35,404 new and resale home transactions closed escrow in California during September 2011, up 7% from one year ago when 33,176 sales closed escrow. September is the second month in 2011 in which home sales volume surpassed the corresponding month in 2010.

September’s numbers, however, are down 6% from August; a typical drop for this time of year.

The recovery’s overall bumpy plateau trend continues to reflect a leveling in home sales in 2011, following a decline that set in after mid-2010. Annual home sales volume is expected to remain at or below 2010’s numbers through the end of 2012.

Real estate owned property (REO) resales made up roughly 36% of all sales in the second quarter of 2011— down significantly from 46% one year earlier. However, this still-high proportion of REOs is expected to remain a constant for three or four years to come. In 2012, delinquencies are expected to be more efficiently foreclosed by servicers under contracts with big mortgage banks, which have thus far proven hesitant to foreclose in large numbers. [For our most current data on REOs statewide, see the first tuesday Market Chart, REO Resales.]

Absentee homebuyers (a group generally composed of speculators and investors) accounted for 24% of Southern California (SoCal) sales and 19% of sales in the Bay Area, basically unchanged from August, when absentee buyers made up 25% and 19% of all purchases, respectively. Current absentee levels remain near the historic records of 26% and 20%, respectively, set in January and February of 2011.

“Jumbo loans” (loans over the old conforming limit of $417,000) accounted for 18% of sales in SoCal, level with one year earlier, and 33% of Bay Area sales, a minor slip from 34% one year earlier. 2010 saw a sharp rise over 2009 in the use of Jumbo loans, likely attributable to an increase in foreclosures among high-tier properties and the Federal Housing Administrations  (FHA’s) increase of their loan insurance ceiling to $724,000. Jumbo use remains far below its market share height in the boom times of 2006 and 2007.

FHA-insured loans made up 33% of SoCal mortgage recordings, up 1% from August but down a bit from 35% one year earlier. FHA-insured loans made up 22% of Bay Area mortgages, also level with August and slipping from 24% recorded one year earlier.

first tuesday forecasts this percentage for FHA-insured loans will continue to drop in the future, as buyer’s agents become aware that other government agencies and private mortgage insurers now guarantee almost all types of highly-leveraged conventional loans, including loans with low down payments and down payments from unconventional sources (family loans, gifts).

Importantly, the combined rate of interest and private mortgage insurance (PMI) is currently lower than the combined rate of FHA-insured loans, making the FHA loan less appealing by design. [For a comparative cost analysis of FHA and PMI loans, see the first tuesday Market Chart, FHA, PMI, or neither?]

Adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) made up 7% of all SoCal mortgages, down 2% from last month, but up 2% from one year ago. ARM use in the Bay Area also dropped, for the first time in recent months, to 13% of all mortgages from 16% in August. Bay Area ARM use remains up from 9% one year ago. This volume of ARMs places no pressure on prices

Cash purchases represented 29% of SoCal and 28% of Bay Area sales in September 2011. Although these numbers are down slightly from February 2011’s record highs of 32% and 32%, respectively, they remain abnormally high in both districts, indicating speculators are still at work.

The ongoing spike in cash purchases indicates that speculators are still optimistic about a potential recovery in real estate sales volume and pricing. Both sales aspects have slipped since late 2010; not a good sign for speculators, who require very high profits to be successful.

first tuesday take: Over the last 12 months, home prices have risen and fallen from quarter to quarter, but show no sign of any sustained increase in sales volume, much less prices. The recent trend in both sales volume and pricing was a slow drop since mid-2010, and both are likely to remain low until employment and homebuyer confidence improve significantly. At the moment, interest rates are slipping and prices are low: the right combination for a sales volume increase in the near future (if employment and confidence can support it). [For more on homebuyer confidence, see the first tuesday Market Chart, Trends in homebuyer expectations; for more on California employment, see the first tuesday Market Chart, Jobs move real estate.]

For now, signs indicate that continued vacillation in both home sales volume and pricing on the washboard plateau of a real estate recovery – one quarter up, the next one down – will be the norm for at least two more years, and will probably continue through 2015. Home sales volume, especially, is unlikely to show any sustained improvement until California experiences 18 continuous months of major monthly increases in employment numbers; support that has yet to begin. [For more on current home pricing, see the first tuesday Market Chart, California tiered home pricing.]

In the absence of increased jobs and confidence numbers, low interest rates and home prices remain the sole drivers of real estate sales volume (with help from well-informed agents). The dynamite combination of low mortgage rates and low home prices is certain to spark a slight rise in sales volume going into 2012, but no more than that. Prices movement is years away.

Be warned: any significant increase in sales volume or prices will lead to a corresponding rise in interest rates and put an end to that run within 12 to 18 months (as occurred in following recessions in 1984 and 1994). Only statewide employment gains of 400,000 plus annually, as took place in the late 1990s, can sustain a full recovery for California’s real estate markets. Another bubble, in real estate or jobs, is entirely out of the question. [For more on the influence of rates on home sales, see the first tuesday Market Chart, Buyer Purchasing Power.]

Even after 2015, expect annual price increases to be modest. If the historical trends at the end of the Great Depression in the 1940s are any guide, real estate prices are not likely to rise at or faster than the rate of inflation reported in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Today’s interest rates, which remain at essentially zero, will do nothing to bolster pricing.

Remember, the game-changer 2008 recession ended in mid-2009, but an ongoing financial crisis remains, superimposed on the economic recovery. Going forward, real estate (asset) prices cannot (generally) rise faster than the rate of consumer inflation without a drop in interest rates or a jump in the state’s gross domestic product (GDP), as happened in the 1980s and 1990s – neither of which are anywhere on the horizon in California. [For the most current CPI in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, see the first tuesday Market Charts feature, Current market rates.]

For more extensive history and analysis of monthly and annual home sales in California, see the first tuesday Market Chart, Home Sales Volume and Price Peaks.

Re: “California September Home Sales” from MDA Dataquick