This article reviews indicators in the market which signal the long-awaited national housing recovery and evaluates the California real estate market’s progress towards recovery.
The worst is (almost) over
Meditating on the landscape of American housing doesn’t bring much peace of mind, yet economists claim a nugget of hope is wedged somewhere beneath the muck of this real estate bust, even for the more deeply entrenched California.
2011 has thus far failed to yield an economic recovery of leaps and bounds and thrust us beyond the Great Recession. Low interest rates (courtesy of the Fed and generous government housing subsidies) triggered an artificial leveling of home prices nationwide going into 2010, but were insufficient in duration and intensity (or reception) to bridge the recession gap.
Prices nationally in the first quarter of this year hit a new low – 5% lower than one year ago, according to the S&P Case-Shiller Index. Thus, the nation’s home prices have returned to mid-2002 levels. Many economists predict an additional 25% decline is not out of reach for reasons now known to all involved. [For more information on tracking the market with the most recent data from the S&P, see the first tuesday Market Chart, S&P 500: Stock Pricing vs. % Earnings (P/E Ratio.]
A look at other circumstances in the national real estate market lead some to believe this is the worst of the storm and a sustained recovery is now on its way, in spite of current price adjustments.
Hints of a national recovery
Positive signs – nationally – thus far include:
- advantageous home purchasing conditions due to low decade-old prices and very low mortgage rates, both slipping downwards at the same time;
- gross rent multipliers (GRMs) such as home prices and home price-to-rent ratios of between 9-11 times the annual rental value which mirror the stable long-term trend of pre-bubble years [For more information about the GRM, see the June 2010 first tuesday article, Renting vs. buying: the GRM.];
- lower apartment vacancies and higher rents, which typically help bolster home prices;
- an 18% decrease in new foreclosures from the previous quarter and improved household delinquency rates for a fifth consecutive quarter as more borrowers catch up with their mortgage payments versus those who fall behind; and
- 200,000 new jobs added to the economy in each of the past three months and 1.2 million jobs in the past year (more jobs mean a lot of positive things, but it is a particularly good sign for the construction industry which, if given a leg up, may consequently boost home prices). [For more information on positive indicators in the nation’s housing market, see the Economist article, The darkest hour: Signs of hope among the gloom.]
A gauge for California’s recovery
That’s national, and this is California, the seventh largest economy in the world. But is recovery in California feasible, or just a far-fetched fantasy?
Here we evaluate the Golden State for the same (positive) signs and provide a forecast most Californians will likely have to live with:
- Are home purchasing conditions advantageous? Yes, you can bet on that. Rarely do we get low prices, low interest rates and low down payment financing at the same moment in time. All that is needed is the will to buy, which in part requires brokers and agents to get the word out that mortgages are available at 4.5% if you apply.
Prices fell 2% in Los Angeles, 4% in San Diego and 5% San Francisco for the year ending with the first quarter of 2011, and further drops are forecasted for the rest of the year. Buyers have this information and what it is telling them is to wait until prices bottom to make offers. Agents have their work cut out to convince buyers that a further drop is likely but the present pricing will look most proper in three or four years, and will make no financial difference in ten years.
Interest rates have also been and are on a continuous decline. The average rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) in the U.S. Western region dropped to 4.45% the second week of June. The 15-year FRM also dropped in the same week to 3.63%. However, even with these deals and steals on the market, people are just not buying. The agent’s advice is that rates cannot move much lower, if at all, and they can and will rise in the future as the recovery gains steam – as will prices.
Home sales volume in California has dropped since the first quarter of 2010. 35,202 total homes sold in April 2011, trending consistently down from 37,908 in April 2010. [For more information on home sales volume in the current market, see the first tuesday Market Chart, Home sales volume and price peaks.]
- Are prices stabilizing? Yes. The lingering drop in home prices across California in all tiers of housing is not a momentary dip from which they will fast rise akin to the fabled V-shaped recovery. Today’s home prices represent a resetting of the artificially high prices of the bubble years (which commenced in 1997) to their more stable levels consistent with historic trends. The end of 2011 may just likely see that reaction to low interest rates and a better informed and more confident public. However, that annual rise is more likely to reflect the consumer price index (CPI) rate of inflation rather than the 5 to 10% annual rate buyers are now thinking they will experience.
Except for those negative equity homeowners imprisoned and burdened by insolvency due to the steep price plunge, price stabilization is good news for California’s housing market in the long run. [For more information on historic home prices in California, see the first tuesday Market Chart, California tiered home pricing.]
- Are rents higher? Yes. While home prices fall steadily, rents in California continue to rise, 4% for the year ending April 2011, according to the Spring 2011 Housing Report by HotPads.com. (Although landlords in the bedroom cities of the state’s inland and central valley will beg to disagree.)
Rent prices are indicators of which way home prices will go since they are the primary fundamental used to set property values. However, any rise in home prices beyond the rate of consumer inflation will take several years. [For more information on rentals in California, see the first tuesday Market Chart, Rentals: The Future of Real Estate in CA?]
- Are household delinquency rates better? Sort of. Compared to the 18% nationwide drop in foreclosures, California foreclosure numbers are loitering near stagnancy. 8% more homes were foreclosed upon in California’s high-tier areas in the first quarter of 2011 from a year earlier. An even higher 23% more homes in low-tier areas were foreclosed upon in the same period.
Foreclosures in both housing tiers dropped only 2% over the year ending April 2011. Mortgage delinquency in the state is improving at an equally slow pace. 9% of mortgage payments were seriously delinquent in the first quarter of 2011, a slight but steady decline from 11% a year earlier. Thus we have an inventory problem called excess supply (the REOs), and until the buyers enter and start to cut into that supply, the prices will remain low, market momentum will be negative and competitive buyers for a property will be rare.
California foreclosures and delinquency rates, like other sand states, are higher than the rest of the nation but are improving at a faster rate. So when the market shifts to positive volume and pricing, some buyers will be surprised. [For more information on first quarter 2011 California defaults and foreclosures, see the April 2011 first tuesday article, 1Q 2011 defaults and foreclosure data.]
- Do we have more jobs? Yes, but not enough and not fast enough. As of April 2011, California has yet to replace 1,298,700 of the jobs lost since the peak of California employment in December 2007. 363,100 jobs have been added since the beginning of the recovery in January 2010 and employment numbers have gradually made small ticks upward since then.
Employment needed to rent or buy a home was up by 148,100 jobs annually in April 2011. But what we need is around 400,000 jobs annually to get back to the pace experienced in the late 1990s. Jobs are slowly returning but will not reach pre-recession employment levels until 2016. [For more information on the effect of statewide employment on real estate, see the first tuesday Market Chart, Jobs Move Real Estate.]
Slow and steady to the end
Now back to the first question: Will California get to the finish line of its recovery? Yes. But if we’re to have a robust and sustained economy, keep in mind, the recovery will – and must – be gradual.
Although California is definitely a step behind the nation heading for recovery (just as it was a step ahead of the nation in growth during the Millennium Boom a few years ago), the conditions for a housing recovery are not completely absent in the state. We just need two more ingredients to add to the mix: more jobs and more consumer confidence.
Brokers and agents can do nothing about jobs. What they can do is give prospective buyers great detail about a property and extensive justification for its value, and then escort them through the loan pre-approval process with a couple of lenders. These simple gestures of due diligence will get the confidence of buyers up immediately. They merely need someone they feel they can depend on for advice.
Without an adequately employed population both poised (read: ready and free of their negative equity homes) and willing to buy, California will continue to march across the rocky plateau of its flat-line recovery. [For more information on building public confidence in a depressed real estate market, see the June 2011 first tuesday Market Chart, A bounty of loan deals, a dearth of willing buyers.]