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Monday, July 24, 2006

The Insatiable Homebuyer Appetite

Marlow Harris of the P-I blog Seattle Real Estate Professionals had a great post last week about the insatiable appetite of the American home buyer:

I am generalizing from the 100's of homebuyers I've met, plus the watercooler talk from the many agents I've known, and I know that buyers list of "wants" quickly become "needs" and color their entire search.

Granite countertops, restaurant-quality stainless steel appliances, custom tile and other finishes, hardwood or bamboo floors, perhaps some skylights, high ceilings, designer fixtures, a master suite with a separate bath, 2000, 3000, 4000 or more square feet, a two or three-car garage, huge yards, the list goes on and on. Larger homes, larger lots, further and further away from the city.

There is still plenty of room right in the city limits to build attached homes, cottage homes, townhomes, cozy, sustainable homes, yet many people don't want them, and they'll drive 50 miles away from the city and mortgage themselves to the hilt to get them.
...
Are Americans spoiled?
...
What is this about? With increased concerns about the environment, why this consumer-driven drive toward conspicuous consumption and wealth? Why this sense of entitlement? Why is the Street of Dreams one of the most highly attended events of the year?

Obviously, this is a huge topic best addressed by sociologists, but it's my observation that these attitudes are pandemic in our society and cannot be sustained for much longer. Hence the upward spiral of prices and increasing anxiety on the part of buyers, builders and politicians.
Marlow raises some interesting points and poses some good questions. Are American's spoiled? I say heck yes—it's not even a question. Personally, I'd like to own a home, but I don't have any sense that I deserve to. The reason I'm sitting out of "the market" right now isn't that I can't afford to buy the home I want or that I think I deserve, it is because I'm of the opinion that even modest homes are ridiculously overpriced. But I digress.

I definitely agree with Marlow that the prevailing attitude of entitlement cannot be sustained for much longer. What is it going to take to collectively snap us out of it? It seems to me that a painful bubble burst might do the trick, but what if the real estate talking heads are right, and that never happens?

(Marlow Harris, Seattle Real Estate Professionals, 07.19.2006)
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37 comments:

Anonymous said...

I say to all you folks on here who keep repeating with utmost confidence that a bubble burst is going to happen here in Seattle soon (we're not different, we're just slower): it's time to ante up and give us a time-frame. You keep saying it is coming -- so tell us when. And at what point, if the crash isn't forthcoming, will you say that in fact there was no bubble here at all? 3 months? 6 months? 1 year? 5 years? 25 years? 50 years? Should I keep going? Come on, put your money where your mouth is!

Anonymous said...

Okay Anon-

Here's an opinion: By spring 2007, your home will be worth less than it is right now.

Make you feel better? I didn't think so.

People who need a definite date/time frame on these things, just don't get cycles. They are taken "by surprise" when the bottom falls out.

Fortunately, it's a free country. If you want to buy now, you've got every right to do so.

Those of us who see all the signs of an imminent burst will refrain for as long as we possibly can because we're afraid for our hard earned money.

Anonymous said...

please remain courtesy please....

Anonymous said...

anon @2
that's a start, and yes, I feel better, thanks...but when you say "worth less" in a year, are you talking about the big crash? Like 30% - 40%? Cause "worth less" can also mean 1% or 2% less. And that would be a "soft landing" which has been roundly discounted here. Come on, you can do better than that!

Peckhammer said...

> I definitely agree with Marlow
> that the prevailing attitude of
> entitlement cannot be sustained > for much longer

I believe it can be sustained indefinately as long as you are willing to transform the US into something that resembles South America.

Eleua said...

Hey! Anon 1134,

I've been saying 20 cents on the dollar by 2010 for quite some time.

Most of my Seattle Bubble brethren think of me and my predictions in the same way many view some freak at Westlake Center shouting "Repent! The end of the world is at hand!"

I've sold all me RE holdings and now rent. I'm presently a short-seller, renter, and an accumulator of non-US$ holdings.

So, there you go. My money is where my mouth is. I've given you, not only a time frame, but an approximation of the bottom.

Could I be wrong? Sure. People were saying the same things back in November '99 and stocks.

Tell me, is your money where your mouth is? Do you have multiple, highly leveraged properties? Tell us where the market is going. Are we going up 5%, 10%, 20%, and over what timeframe? Will median properties sell for 10X, 15X, 20X, 40X, median incomes? Will people be able to spend 150% of gross income on their house payment?

Your serve...

Eleua said...

Remember back in the tech bust, most of the tech sector was actively cratering, while Juniper Networks was deemed "special."

JNPR continued a breathtaking ascent to $244 while every other tech was swirling around the drain.

18 months later, JNPR traded at $5.

Brains will only get you so far; luck always runs out; nobody is special; the piper always gets paid.

Anonymous said...

Me? I haven't got a clue. I own a modest condo as a home, not an investment, and plan to stay put, so I don't really care that much --although of course 20 cents to the dollar sounds ridiculous to me unless you are expecting a depression that'll make the 1930s seem like a day at the beach. In which case, we'll have more important things to worry about than RE values. I suspect in 2010 people will still want homes and will still want to live in Seattle.

Eleua said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

eleua
so what percentage of our housing market is these Ex-Californians?

Eleua said...

(grammar rehash 3.0)

50 cents on the dollar only takes us back to '02. When this bubble breaks, you can expect that just as a starting point.

In '02, we were coming off of a VERY MILD recession, and you needed a microscope to find it. '00 was the end of a huge equity bubble that favored Seattle more than most cities. We really have not had the cleansing recession we needed after that tremendous excess.

I'm looking at early to mid '90s prices, and that is without a major economic disruption.

Prices can't keep going up, while incomes stagnate. Inflation and rising interest rates will weigh heavily on peoples' ability to pay for homes. Finally, when it dawns on the Lumpenvestoriat that a home is a place to park your head at night, and not a 3-D 401(k), it will wring the speculative premium out of the equation.

Right now, X-Cal equity refugees are propping up our market. Once California inverts, our market will go down faster than a Clinton intern on Easter Sunday.

Eleua said...

What percentage?

According to a cyber exchange with The Tim, his numbers show slightly more than 1/3 (38%). His numbers are state wide.

I only care about my smuggy, bucolic wonderland, and according to my sources 60% of BI buyers are out-of-state, and appx 3/4 of them are Californians, which is about 45%. Those are rough numbers, and I imagine you can use them as a good starting point for whatever you are trying to divine from the data.

BTW, that 60% does not include X-Cal that live on BI and then relocate to another house on BI.

darth_s said...

My predictions are:

1. Housing prices will be lower by 1-3 % next year in Seattle.
2. This process will continue for a few years until it bottoms at 2010 or 2011.
3. At the bottom, the fall in price will be ~ 15 – 20 % nominal, 30 – 40 % real, because inflation will remain high for the quite some time.

(Note: Even I am a housing bear, my view is less pessimistic compared to Eleua because I believe that some recent changes to the financial model seems to be drastic and long lasting)

deeplennon said...

You keep saying it is coming -- so tell us when.

Ooh, it's like an NCAA betting pool!

I'll guess June 07 will be the first month that shows year over year 0% (or lower) appreciation. But it'll continue to creep down until then and keep going south after.

I'll guesstimate the bottom to be around 25-30% nominal depreciation in late 2010 early 2011. Depreciation will be lower and further into the future if the interest rates aren't going back down yet from what I assume will be a return to normal rates over the next year or so.

Biggest factor for when we hit 0% YOY will be fed rate hikes and what pace they come at. Though I believe we'd still get there in a slightly longer time frame if rates remain at 5.25%, as the balls already rolling downhill. All the other factors routinely mentioned are what will keep the slide going and going..

Overall 2006 is looking like a good year, maybe 3rd overall to 05 and 04, but it's already obvious by the numbers trends that most of those gains will have been made Jan-May. It's the last great time to sell.

Eleua said...

darth,

What changes to the financial model do you see that I may have overlooked?

Thanks,
E

darth_s said...

Eleua,

I came up with these conclusions after reading many articles and papers related to the topic. However, there a few recent ones that really influence and shape my latest points of view about the bubble:
- World Real Estate Outlook 2006 from MacQuarie Real Estate published in 6/06
- Is Housing Wealth an “ATM” - a working paper from the IMF published in 6/06
- Housing Cycles – a draft paper from NBER published in 7/06

In summary, here are the points:
1. For the first time in history, the housing boom is not confined to a single region any more. It is almost a world wide phenomenon
2. The financial tools being employed now is much more efficient in moving vast amount of liquidity around the world – think about hedge funds, central banks, credit swap, default swap, etc.
3. The unprecedented participation of new players like China, Russion, Oil exporters, Emerging markets, etc. These players usually following their own set of rules and agenda.
4. The liquidity pumped by Central banks in the last few years will take years to normalize. This process will be very slow because nobody wants to crash the global economy.
5. The liberalization and innovation in mortgage market, i.e. IO, negative mortgage, HELOC, MEW, etc. (I believe that these tools will be around for a long time, obviously with tougher rules and regulations)

Basically, most economists, including the Fed, believe that there is a bubble, or froth, or excessive speculation, whatever they want to call it, in the housing market. However, not many believe that there will be an outright crash to the market. The more bearish ones of these folks, i.e. UCLA Anderson school, Morgan Stanley global economy group, Nouriel Roubini from Roubini Global Economics Service, PIMPCO economists,The Economist magazine, etc, now seem to gear toward a tough landing (between soft and hard landing) rather then a hard landing for the housing bubble. It is in the interest of all the participating players to make this happen – slow down the world economy to remove excessive speculation, be it housing, commodities, oil, bonds, capacities, etc. , not to crash it and bring about a world wide recession.

D,

dash_point said...

Are Americans spoiled?

Some say the middle-class is eroding, but I'll counter and say the middle class has increasingly chased after an "upper class" lifestyle--whether they can afford it or not. I may have grown up comfortably, but with nowhere the excesses (luxury cars, mcmansions, entertainment systems, vacation, gourmet kitchens) that people expect today.

Here's some more proof on how the middle-class has inflicted this on themselves. Of particular note is Heidi's story halfway into the news segment.

betamax said...

A bubble prolonged is still a bubble, and there is a difference between analyzing and prophesying.

But Seattle's bubble will pop by this time next year - it's already happening elsewhere.

Feel free to visit in 2007 and tell us how wrong we were. LOL.

from a Californian said...

Eleua has hit the nail on the head. I predict that by November Washington will see the last of it's booming real estate market. I make this assumption on the fact that so many people that caused the bubble to grow were the X-Californians. However, as of last November, California, in many cities and burbs, saw the last of their free flowing market. Now, winter is always slower than the rest of the year, except maybe July, but by spring, as we (yes, I live in California) waited to see the surge in home buying wake up again to a new season....there it was, as it still is, sleeping. Homes are not selling. Prices have dropped almost 10% from what they were selling for and what the re-fi's were going for just last November. NOD's are up 15-20 per month and forecloser is fast approching. If these current Californian's can not sell their homes, they will not be moving to Washington and when that happens, Washington will lose almost 40% of the homebuyers that were pumping the market up to begin with. I also note, that it was last summer that us Californian's were hearing of the "bursting bubble" but very few believed it would really happen...afterall, houses were still selling with in a week, with in a day in some cases. I believed. Yes I did because I lived through this as a homeowner back in the early 90's when the market tanked then too. So it is comming and it will be here before you know it.

darth_s said...

Some additional comments about my predictions –

The bursting/popping/deflating of the housing bubble will create serious pain/damage to the following groups:
- Speculators/flippers
- Marginal/sub-prime buyers who relies on creative financing, especially option ARM/teaser loan to get into the housing game
- Must sell buyers (job loss, relocation, divorced, etc.) who recently bought at the peaks of the bubble or has HELOC/MEW to the max of the value of the house

Again, you will see the bottom when nobody wants to talk about real estate any more at the cocktails, parties, etc.

Do I put my money where my mouth is? Yes, I do. Due to some recent transactions, not RE related, I have 500 K of cold hard cash.

Currently, I put most of them in a combination of CDs, Mutual funds, in a somewhat conservative way. Here is my calculation:

With the return rate of 6% for the next 5 years (some CDs now is paying you 5.8% for a 5 year term) , I’ll make about 150K.

If I use 500 K to buy a house outright, there is a very high chance that this house will be at 400 K in 5 years. (In many hot housing markets, a lot of people are under water 100 K or more already)

So, if I invest 500 K right now in the housing market, the probability that I’ll loose 250K in five years is VERY high.

This is my conclusion right now and I plan to stick with that.

marin_explorer said...

we waited to see the surge in home buying wake up again to a new season....there it was, as it still is, sleeping.

Yes, absolutely true here (N.CA) as well. Despite locals believing "everyone wants to live here," the market is totally dead. Perhaps this is why Californians like me knowingly listen to the Seattle optimism--and can guess what will happen next.

seattle price drop said...

The SDCIA Message Board (for RE investors) is beginning to read like the Ben Jones Housing Bubble Blog.

Investors- at least the pros- are not as emotional about their purchases so accept the truth when it hits them.

Unlike a screwed homeowner who thought their house was a ticket to everlasting riches and can't let go of the dream, or the specuvestor who jumped in at the top of the bubble.

It's a San Diego based board so yeah, looks like CA's going to go down fast.

darth_s said...

Interesting Web site:

http://flippersintrouble.blogspot.com/

May be a similar one should be started for Seattle soon.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Tim's query about what changed the middle classes aspirations to own a Mcmansion instead of a home, I would place the blame squarely one the media and our society's lack of judgment which allowed it to be mindlessly swayed by the media. Specifically, I think it all started back in the 70's with the introduction of the TV show "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous". People watched that show and everyone wanted to be a rock star and live like the rich and famous. Over time it grew like a large cancer on our collective psyche. Don't get me wrong, i don't think there's anything wrong with someone living that way if they've worked hard and earned a bunch of money - that's their choice. But the problem is that so many people became brainwashed by the media and developed a sense of entitlement that if some people lived that way they should be able to also. As people saw their neighbors living larger (unknown to them through massive accumulations of debt) they felt they also "deserved" to live that way. More recently, blame the media on other shows such as MTV's Celebrity Cribs, etc.

Eleua said...

Darth,

Thanks for the response.

I'll look into it further, but based upon what you jotted down, here is my initial take on this.

I seems the difference is the fact that there is a great brain trust that can see that bursting bubbles would be really, really bad. While I am sure "they" will try to pull another rabbit out of their hat, and pass the bubble baton, my guess is the same idiocy that ran us into the bubbles will not be able to save us from their consequences. If they could, they would have essentially rewritten classical economics.

While many now have confidence in the FED, and all the other complementary powers, I believe that will vanish, and all the various economic concerns will seek out their own, INDIVIDUAL survival strategy.

Markets tend to become more unwieldy and unpredictable as you try to manage them. Alan Greenspan just replaced the biggest bubble of all time (equities) with an even bigger bubble (real estate).

Why is it, if this is a global phenomenon, that San Diego, Seattle, NYC, etc. can go up in a wild fashion, but Dallas, KC, Memphis, Denver, and Houston just watch the party? Does capital only flow to hip-n-trendy cities?

I ask these questions, not to be antagonistic, but as rhetorical questions.

I doubt the FED and all its Merry Men will be able to slowly deflate the bubble. There are just too many moving parts - the bulk of which are severely out of balance.

My predictions are pretty dire, and I would consider your scenario to be within my expectations, but on the optimistic side.

Thanks again for your response.

E

Peckhammer said...

> Why is it, if this is a global
> phenomenon, that San Diego,
> Seattle, NYC, etc. can go up in
> a wild fashion, but Dallas, KC,
> Memphis, Denver, and Houston
> just watch the party?

I can confirm that prices and speculation have gone way up in France and the UK. The mentality is the same too. And the rest of what you said may be true as well: that capital flows to the hip-n-trendy cities. Hey, it's where the creative class wants to live.

> I doubt the FED and all its
> Merry Men will be able to slowly
> deflate the bubble.

The FED faces a real conundrum. They need to raise interest rates in order to fend off the effects of inflation, but raising rates will start pushing certain people out of their homes.

Free market? LOL!

Anonymous said...


Darth said

If I use 500 K to buy a house outright, there is a very high chance that this house will be at 400 K in 5 years. (In many hot housing markets, a lot of people are under water 100 K or more already)

So, if I invest 500 K right now in the housing market, the probability that I’ll loose 250K in five years is VERY high.


Purely financial question -

Why not put in 10% down (50 K)
and have the lenders carry the
risk in case of a downturn ?

You would still have 450K to invest
in the CD's.

richard said...

Why not put in 10% down (50 K)
and have the lenders carry the
risk in case of a downturn ?


Unless you plan on defaulting on the loan if/when values fall, how is this any less of a risk to your net worth?


I'm assuming that's your point since investing in CD's (~5% return) when mortgage rates on $450K are about 2 points higher won't save you any money - but you will have an easier time running off to Mexico after you default.

If you're not concerned with your credit score (like most subprime borrowers) the best strategy is to leverage as much as possible and let someone else deal with the risk.

jcricket said...

Unless you plan on defaulting on the loan if/when values fall, how is this any less of a risk to your net worth?

I think the previous poster was saying "why only compare keeping $500k in CDs and putting $500k directly into a house purchase. Why not add the option of putting $450k into CDs, $50k down on a house and just have monthly payments for the rest." In the short run home price declines shouldn't hurt you.

Why do you automatically have to default on a loan because your home value falls? Hint:

If you can make the monthly payments, even a lengthy fall in home prices doesn't force you to sell. If your ARM resets and you can make the payments, or you get a fixed rate loan before your ARM resets, you're still ok (in terms of not defaulting).

Even if the home is never worth more than you paid for it, you're not forced to take a loss until you are forced to move out of the house (e.g. you die, can't move around anymore, etc.).

Negative equity doesn't equal an automatic sale, default, foreclosure, etc. In fact, if you can't afford the loss, you may be forced to stay put and continue to make payments until you're above water. It would be a sucky financial situation, of course.

richard said...

Negative equity doesn't equal an automatic sale, default, foreclosure, etc.

Thanks for demonstrating an amazing grasp of the obvious.

The point was about mitigating risk to the owner's $500K nest egg, not whether they'll be "forced to sell" - where do you come up with this?

Whether or not you ever sell, if the house price decreases, your net worth decreases - regardless of whether you paid cash or took out a loan.

However, if you took out a loan, you do (at least in theory) have the option of walking away and keeping your worth - at the expense of your FICO score.

People that have neither wealth or particularly good credit are excellent candidates for RE speculation in today's easy money market.

Christina said...

I'll counter and say the middle class has increasingly chased after an "upper class" lifestyle--whether they can afford it or not.

Thanks. I'd been up too early this morning, consumed by anxiety that my spouse and I just weren't doing something right. I keep thinking people buy a house that's 2.5-3 times their annual income, and buy vehicles without financing them, and ensure there's at least one vehicle per driver. In the case of parents it's somehow a SUV or minivan.

Considering the earning power of wages hasn't improved much since the 1970s, and that wages were stagnant from 2001 to 2004 (if not longer), and the pressure to fund one's own retirement with 401(k)s and Roth IRAs and taxable accounts, I'm really wondering how it is that so many of us earn $140K-$180K a year. Or spend like we earn it.

I've been wracking my brain wondering what it is Americans know that I don't. There's a negative savings rate, the consumer debt nationally is astronomical, and people are buying homes priced $400K-$600K. Any savvy people with scintillating insight into American character or finances want to share with the ignoramus?

The Tim said...

I keep thinking people buy a house that's 2.5-3 times their annual income, and buy vehicles without financing them, and ensure there's at least one vehicle per driver.

Ha-ha-hah! That's a good one! No seriously, you're cracking me up here!

That reminds me of one of my favorite idiot phrases... when people talk about buying a (brand-new) new car, and they refer to it as "investing" in a new car. Hah!

Worst. Investment. Ever!

Christina said...

Ha-ha-hah! That's a good one! No seriously, you're cracking me up here!

Are you trying to shoo me away from your blog because I'm demonstrating genuine concern and betraying to all my anxiety about this country's economic future? Is that just not cool here?

I bought a house priced at 2.5-3 times my household income. Yes, in Seattle. No, I did not have rich parents, stock options, or a trust fund. I bought from income and savings.

The debt freaked me out then and, even though I've negotiated to a shorter term and stand to save $88,500.00 in interest thanks to divine timing of the refinance, the debt freaks me out even more, even though I could still buy my house for 2.5x-3x my household income, so I'm challenging myself to pay the balance off by a certain term, saving myself $26000, which will probably be my annual energy bill by then.

I think it's because I don't have the ubiquitous fairy godparents of stock options, trust funds, or financially permissive and able parents to back me up that I have this anxiety. I have no consumer credit debt other than the mortgage.

If I am mistaken in thinking other homeowners my age have these bibbledy-bobbledy-boo cash flow machines that I don't to aid them when things get rough, how can they be comfortable with paying $450,000 in interest over a thirty-year term? They've got to have some wicked and proven investment formula employing forbearance, patience, discipline, or some plan to walk away from their home when the fecal matter hits the fan.

The Tim said...

Are you trying to shoo me away from your blog because I'm demonstrating genuine concern and betraying to all my anxiety about this country's economic future? Is that just not cool here?

I hope that was sarcastic, because I'm absolutely not trying to shoo you away. I quite appreciate your comments, and I can tell that we have similar values when it comes to dealing with money and debt. I laughed because I know that there are very few people that are as cautious with their money as you and I are. The average credit card debt carried by Americans is $8,562, and half of all credit card holders pay only the minimum monthly payment! Don't forget that the interest rate on most credit cards is usually above 12%.

The sad truth is that most people in America have little to no grasp of the concept of living within one's means. It is most certainly cause to worry about our country's economic future, but sometimes when faced with insurmountable adversity, laughter is the best medicine.

biliruben said...

I'm with you and Tim, Christina.

I bought a home only 2x annual income, never had a car loan (I've never owned a car worth more than 3K) and don't have any CC debt, though I do have student loans (they're 2.5% and 4.5%, so I'm not going to pay them off before I have to, though it's tempting). The car thing may change, because my wife needs something more reliable than a 15 year old honda, but we are saving for it, not financing unless I get a heck of a deal (would you take 1% APR, 24 months? I'm tempted.)

Sadly, I think we are in the minority.

jcricket said...

Sadly, I think we are in the minority.

Compared to the average American, you're correct. But there are people (ahem, me) with far more liberal spending habits than you that are still financially in a sound position.

We have no debt (no student loans, no credit cards, no balance on our HELOC) outside of our mortgage. Our house was 2.5x our annual income. We have 6 months in cash savings for emergencies and a HELOC we could tap if we need to (emergencies only).

We also save significant percentages of our income for retirement and for our kid's college education. Plus, we try to up those savings every year.

We also own cars that cost far more than 3k and take vacations at nice hotels. That's what making more than 2x the median income affords you. I'm comfortable with the idea that we can strike a balance between living for today and planning for tomorrow. Too much concern with either now/then is what's to be avoided.

My point is that while you can go broke on any income, you don't have to be super-frugal at every income level to be financially sound. It's just about, as you put it, living below your means.

On a related note, I worry, just like Christina, about where the economy is headed. I've felt the direct effects (job loss) of economic downturns at least twice in my the last 15 years. In each time I was "prepared", but that didn't make it any more fun. It's possible if it happened again the downturn would be severe enough to really cripple the economy and I'd be screwed.

But that's a level of worrying that does nothing to help you and has you doing things like: Stop contributing to your retirement accounts in favor of having 2-3 years of cash lying around; Move into the cheapest shack you can find just in case your home value goes down 50% far in advance of when you think you'll need to sell; etc.

And who knows if any of your actions would really help. For example, what if there's massive currency devaluation and your cash pile is worth 10% of what it is now? What if there's hyper-inflation and rents shoot through the roof? Too many what-ifs to be living your life based on disaster scenarios.

None of the successful people I know live lives that are ruled by that kind of fear. A little bit of fear is healthy, keeps you from getting screwed by the occasional downturn. But too much fear is just paralyzing.

biliruben said...

I agree again. I'm not particularly frugal, I just don't like my fixed monthly costs getting too out of control.

We eat out, we vacation well, and I generally invest my money with rather bullish investment strategies. Right now I've gotten a bit more conservative, but that's the exception, rather than the rule.

I could probably best be described as penny foolish and pound wise. I don't sweat the small stuff, but I make sure my foundation's secure.