Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Case for Selling in a Falling Housing Market

The Case for Selling in a Falling Housing Market by Stan Humphries – The Housing Theorem

The problem with the American housing market isn’t that too few of us want to move. We estimate that at least 4 million homeowners would love to sell their home and buy another one that’s bigger, smaller, better located or more affordable.

What’s holding back these “sidelined sellers?” Some can’t sell because they owe more than their homes are worth, of course. But many more are simply paralyzed by the fear of selling and buying again in a falling market. Often at root here is what psychologists and behavioral economists call “loss aversion.” We avoid accepting a grim loss on a current investment, and recent research suggests that we over-estimate the pain associated with a future loss (say, with buying a home that then loses value).

So it’s understandable to want to wait for better days to sell, but—at least when it comes to your house—you’re probably making a mistake.

First, let’s dispense with the idea that better days are coming soon. The consensus among the 100 economists surveyed by Cambridge-based data firm MacroMarkets is that housing prices will slip 1.3% in 2011. That’s far, far too optimistic. At Zillow, we believe prices will tumble as much as 7% in 2011. After reaching the bottom, we expect real estate appreciation will remain in the doldrums for three to five years—something we’ve been forecasting for more than three years.

So we’re all going to have to make a little peace with falling prices. But here’s the good news: If you run some numbers, you find that selling in a falling market is not always a bad idea. Especially if you’re thinking of trading in your current home for a smaller home or one in a less expensive neighborhood.

Check the math. Say you and your spouse own a nice two-bedroom condo like this on the north side of Chicago. You bought it in 2007 for $390,000, but it may only sell for $310,000 now.

Now say you’re feeling crowded in this condo because your two increasingly energetic kids have hit school age. You’ve got some savings and a good commuter car, and you think you can buy a 2,500-square-foot house like this one in a kid-friendly section of suburban Elgin for $370,000.

This is the oldest trade in the book—but here comes the loss aversion. First, you recognize that selling the condo means you’ll finally realize the painful $80,000 loss on your condo purchase. Then—and this is almost worse—there’s an anticipated loss on the new house. In February home prices in Chicago were down 10.3% from a year earlier, and you’re convinced they are likely to continue that decline and fall another 5%. Buy the new house and in a year you could be sitting on another $18,500 capital loss. It churns your guts, and maybe you decide it’s better to stay put and take the 5% hit in a smaller home.

Trouble is, most of us wildly overestimate the benefits of waiting. We convince ourselves that avoiding a potential future loss is the same as saving money. We underestimate the risks that we’ll face by waiting another year. And we totally ignore the real, measurable costs of staying in a home that’s too big or too small or poorly located.

Start with the $18,500 in savings that you thought you would garner by waiting another year to relocate to the suburb. Those savings will probably be offset by a similar decline in value on your downtown condo, which could sell for $15,500 less a year from now. Yes, by waiting you’ll also save $1,200 or so in reduced realty brokerage fees and closing costs to sell the depreciated condo. But add it all up and your total actual savings will be just $4,300.

That’s a couple of house payments, you may be thinking. That’s a solid down payment on second car—pretty handy when you move to a suburb. Wrong.

See, $3,500 of it that $4,300 would just be a net savings of home equity. It’s a paper loss you would avoid. The value would be on your family’s balance sheet, so perhaps it could serve as collateral for a loan. But it wouldn’t be real money in your pockets.

Now consider the risks you would have to take to get a shot at that $4,300 gain. Because while the potential savings are mostly on paper, the potential costs are quite real.

For one, you took an entire year’s worth of interest-rate risk. There are wars in the Middle East, escalating energy costs and lots of talk of inflation these days. If 30-year fixed mortgage rates move from 5% to 6.5%, the payment on a $200,000 loan goes from $1,070 to $1,260. That’s an extra $2,300 a year in mortgage costs.

Then there’s market-timing risk. Different neighborhoods don’t always snap out of a market correction at the same moment. Maybe demand for bigger suburban homes will snap back faster than demand for condos in the city. That house in Elgin could get more expensive while the condo’s value continues to slide.

Then other, practical costs of holding the condo also creep in. Will you rent a storage space to hold the clutter that you would have shoved into the backyard shed in the suburbs? That’s at least $700 for the year. And what about the cost of sending two kids to private schools in the city for an additional year instead of sending them to Elgin’s public schools? That’s at least $10,000 per child. These costs won’t show up in the your house payment, but they’re real, measurable hits to the family cash flow.

That’s just the math for a trade-up. Now suppose instead you want to downsize. The numbers become even more compelling.

Suppose you’re retiring. Say you dream of selling this home in Santa Monica for $900,000 and purchasing a significantly larger house like this 20 minutes away in Encino for $750,000.

Here, the costs of waiting to sell really pile up. If prices in Los Angeles fall 5% over the next year, the $150,000 difference in prices of the two homes will shrink by $8,000. And that $8,000 cost of waiting a year would not merely be a paper loss. You will actually have that much less money in your pocket after the sale of your home in Santa Monica.

The $8,000 potential loss would be offset only somewhat by the lower commissions and closing costs you would face by waiting a year to sell your home in Santa Monica. But there would also be other costs involved in waiting for the trade-down. Like property taxes. Say you purchased your Santa Monica bungalow during the property bubble, when it was worth more than $1 million, and that your annual property-tax bill is roughly $13,000. That’s $3,000 to $5,000 more than you would have paid if you had moved to the Encino home.

Overall, it’s helpful to think of house prices as a river that flows forward and, on very rare occasions, backward. It’s natural for us to prefer to jump from one raft to the next when the river is moving forward—that is, when prices are rising, not falling. But even when the river is flowing backward, jumping rafts midstream can make sense. When the river is flowing backward, we tend to fixate on the speed of the next raft relative to the stationary riverbank (e.g., “My next home is going to fall 5% in value after I buy it”). We should focus instead on the speed of the two rafts relative to each other (e.g., “Both homes are going to fall 5% in value”).

Here’s the bottom line. Of the three general classes of homeowner—first-time buyers, existing homeowners buying another home and existing homeowners exiting real estate altogether—only first-time buyers face a substantial risk when buying in a declining market. For homeowners seeking a trade, there are only real costs of selling now for people trading up, and even those are less than most of us perceive.

We devised this chart to show the potential loss (shown in amber or red) or gain (shown in green) you’d face in a year if you trade up or down in a falling market now. For example, trading up now to a house priced 20% greater than your current one in a market that you expect to decline by 5% over the coming year results in a 1.4% loss relative to waiting one year to buy that house. Most people likely anchor their loss expectations around the expected 5% decline in home values when, in reality, the actual loss is much less.

The third group—people leaving home ownership altogether in favor of renting—should, of course, always sell as early as possible in a falling market. That way they’re most likely to preserve as much equity as they can. In reality, I think many of these sellers are holding out in the current market hoping for some recovery in home values in the near-term. These people are waiting for Godot.

My advice here doesn’t require you to be either a bear or a bull on home value appreciation. My chief point is that, when trading homes, future home value declines will matter a lot less than most people believe.

“I feel like this morning I’ve had nine different people tell me they don’t want to sell when the market is still falling,” Detroit-area real estate agent Jeff Glover says with a sigh. Glover wishes he could get more people into the leafy, prosperous suburbs west of the city, where prices have been falling now for nearly six years. He’s even got a catchy line he uses: “Do you want to wait this market out in your current house or do you want to wait it out in your next house?”

Most people ignore him. Maybe they shouldn’t.

Rent or Buy?

June 8, 2011 by Lawrence Yun, Chief Economist & Senior Vice President, Research

The cliché says that there has never been a better time to buy. The hard data in the housing affordability index confirms that. The affordability index, which takes into account median income, median home price, and mortgage rates, has been bouncing around in the 180 to 200 range since the beginning of this year – the highest reading since the index was first used in 1971.

Yet, you still encounter consumers hesitant about taking advantage of possibly the greatest home buying opportunity of a lifetime. Should they buy now or not?

Let’s consider the situation in which a family earns $60,000, which is about the national average. They are renting at $1000 per month. They are considering buying a home that requires them to take out a mortgage of $170,000, which would be fairly close to the current national median home price.

At the current rate of 4.8 percent on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage, the monthly mortgage payment would be …(drum roll) … $891 per month. That’s not all. A measurable portion of the monthly mortgage payment is actually goes towards principal reduction on the loan balance. For example, in the first year about $215 of the mortgage is for the principal payment, which in essence is a forced-disciplined savings imposed on the home buyer. The remainder $676 ($891 minus $215) is the pure interest payment to the bank. So the $676 monthly mortgage interest payment looks a lot sweeter than the $1000 in rent that was being shoveled out the door. With each passing year, the principal portion gets larger while the interest portion declines because of a steadily falling loan balance.

That’s still not all. A fixed rate mortgage means the monthly payment is fixed and will not rise for the term of the mortgage. In this example, a person theoretically could be paying $891 in mortgage in the year 2041. What would be the cost of living at that time? Food price? Gasoline price? Also rent?

If rent was to rise by 3 percent a year, starting with the base $1000, the monthly rent will be $1344 in 10 years, $1806 in 20 years, and $2427 in 30 years. If rent was to rise by 5 percent, then it goes to $1628 in 10 years, $2526 in 20 years, and $4321 in 30 years. If monetary policy were to get of control, with too much money printing and inflation rose by 10 percent per year, then the rent becomes $2593 in 10 years, $6727 in 20 years, and $17,444 per month in 30 years. Many economists are expecting 3% to 5% annual rent growth over the next two years based on recent falling trends in apartment vacancy rates.

When rents rise, there is also a tendency for home prices to rise. Fundamentally, rent and home price would rise roughly in lock step – provided that home values do not contain bubbles and are back in line with their historical relationship to rents. The chart below shows the rent (based on rental rent component of the consumer price index) and NAR median home price trend with the index set at 100 in 1980. Well, today, home price and rent ratio are pretty much back to historically justifiable levels. So it is reasonable to presume that any rent increase will also at some point lead to equal gains in home values.

If home values were to rise 5 percent (under rent growth assumption of the same) then the home value would rise to $178,500, translating into a gain of $8,500 in housing equity in the first year. Subsequent cumulative gains over several years would be sizable, if the yearly 5 percent increases could be sustained. Nationally the annual average home price increases have been at around 4 to 6 percent each year. Even if by some strange event home value was not to increase one cent over the next 30 years, the home would be owned free-and-clear by the 30th year. (Or much sooner if the family makes additional principal payments)

One always has to mindful that all real estate is local. One cannot simply pick up a home from Detroit and plop it down in San Francisco to get a fast price appreciation. Therefore local conditions, figures, rent growth projections, and analysis will significantly vary.

Moreover, homeownership cost entails not only mortgage, but the additional costs in terms of property taxes, insurance, and money needed for maintenance and remodeling, though there are cost savings such as the mortgage interest deduction and property tax deduction for tax purposes that were not considered.

What is most important from my perspective is whether the family likes the home they are about to purchase and whether the family is willing to stay well within their budget. If these two criteria are met, then now may indeed be a good time to consider buying.

Hey Case-Schiller It’s Not the End of the Real Estate World

June 2, 2011 Posted by Jim Gillespie on Coldwell Banker Blue Matter

So many of us giggled nervously as we thankfully avoided the end of the world a couple of weeks ago. But judging by the continued “end of the world” type coverage the Case-Schiller housing study got this week, maybe we are nearing the end.

Yes. I am joking, but I am amazed at the attention this report gets. It covers 20 markets, yes only 20, and that is just one of its many flaws. Yet many consider it “the be-all-and-end-all” economic indicator that defines our entire national housing picture. As we know, all real estate is local, and it is unfortunate that the reporting on a 20-city “national” index can have such a jarring impact on otherwise rational people.

Look at some of the headlines the other day:

“Home prices at lowest point since 2006 bust”
“Home values continue downward churn”
“No relief in sight’ for falling home prices”

And even in paradise – Maui- the front page headline in the paper screamed “Crash Spreads.” And Maui isn’t one of the 20 markets. In fact the nearest market covered is San Diego, a mere 2500 miles away!

Shawn Daly, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Evanston, Illinois, had to calm down two skittish buyers this week.

One, who is currently working in Iraq, had initially placed on offer of $450,000 on a lakefront Chicago condo. The sellers countered with a price of $525,000. But after seeing Case-Schiller inspired headlines on the web, Shawn’s client emailed him to ask that he lower his offering price by $50,000. Shawn explained that the sellers did not agree with his first offer so if he went lower he wouldn’t get the home. The buyer calmed down and agreed.

Shawn correctly pointed that the Case-Schiller Home Price Indices are meaningless to individual buyers who are looking at specific houses, on specific streets, in specific neighborhoods.

Then yesterday, Shawn met another client for a tour of potential homes. They hardly said hello without telling Shawn they were more nervous than ever after seeing the report on the news.

You have a right to be nervous, but I can’t say this enough. Now is the smartest time in my 36 years in real estate to buy a home if you have the lifestyle reason, financial stability and viability to do so.

And it’s all about “Triple I…P”. Inventory, Interest rates, Incentives and Pricing. Start with inventory, because most communities have seen a rise in the amount of homes on the market, you have more choices. Interest rates for mortgages remain at near-historic lows and have actually trended down over the last 7 weeks, with Freddie Mac reporting 30-year fixed rates now averaging 4.55%. Incentives are the tax advantages to home ownership. And of course, there are prices. Prices are down from mid-decade highs, but in many, many markets are showing stability, slight declines or even increases. Home affordability remains near record levels and the price-to-value proposition in most markets is extremely compelling.

If you are interested in buying a home, you owe it to yourself to contact a real estate agent in the community you are interested in. Look at homes, do a rent vs. buy analysis, explore what is available in your price range.

Don’t just take my word for it. Do your homework.

You might just be surprised that the end of the world isn’t here yet … at least until next month’s report.