39,300 new and resale home transactions closed escrow in California during September 2016. In step with the seasonal sales cycle, this is 10% below a month earlier when 43,700 sales closed. Further, the number of homes sold in September 2016 was 3% below a year earlier, amounting to 1,200 fewer sales.

2015 ended with 450,700 home sales in California. This is 35,400, or 9%, more sales than took place in 2014. This is just above 2013 sales volume. For perspective, the number of homes sold in 2015 is still 303,203, or 40%, below peak sales volume experienced in 2005.

The number of homes sold year-to-date shows a small, 1% increase over 2015 as of September 2016. However, this percentage has steadily decreased in recent months, and it’s likely 2016 sales volume will end level with or below 2015.

Updated November 3, 2016. Original copy posted March, 2009.

Chart 1

Chart update 11/03/16

Sep 2016 Aug 2016 Sep 2015
Southern CA 21,198 23,119 21,079
Northern CA
18,141
20,582
19,468

CA Total

39,339 43,701 40,547

The above chart tracks the home sales volume of single family residences (SFRs) on a month-to-month basis. Sales volume includes the sale of all residential resales and new homes in California, including new homes sold directly by builders.

Home sales vary from month-to-month for a variety of reasons, most significant being homebuyer demand. This demand is influenced by several factors constantly at work in California’s homebuying market, including:

Seasonal differences in annual sales volume

It’s normal for home sales volume to rise in the first half of the year and fall after June, generally speaking.

Chart 2

HomeSales-BellCurve-Chart

Chart update 12/10/2015

Chart 2 shows average home sales as experienced from 2011-2015. As depicted, the most homes are regularly sold each year in June. Another small increase takes place in December, as homebuyers seek to wrap up their financial activities before the end of the year.

Therefore, real estate professionals are not to worry when they hear of falling sales volume in the latter half of the year. This is a normal seasonal progression. What to watch for is year-over sales comparing a month or other period (such as year-to-date) this year with the same month or period last year.

A very long recovery for home sales volume

Annual real estate sales numbers since the Great Recession of 2008 suggest the upcoming years through 2017 will be characterized by the same continuing bumpy plateau in home sales volume we have experienced now for eight stagnating years. As a rule, current market action, whether up or down, is reflected first in sales volume, followed by prices, and both fluctuate from month to month mostly going in opposite directions or just standing still.

Chart 3

California-annual-Home-Sales-Volume
Chart update 02/02/16

2016 forecast
2015 2014 2005 peak
NorCal 225,000 213,933 196,334 398,178
SoCal 250,000 236,740 218,986 355,698
Total 475,000 450,673 415,320 753,876

To set the stage for a forward look, a review of sales volume in the recent past is helpful:

  • Mid-2005 saw sales volume peak for all types of real estate in California, with nearly 754,000 homes sold that year;
  • Early 2006 produced both the peak in sales prices and a precipitous further decline in sales volume. Nearly 30% fewer sales were recorded in 2006 than in 2005;
  • In 2007 sales volume dropped another 30%;
  • 2009 sales volume was artificially higher than anticipated after bottoming in 2008 due to subsidy-induced purchases and speculators jumping on the momentum, but remained 40% below the 2005 peak year;
  • 2010 saw a decline from the year earlier in both sales volume and prices;
  • 2011 increased slightly in sales volume while decreasing in sales prices, a normal price adjustment condition;
  • 2012 saw sales volume increase marginally and home prices jump significantly by year’s end, supported primarily by massive speculation;
  • 2013 home sales volume stagnated, while home prices continued to increase rapidly, not a good sign for the immediate future; and
  • 2014 saw home sales volume decrease throughout the year, ending the year 7% below 2013.
  • 2015 ended 9% higher than 2014 — in other words, just about level with 2013. [See Chart 4]
  • 2016 will initially see sales volume increase, but when FRM rates jump, likely mid-2016, sales volume will slow, ending the year flat to slightly up over 2015.

Chart 4

Chart update 11/03/16

Sep 2016 Sep 2015 Sep 2014
Home sales volume
year-to-date

345,186 341,623 312,563

2016 home sales volume is just 1% above 2015, year-to-date, as of September 2016. This is well above 2014. However, the year-to-date percentage has steadily decreased in recent months, and when the trend continues it’s likely 2016 sales volume will end level with or even below 2015.

Sales volume will not increase significantly until after 2017, due to:

  • fewer participating first-time homebuyers than normal;
  • lower homeowner turnover to buy an upgrade or relocate due to continued negative equity and delayed retirement; and
  • static turnover in rental occupancies.

Much of these disadvantages are due to the jobs recovery which has been dragged out for eight years now, a confidence issue, and is pronounced by wage increases below the rate of consumer inflation. California finally regained all jobs lost in the 2008 recession in mid-2014, but has yet to return to pre-recession employment levels after considering the 1.1 million working-aged population increase. At the current recovery pace this will occur in 2019.

Short sales, real estate owned (REOproperty resales and speculators have contributed to sales volume distortion over the past few years. Conventional positive-equity resales by owner-occupants were the exception, sometimes reminiscently called standard sales as opposed to short sales. As prices rise, move-up homeowners will return to the market to sell and concurrently buy a more suitable replacement home.

Further, as of Q2 2015, 7% of California mortgaged homeowners were still underwater. Thus, turnover by this chunk of owners is restricted.  These homeowners cannot sell and relocate to purchase another home because their homes are worth less than the debt encumbering them. To rid themselves of the home and the debt, they have to endure damaged credit resulting from a short sale or foreclosure. The desire to avoid this embarrassment takes most of these 7% homeowners out of the home buying market for years.

Home sales in the coming years

The forward trend in California home sales is mixed for both buyers and seller. Homebuyer income is going further and doing more than anytime during the past 15 years due to increased borrowing capacity brought on by low interest rates (even though they rose mid-2013 to cut back funding by 10% from one year prior, but dropped to fuel sales in 2015). In fact, the Buyer Purchasing Power Index (BPPI) went negative in June 2013 and bounced back to zero in September 2014 – this momentarily stalled home price expectations.

In December 2015, the Federal Reserve (the Fed) committed itself to raise short-term interest rates in order to keep a lid on the recovery (as they did in both 1984 and 1994 midway through those recoveries). This upward rate move by the Fed (and the bond market) will instantly be reflected in ARM rates, and eventually trickle into higher mortgage rates, likely around mid-2016. Higher FRM rates will promptly trend real estate sales volume down and some 9-12 months beyond prices will slip. As prices start to decrease, expect the short-term rate to decline in the 2017-2018 period which will slow and put an end any downward turn in real estate sales volume and the economy.

first tuesday forecasts home sales volume will return to 2006 levels around 2020-2021. The peak sales volume last seen in 2004, inflated by speculator acquisitions and excessive mortgage money, is unlikely to return for decades, when interest rates cyclically peak.

Relocating Baby Boomers going into retirement later this decade will be the primary propelling force in both selling homes and buying replacements beginning around 2019. Their Generation Y (Gen Y) children will add to the sales volume at the same time as they find jobs at better pay levels and become first-time homebuyers. Gen Y influence will peak in sales volume at the end of this decade as they complete their shift from renting to owning.

Once Californians feel the effects of two or three years of healthy employment growth, their confidence about the future will improve. They will once again be willing to invest in the economy since the expectations for tomorrow are projections based on yesterday’s most recent experience. Only then will occupying homebuyers – end users – return in sufficient numbers for sales volume to swell significantly.

In 2018, sales volume will begin to pick up in earnest, peaking in 2019-2021. Employment and labor force participation will have reached beyond its 2007 peak, and grow quickly. Then, California will once again see home prices jump beyond the rate of consumer inflation. Mortgage lenders with an eye for excess profits will then begin to loosen their lending standards to whatever extent federal regulators permit or lawyers divine. The memory of the grim mid-2000s will be politely pushed aside, and mistakes will be repeated by all participants – lenders, builders, brokers and buyers.

Favorable market conditions now at work

Several favorable market factors currently support increasing sales volume:

  1. A steady 3% annual increase in the number of new jobs;
  2. A more reasonable (though still rising) price trend as we start 2016;
  3. Slowly rising consumer confidence and spending; and
  4. the recapitalization of the private mortgage insurers to eventually replace (or fully compete with) government guarantees of home mortgages.

Trends to be concerned about

However, many unfavorable market conditions restrain the rise of home sales volume:

  1. the weakest homebuyer demographics in 15 years;
  2. failed savings for a down paymentas high rents squeeze potential first-time homebuyers out of saving;
  3. buyer borrowing power no longer enlarging the funds they can borrow as interest rates inevitably rise, reducing funding for purchase-assist financing and dampening property prices;
  4. the public’s increasingly anti-business and pessimistic attitude about American economics, wealth inequality and national politics no matter the outcomes; and
  5. tightened loan standards as lenders are forced to apply forgotten fundamentals of sound mortgage lending practices (20% down payment on non-FHA/private mortgage insured loans, lower income ratios, risk-free credit scores and full documentation of income, funds and collateral value).

The competitive broker

What’s a broker to do until home sales volume takes off?

SFR brokers and agents might consider adding SFR-related services to supplement their income. Those who do add related services will restructure their practice as “all-service brokers.” Transaction-related services will be integrated into their office operations to maintain solvency and grow.

These services include:

  • escrowing their in-house transactions under the broker’s license;
  • entering into or expanding property management services;
  • negotiating equity purchases for investors from underwater owners on the chance of a short sale discount or who have a positive equity;
  • specializing in sales and leasing of a particular type of commercial property, other branch office locations and alternative marketing approaches (aside from social media);
  • providing mortgage loan broker services for business-investor loans made by private lenders and secured by the borrower’s residence (no mortgage loan origination (MLO) endorsement required);
  • arranging carryback financing and the take over/assumption of existing mortgages, and buying and selling those carryback trust deed notes;
  • negotiating options to buy, or lease with option to buy when inventories expand as the shadow inventory of speculators returns to be sold;
  • exchanging properties with equity to help owners relocate their wealth held in real estate tax free; or
  • using barter credits in lieu of greenbacks, etc.

Prudent brokers will insist their prospective buyers commit to exclusive representations by the broker and agent to locate a home (or other property). By signing an exclusive right-to-buy listing agreement, buyers commit to employ brokers and agents just as sellers commit to employ brokers and agents, the obverse side of the same employment coin. This will ensure time spent with a buyer produces a closing and a fee.