Thursday, July 30, 2009

Recovery Signs in Housing Market Stir Some Hope

Recovery Signs in Housing Market Stir Some Hope
by David Streitfeld
Thursday, July 30, 2009

After a plunge lasting three years, houses have finally become cheap enough to lure buyers. That, in turn, is stabilizing prices, generating hope that the real estate market is beginning to recover.

Eight cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, Denver and San Francisco, showed price increases in May, up from four in April and one in March, according to data released Tuesday. Two other cities, Charlotte, N.C., and New York, were flat.


For the first time since early 2007, a composite index of 20 major cities was virtually flat, instead of down.

"We've found the bottom," said Mark Fleming, chief economist for First American CoreLogic, a data firm.

The release of the surprisingly strong Case-Shiller Price Index, compiled by Standard & Poor's, followed earlier reports that sales of existing homes rose last month for the third consecutive time, while sales of new homes rose in June by the largest percentage in eight years.

All of these improvements are tentative, and come after a relentless decline that knocked more than half the value off houses in the worst-hit cities.

Some skeptics say they believe the market is merely pausing before it resumes falling and that much of the life in the market is coming from speculators. Even the most enthusiastic analysts acknowledge that rising unemployment, another leap in foreclosures or a significant jump in interest rates could snuff out progress.

Still, hope is growing in some quarters that the worst has passed.

"Recession is over, economy is recovering — let's look forward and stop the backward-looking focus," John E. Silvia, the Wells Fargo chief economist, wrote Tuesday in a research note.

Kirit Shah decided to look forward a few weeks ago. A retired forensic chemist for the New York Police Department, he closed on a house in Royal Palm Beach, Fla.

Mr. Shah was not dissuaded when the salesman at K. Hovnanian Homes told him the five-bedroom place had been empty since it was finished three years ago. "It was waiting for me," said Mr. Shah, 64. "I'm on a lakefront. I never dreamed I would be on a lakefront. I'm within walking distance of a swimming pool."

But the thing he likes best is this: he paid $260,000 for the five-bedroom house, half of what that model was fetching during the boom. "An excellent deal," he said. "Plus I got a good rate on my mortgage, under 5 percent."

Turning markets are full of uncertainty. If Mr. Shah was one reason new home sales were up 11 percent in June from May, it is unclear just how many others like him are out there.

Brad Hunter, chief economist for Metrostudy, a research firm, said the new home numbers appeared to illustrate less a return of buyers like Mr. Shah and more a resurgence of investors and speculators. Metrostudy's own data showed that the number of buyers during the second quarter who actually moved into their new house declined 2.6 percent.

"Investors are turning right around and putting the houses on the market for sale or for rent," Mr. Hunter said. "What appears to have been an absorption of excess inventory can be just a changing of ownership of that inventory."

The good news in the Case-Shiller index, the most widely watched source of price information about the housing market, is equally provisionary. Tracking only large urban areas, the monthly index does not represent the country as a whole.

The Case-Shiller figures released Tuesday showed May prices were down 17.1 compared with May 2008. As bad as that may sound, it was the fourth consecutive month that price declines slowed — a step in the right direction, but perhaps not cause for widespread celebration.

More attention was focused on the news that, when May was compared with April, the price index for 20 major cities showed a half-percent gain. It was the first month-over-month increase in the index in 34 months.

"It is very possible that years from now we will say that April 2009 was the trough in home prices," said Maureen Maitland, vice president for index services at Standard & Poor's.

When the numbers were adjusted for seasonal factors, however — the usual way housing figures are presented — the slight gain disappeared and the index was essentially flat. Half of the cities showed continued declines.

One reason the market is perking up in some places, real estate agents say, is the encouragement offered by such measures as the first time buyer's tax credit of
$8,000.

All the more reason, said the National Association of Realtors, to not only extend the credit but expand it. The association is lobbying for the current credit, which expires in December, to be replaced with a $15,000 credit for all buyers.

"This is a relatively low-cost way to keep the housing market moving forward," said Paul Bishop, the association's managing director of research.

Another reason for the market's resurgence is the prevalence of foreclosures, which make up about a third of all existing home sales. In some troubled regions, agents say they cannot remember the last transaction that did not involve a bank disposing of a property.

These communities are not yet showing any improvement in prices. Las Vegas was the worst-performing city in the May Case-Shiller index, falling 2.6 percent. Prices have fallen there by a third in the last year.

"The mom and pop that work at the Hilton can now afford a home here again," said Justin Pechonis, a Las Vegas real estate agent. "Las Vegas is a great place to buy now." But not from him. Sickened by seeing so many clients foreclosed on, he is getting out of the business. He now drives a taxi.

All this uncertainty breeds a hesitancy that seems to show up in nearly every sale, especially at the higher end of the market. When Margot and Pascal Lalonde decided in April to sell their two-bedroom condominium in the North End of Boston, they methodically quizzed six experienced agents about a good price.

List it for under $500,000 unless you want to be here for months, said one agent. Two others said they should demand $675,000. The other three were in between.

"In a market with so few sales, no one knows what to do," said Ms. Lalonde, a consultant.

After 80 days on the market and two small price reductions, the condo is now under contract for $550,000. The buyers examined the apartment six times. The Lalondes, who are moving to Short Hills, N.J., expect to be no less careful when they buy.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Housing Starts Are Up

July 2009
Housing Starts Are Up Again


The most bearish of Wall Street economic analysts have made the same point for the past 18 months. There's no recovery or rebound in the housing market, they said, until home builders start building again.

"Show us positive numbers on new home starts for a few months," they say, "and then we will we agree that the housing market has finally turned around."

Hey there bears, here are the numbers you asked for: The end of last month, the Commerce Department reported an unexpectedly large increase in new single family home starts during May - up by seven and a half percent.

That was the third consecutive monthly gain in single family starts. Total starts, including multifamily apartment starts and condos, were up by 17 and a half percent/

Not only were starts up a lot, but so were other key indicators of future home building activity: single family permits, which surged by about 8 percent. That was the second straight monthly gain in permits - and points to at least moderately higher starts in the coming six months to a year.

On top of the good news about new construction, which has clearly been the weakest segment of the housing market since 2007, we also got some other positive reports last week:

Consumer confidence, which is extremely important for home buying, was up again for the fourth consecutive month, according to the University of Michigan's consumer sentiment survey.

Even retail sales were up slightly -- and that's an important sign that people are slowly coming out of the shell they've been in since last Fall, and are now starting to spend money again.

The latest inflation readings -- both the Consumer Price Index and the Producer Price Index -- were down slightly in May. Despite rising gas price, a dollar bought a little more in goods and services last month than the month before. That's good.

The National Association of Home Builders now projects that the current recession will end in the second half of 2009, with a one point five percent growth rate in the overall economy between July and December.

Finally, mortgage rates took a slight dip after several weeks of increases. Fixed thirty year rates averaged about 5.5 percent last week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, after climbing to 5.6 percent the previous week.

Many lenders had actually been quoting much higher rates - all the way to 6 percent - because of inflation fears in the bond market.

We've definitely got to keep our eye on mortgage rates, but otherwise the rebound appears to be underway.

Home Prices Rise Across U.S.

Wall Street Journal JULY 29, 2009

Bargain Hunting, Low Rates Drive First Gain in 3 Years; Double Dip Still Possible

By NICK TIMIRAOS and KELLY EVANS
Home prices in major U.S. cities registered the first monthly gain in nearly three years, according to a new report that provided fresh evidence that the severe U.S. housing downturn could be easing.

Standard & Poor's Case-Shiller index, which tracks home prices in 20 metropolitan areas, rose 0.5% for the three-month period ending in May, compared with the three months ending in April. It marked the index's first increase after 34 straight months of decline, and came after a variety of housing indicators has shown glimmers of hope for the past several months.

Home prices remained down about 17% from a year earlier, according to the index. According to S&P/Case-Schiller's seasonally adjusted numbers, which it began reporting only earlier this year, prices in May posted a 0.2% decline.
But most Wall Street economists who discussed the survey focused on the April-to-May rise, saying it represents a significant change in direction. Home prices in 15 of the 20 areas in the survey rose or remained stable.

The results were also consistent with other recent housing data, these economists said. Sales of new and existing homes rose for three consecutive months through June. Housing starts were up in June, and an index of builder sentiment rose in July, though both remained at low levels.

May's uptick came in part as home prices in some areas fell enough for investors and first-time buyers to begin competing for bargains, helping to ease the backlog of unsold homes.

Other likely sales spurs included mortgage rates that fell to 50-year lows, an $8,000 federal-tax credit for first-time homebuyers and the ability of buyers to secure mortgages from the Federal Housing Administration with as little as 3.5% down.
The latest readings don't necessarily herald a full-blown recovery for the housing market or broader economy. Consumer confidence remains near record lows. The U.S. unemployment rate, at 9.5% in June, is expected to hit double digits before year end, making swift growth and an expanding labor force unlikely anytime soon.
The home-sale numbers surprised Robert Shiller, the Yale University economist who helped create the Case-Shiller indexes. "The change in momentum here is very significant," he said. Last month, Mr. Shiller forecast sustained home-price declines into the next few years, which he said now looks less plausible. He said he expects home prices to remain near current levels for the next five years.
U.S. home prices have fallen by about one-third since their peak in the second quarter of 2006, according to S&P, and are roughly back at 2003 levels.
Some analysts warn that the home-price uptick could reverse as rising unemployment causes more Americans to fall behind on their mortgage payments and end up in foreclosure.

One factor that apparently drove the March-through-May uptick was a falling share of homes sold at distressed prices, through foreclosure and so-called short sales. Distressed sales accounted for 33% of existing home sales in May and 31% in June, down from a high of nearly 50% earlier this year, according to the National Association of Realtors.

The drop in foreclosure sales was likely the product of U.S. banks' moratorium on home foreclosures, which they undertook as the government launched a round of programs to modify and refinance loans for at-risk borrowers. Most banks ended their foreclosure moratoria in March.Interest rates also hovered at or below 5% for most of the March-May period, before rising in June.

"Were it not for those rate reductions and the moratorium, you'd see prices down right now," says Ronald Temple, co-Director of Research at Lazard Asset Management. He expects the index to stabilize or increase in the short-term, but forecasts another 12-15% decline in prices thereafter.

Regardless, a combination of still-low interest rates and eager sellers continues to fuel competition for heavily discounted properties. Some buyers are finding that investors with all-cash offers are consistently beating them in bidding wars.
Stacy Watson, a 39-year-old human-resources manager in the Riverside, Calif., area, says she has made losing bids on at least eight homes since mid-June. On Tuesday, she says, she decided to increase her offer for a five-bedroom home in Perris, Calif., to $198,000, nearly $20,000 more than the asking price.

Ms. Watson and her real-estate agent say the bank-owned home has drawn more than 10 offers in less than a week on the market. "Everyone says it's such a great housing market for buyers," she says. "No. This is hard."

Would-be homeowners have benefited from government programs, including one that allows buyers of properties owned by Fannie Mae to receive mortgages from the government-controlled mortgage-finance company with down payments as low as 3%.
When Nelly Whiteman and her husband recently bought a house out of foreclosure from Fannie Mae, she figures they competed against at least two other buyers. The 27-year-old administrative assistant says they snagged their three-bedroom home in Orangevale, Calif., for $176,000, or about $5,000 more than the asking price. They now pay about $1,080 a month in mortgage payments, insurance and taxes.
"It's an extra bedroom for around what we were paying for rent," she says.
The budding housing recovery isn't being felt across the country. Prices increased in 13 of 20 surveyed markets, with the strongest gains coming in Cleveland, up 4.1% from April; Dallas, up 1.9%; and Boston, up 1.6%.

Home prices were flat in the New York and Tampa, Fla., areas. The survey doesn't track condominium or cooperative apartment sales, so it doesn't take into account the majority of housing stock in New York City.

Prices continue to fall in some markets, particularly overbuilt Sunbelt cities. Prices in Las Vegas declined 2.6% in May from April and were down 32% from a year ago, according to S&P/Case-Shiller. Phoenix prices declined 0.9% from April and were down 34% from May 2008. San Francisco, Miami and Detroit also continued to see year-on-year declines of about 25%.

"Is this just a spring bounce that was partly related to the drop in distressed sales?" asks Thomas Lawler, an independent housing economist based in Leesburg, Va. One key question, he says, is whether another wave of foreclosures could come along to offset the home-inventory decline that has boosted many markets.

In many of the hardest-hit cities, banks appear to be slow to put foreclosed homes on the market. In Las Vegas, for example, banks had taken title to 13,200 homes as of June. That surpassed the total number of homes listed for sale in Las Vegas last month, according to SalesTraq, which monitors inventory in Las Vegas. "Are the banks are intentionally holding back inventory? That's a question a lot of us have," says Larry Murphy, president of SalesTraq.

Some housing analysts say they expect falling prices on mid-to high-end homes to weigh on the Case-Shiller index. The supply of these homes has swelled in recent months as borrowers struggle to obtain financing.

Borrowers of "jumbo" mortgages, which are too big for government backing, face higher rates. Banks are also requiring bigger down-payments at a time when traditional "trade-up" buyers are finding that the equity in their homes has fallen.
"We think [the sales index] will look like a 'W,' where prices go up until the foreclosures at the higher end translate into another leg lower," says Ivy Zelman, chief executive of Zelman & Associates, a housing-research firm.

The improvement in housing likely gave a small boost to U.S. gross domestic product in the second quarter, economists said. After data showed construction of new homes was stronger than expected in June and was revised higher in April and May, Macroeconomic Advisers, a St. Louis-based forecasting group, ratcheted up its estimate of second-quarter economic growth. It now sees output shrinking at just a 0.5% annual rate in the second quarter, compared with declines of 6.3% and 5.5% in the previous two quarters.