It took the Wall Street Journal an entire survey to prove what readers of this column have known for months: The housing recovery, as it plays out, will be a localized event, varying greatly city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, street to street.
The Journal, god bless them, compiled housing data to compare inventory changes, months supply, price drops, unemployment, and default rates across 28 US metro areas. Unsurprisingly, bubble markets like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Miami look particularly horrid, whereas areas like Dallas (which avoided much of the housing mania) and cities like Charlotte and Seattle (which are just now seeing price declines accelerate) appear to be holding up rather nicely.
But drilling deeper into the raw data reveals a housing market that's deeply bifurcated, even within individual cities.
As low-end markets experience a sharp increase in buying activity due to supply shortages and vastly lower prices, illiquid high end markets are experiencing violent price swings — typically in the southward direction. This much is already known, and the Journal's study simply shows what we're told ad nauseam: real estate is, in fact, local.
What's far more applicable to home buyers and sellers around the country, however, isn't what a few broad (yet important) data points show about what's happening in a few hundred neighborhoods all lumped together. Instead, it's where individual submarkets are headed. After all, owning a home is an investment in a neighborhood, a street, a community — not necessarily a metropolitan area at large.
Housing prices, by extension — when measured as broadly as a metro area — are basically meaningless.
Real estate, for all its intricacies, isn't any different than any other market: Prices are set by the interplay between supply and demand. The trick, then, is isolating the key data points within an individual micro-market that tell us who has the upper hand — buyers (demand) or sellers (supply). This is the best short-term indicator of where prices are likely going in the near term.
Unfortunately — and one of the reasons bottom-calling in the current housing cycle is so dangerous — myriad behind-the-scenes deals between regulators and big banks like Citigroup (C), Wells Fargo (WFC), Bank of America (BAC), and JPMorgan Chase (JPM) are impacting markets in a material way.
There are a number of important measures of housing supply and demand. And because at Cirios Real Estate we take a bottom up approach to evaluating property values (i.e., house by house, rather than city by city), we pay close attention to the sales-price to list-price ratio.
This ratio simply measures the difference between where a home was listed and where it was sold. To be sure, this can get complicated in markets where price reductions are common. But comparing both original list price and most recent list price to the eventual sales price can yield important insights into a market's true behavior.
As can be seen in the graph below, which measures this ratio in 2 towns in the San Francisco Bay Area, this ratio tends to follow housing booms and busts fairly closely.
All things being equal, as sellers gain the upper hand and buyers become more desperate, prices are bid up over list and this ratio will rise. On the flip side, as demand weakens and sellers scramble to unload their homes, price reductions and low-ball offers drive sales.
In markets with rising sales-price to list-price ratios that have been under pressure for months, if not years — like many distressed markets — we'd argue stabilization could be just around the corner. The big caveat, however, is that banks keep bleeding out their shadow inventory slowly, and don't dump their massive bank-owned home portfolios onto the market. Keep in mind, also, that stabilization doesn't imply appreciation.
High-end markets, on the other hand, are seeing massive list-price drops, and any sort of bottom is indeed very far away as forced sales and foreclosures creep into well-to-do communities.
In today's market, this analysis further must be broken down between homes that are in move-in ready condition and those in need of rehab. The former, financeable by the various government-backed loan programs, is generally in short supply and high demand. The latter, which must be purchased with cash, appeal to a smaller world of buyers looking to turn a quick profit.
We find that in many areas, turn-key updated homes that pass muster with the FHA, along with Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE), have a far higher sales-price to list-price ratio than do homes bought with cash (i.e., fixer-uppers).
This makes intuitive sense, since even if government-backed loan programs could be used to buy these rehab projects, few prospective homeowners in the current environment have the cash on hand for a down payment as well as a remodel project. Moving in with as little out-of-pocket expense as possible is of the utmost importance.
Taken together, often times the sales-price to list-price ratio in a given town or zip code hovers close to 100%. But dividing sales into “financeable” and “non-financeable” yields a far different result. In most cases, sellers of updated turn-key homes currently have a distinct upper hand over buyers, while buyers of fixer-uppers can still get low-ball bids accepted. Of course, there's still the world of homes that are wildly over-priced — but those aren't selling anyway.
There are many other ways to look at supply-demand fundamentals in local real estate markets. But if you don't divide analysis between homes that can be financed through the FHA, Fannie, or Freddie and those that can't, you may as well be comparing bombed out duplexes in Oakland to luxury condos in Manhattan.
Wait, never mind, bad example — those 2 markets share one unique characteristic: No one is buying.