I usually caution sellers to be circumspect in what they mention i.e. “We were going to install an on-demand hot water heater but went with the conventional as it was cheaper and we did not want to invest any additional money into the house”. This tells a buyer the seller while preparing for sale went for near-term economics versus cost-savings over the long-term. I am guilty of this myself. In the sale of my house I advised the sellers concerning a secondary bathroom; if they ever plan to renovate to consider changing the dual knobs to a single-lever. Was I disclosing too much? Maybe; however I advised since we did not use that particular bathroom we never did the upgrade; something to consider for their larger household and lifestyle.

The House Is Empty: Rarely do homes show better when vacant (that is why we have staging as an image is worth 1,000 words). In reality an empty property may indicate the seller has moved on. Yet continuing to retain ownership the empty home does incur carrying costs even if there is no mortgage i.e. real estate taxes, upkeep, insurance and so forth. Thus the seller may be willing to be more flexible knowing their for-sale asset is depleting capital while on the market.

Granted some homes are staged and again this may be a sign the seller is serious as staging is not inexpensive. In some markets we are now witnessing virtual staging i.e. computer generated staging to the benefit of on-line marketing, again a picture is worth 1,000 words. One company has brought the cost of staging down with inflatable furniture; just don’t sit on the props. Of note, a broker trick to show the scale of a bedroom, set up four to six boxes for support, add a camping air mattress, cover with a bedspread and pillows. The result an instantly staged and scaled bedroom.

Happy House Hunting

Millennials Understand Opportunity Truly Knocks Beyond Central Denver

We seem to be in a unique environment concerning the national housing market as both buyers and sellers are excited. For sellers, record high prices are becoming the norm even in the rising interest rate environment. Buyers even though confronted with the challenging lack of inventory are strengthening the market due to confidence and the desire to lock in still historically attractive interest rates.

The above is based on the monthly Fannie Mae Home Purchase Sentiment Index® (HPSI)increased by 2 percentage points in January to 82.7, ending a five-month decline. Some of the highlights from the report include:

  • The net share of Americans who say it is a good time to buy a house fell by 3 percentage points to 29%, matching the survey low from May and September 2016.
  • The net percentage of those who say it is a good time to sell rose by 2 percentage points to 15%.
  • The net share of Americans who say that home prices will go up increased by 7 percentage points in January to 42%.
  • The net share of those who say mortgage rates will go down over the next 12 months remained constant this month at -55%.
  • The net share of Americans who say they are not concerned about losing their job rose 1 percentage point to 69%.
  • The net share of Americans who say their household income is significantly higher than it was 12 months ago rose 5 percentage points to 15% in January, reversing the drop in December.

Now concerning millennials, according to Fannie Mae research, more are purchasing and starting new households. While the Great Recession may have delayed purchases; millennials are now more confident concerning job security translating to an increased in marriages and parenthood (common during stronger economic cycles, nothing new there).

Yet of interest due to the expensive reality of city-centric residences some millennials are exploring and purchasing in the suburbs where values are generally more affordable. I have witnessed this myself concerning millennial clients looking beyond central Denver. Neighborhoods of interest include:

Southmoor Park: Lots of home and land for the spend. Also close enough to Light Rail Station at Hampden and I-25 allowing easy access to downtown and easy drive to DTC. With Whole Foods and new restaurants options on the Hampden Corridor, becoming popular.

North Englewood: Just south of the Denver border clients are looking at Englewood (north of Hampden Avenue) as a substitute for Platte Park especially adjacent to S. Broadway which continues to diversity businesses now catering to clients within their immediate neighborhood versus the traditional commuter traffic. Also a few good options for fans of Mid Century Modern who may not wish to pay the prices associated with Krisana Park.

Arvada: With neighborhoods close to the light rail line and with a new urbanism orientation, millennials are finding Olde Town Arvada has urban qualities found in areas such as Old SouthPearl, Old South Gaylord and other urban enclaves. With the easy commute to Denver via rail or car and lower prices, demand will soon outstrip supply.

Westminster: As with Arvada, the new rail line is opening up opportunities for those who desire more affordable housing, an ongoing renovation/development of a town center and easy access to the Broomfield office parks.

Edgewater: For those who have been priced out of Sloans Lake, Edgewater offers a respite within a stone’s throw geographically. With a charming commercial street, small town feel yet within easy viewing distance of the downtown skyline and a nice diverse housing stock, do not be surprised if this hidden enclaves demographics see a dramatic shift in years to come skewing towards younger buyers and families.

With this millennial flight to the suburbs what is going to happen to the inner-city? In essence the millennials are basically skipping a step i.e. usually starting in the inner-city and then moving to the suburbs for access to additional square footage, suburban schools and so forth. While these areas were once car-dependent, the expansion of RTD’s rail lines are making these suburbs once considered commuter oriented into their own attractive and thriving towns.

Yet I am far from concerned about the City of Denver. While I have some personal issues with the desire to increase density in some neighborhoods; Denver will always remain in demand due to geography, diversity of housing stock and varied amenities from cultural to financial i.e. lower water bills, low-taxes, municipal services and so forth.

My one concern for Denver is this rush to increase density. Full disclosure I am a native New Yorker thus I understand density having been raised in within an apartment building on the 20th floor and taking the subway to and from school. I am also educated as an urban planner. I view the cranes on the skyline of Cherry Creek, west of the Denver Country Club and other areas and I have three questions:

1) Is there truly longer-term demand for all the new multi-family buildings?

2) If in fact there is demand and zoning is keeping up with this demand, will our infrastructure follow suit i.e. roads, mass-transit, pedestrian corridors, dedicated bike lanes?

3) Are we remaking the inner-city of Denver unaffordable akin to San Francisco, New York, Paris, London and other cities in which the income gap is severely pronounced. These were cities which used to have a true diversity of cultures, incomes and employment and now have become playgrounds of the wealthy or long-time owners.