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Sunday, May 20, 2007

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Tired Stereotypes About Renters

You've heard these stereotypes about renting, circulated by people and organizations with a financial interest in selling you a mortgage:

  • Renting is for poor people.
  • Renters don't get involved in their community.
Here's a specific example of these arguments, courtesy of the NAR:
Low- and moderate-income families, as well as minorities, are the groups that homeownership eludes the most.
Homeowners are motivated to stay abreast of local issues to protect their investment.
In turn, involvement in community quality-of-life issues helps prevent crime, improve childhood education and support neighborhood upkeep.

- NAR, Homeownership Talking Points
I mention these because a semi-related story in today's Seattle Times caught my attention. In the first three paragraphs it gives a strong counterpoint to these talking points we often hear repeated by those in the home sales business. (emphasis mine)
On the 40th floor of a Seattle skyscraper, in a nondescript hearing room, a young Queen Anne couple sat on one side of a long table. On the other side sat their opponents — lawyers defending a city permit to tear down an old church next door to the couple's rented house.

On this particular day, the Queen Anne couple, Tyler Crone and Jorge BarĂ³n, looked far less like the working parents of a 3-year-old daughter and 15-month-old son and more like who they also happen to be: Yale-educated attorneys, one with a master's in public health, both on a mission. There the couple sat, confident, attired in suits, with briefcases of exhibits — and armed with witnesses who pounded home a single, emotional message: Don't poison our children with a toxic cloud of lead dust.

Bill Merkle, a real-estate broker involved in the deal to develop the church property, watched the spectacle with frustration, having never before seen such formidable neighborhood resistance to a demolition.
Surely there was a typo. That doesn't sound like renters at all.

Or maybe it's time to rethink the view that renters are somehow inherently unfortunate, lazy, ignorant, and/or stupid.

(Sanjay Bhatt, Seattle Times, 05.17.2007)

New Housing Bubble Blog: Portland

Just a quick note to point out that Seattle's riverside neighbor to the south—Portland—has its own housing bubble blog: Portland Housing Blog.

Drop on by and leave Clint a comment or two.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

WCRER: Affordability Still at Record Lows

First quarter data has been released by the WCRER. There's not much new information about King County that isn't already in the Seattle Bubble spreadsheet, but it's worth noting anyway since their audience is somewhat broader than Seattle Bubble's.

Here are a few quotes from the fluffy, feel-good AP report:

Washington's housing market remains a pricey bright spot, but that means renters are seeing fewer opportunities to become home owners, a study finds.

There were 26,720 homes sold statewide during the first three months of 2007, a 9.2 percent drop from the same quarter in 2006, according to statistics released Tuesday by the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at Washington State University in Pullman.

But the median price of $300,800 in Washington was 7.4 percent higher than a year ago. That compares to a 1.8 percent decline in the national median price for a single-family home during the first quarter.
Dennis Rose, 2007 President of Washington Realtors, said Washington's economy is helping keep home prices high.

"Strong job growth, coupled with a commitment to quality of life issues, is helping Washington avoid much of the pain of declining home prices observed in other areas," Rose said.

The Housing Affordability Index uses median home prices, mortgage interest rates and family incomes to measure the ability of a middle-income family to afford mortgage payments on a typical home.

In Washington, the affordability index climbed for the second consecutive quarter, mostly because the mortgage interest rate declined slightly during the first quarter, the WSU center said.
Is anyone else getting tired of the state Realtors' It's A Priority campaign and their endless disingenuous quotes about "quality of life"?

To give you some context on that quote that the Affordability Index "climbed for the second consecutive quarter," check out this graph (found in the Seattle Bubble spreadsheet):In King County, after plummeting from 121.3 in the second quarter of 2003 to a low of 69.2 in the third quarter of 2006 (a 52.1 point drop), the index has "climbed" a whopping 1.5 points in the past six months.

Let's throw a party.

(John K. Wiley, Associated Press, 05.15.2007)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

King County Foreclosures Keep Rising

April foreclosure stats from RealtyTrac have been released. No surprise: area foreclosures still on the rise.

More Seattle-area homeowners are facing foreclosures this month, but the region remains far below the national rate, according to new statistics released Tuesday.

The Seattle area, defined as King and Snohomish counties, had 760 foreclosure filings in April, up 16.7 percent from March, but down 2.2 percent from April 2006, according to RealtyTrac, an Irvine, Calif., company that tracks foreclosure filings. The April rate of one foreclosure per 1,287 households -- better than the national rate of one for every 783 households -- ranked the region 128th out of 229 U.S. metro areas.

"Washington has really not followed into what is happening nationwide," said Marc Gaspard, administrative director of the Washington Mortgage Lenders Association. "Certainly if you look at the Puget Sound region, our housing market may have slowed a little bit, but it's still a very strong market."

King County alone had a much worse month, with foreclosures up 37 percent from a month ago and 1.7 percent from April 2006. Its rate, however, still was lower than the national rate, one foreclosure for every 1,347 households. State foreclosures were up 1.15 percent from March and 7.2 percent from a year ago, with one per 1,396 households -- good for 23rd among states.
Although the trend is up, it is true that foreclosures are only slightly up. However, even without an economic downturn (local or national) things can change quite quickly.

But don't you worry, we're special. That will never happen here. The real estate agents quoted in the paper told me so.

(Aubrey Cohen, Seattle P-I, 05.15.2007)

Monday, May 14, 2007

Wanted: Construction Job in Seattle

Either this report is a fabrication, or the guys in question haven't been clued in to how special Seattle is...

Construction workers from across the country came to the Cedar Rim Apartments in Newcastle for a major remodeling project.

They worked for weeks but were only partially paid. Now, some are stranded and taxpayers are footing some of the bill.

Donald Gill and Marc Cox are now stranded thousands of miles from home with no money, no jobs, and no way back.

The men are two of 14 construction workers who answered a Craigslist ad offering good pay and plenty of work to come refurbish apartments.
Somehow the deal went bad and the workers were left to fend for themselves.

Gill says he worked for three weeks but was only paid for one.

Now, a month without money, he and Cox have resorted to food stamps, paid for by Washington taxpayers, to survive.
Somebody should tell those guys that thanks to Seattle's perma-hot real estate market, there are plenty of construction jobs out there building new homes in a futile attempt to meet our area's insatiable home-buying demand.

(Eric Wilkinson, King 5 News, 05.13.2007)

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Ringing "Ka-ching From a House in Seattle"

Here's yet another boilerplate national real estate article rah-rah'ing Seattle's apparent resilience:

Amid all the news of plummeting national housing numbers, the premise still holds true that all real estate is local, and nothing supports that premise more than the statistics on local home price appreciation. The ka-ching from a house in Seattle rings just as dramatically as the bell tolling for a home in Detroit.

Home prices and sales, while certainly susceptible to national macro-economic factors, such as mortgage rates and lending standards, rely largely on the local economy and local supply and demand. This is precisely why home prices in Seattle are up 10% from a year ago, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, but down nearly 8% in Detroit. It's the booming tech industry versus the slumping auto industry.

Home prices in Seattle have been on a tear, up for four months in a row, to a median price of $465,000 in April, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. Confounding matters even more, the bulk of the homes that sold in Seattle in March went for above asking price.

"We just have a very strong market," says Sara Hasan, financial analyst for Seattle-based McAdams Wright Ragan, a regional brokerage firm. "Two of the major employers are Microsoft and Boeing, and both are doing very well."

Not to mention that Google has moved into the very limited real estate in the area, which makes another point: Seattle has very short land supply, further diminished by a growth management act, which restricts where and how many single family homes can be built. Limited land supply plus strong employment equals pricey homes.
That's a convincing-sounding equation. Too bad that actual research shows it doesn't at all explain Seattle's high home prices. It's more like limited land supply (growth management) plus strong employment equals a plausible, but entirely false explanation for continued (but slowing) home price gains.

It's not that we don't have somewhat limited land and strong employment. It's just that when you actually take the time to do your research you find little to no correlation between those factors and home price gains.

(Diana Olick, CNBC, 11.05.2007)

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Prices In Seattle Still Hot, Hot, Hot!

Check out this delightful piece from today's Wall Street Journal: Where home prices are hot now

The housing news isn't all grim. Even as prices sag nationwide, there are several cities in the country where home values are climbing smartly.

Portland, Ore., Boise, Idaho, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Houston, Austin, and Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., are among the cities bucking the national trend. Homes' appreciation there between the fourth quarters of 2005 and 2006 far exceeded the national average of 5.9%, according to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight.

In some markets, like Boise and Seattle, the appreciation jumped well into the double digits.
Let me stop right there for a moment. The phrase "well into the double digits" didn't strike me as reflective of reality, so I took a look at the actual OFHEO report (pdf). Sure enough, according to the government, homes in Seattle appreciated 14.5% from Q4 '05 to Q4 '06. NWMLS stats and the Case-Shiller index both reported lower figures:
Dec. '05 - Dec. '06
OFHEO HPI: +14.5%
S&P/Case-Shiller HPI: +12.1%
NWMLS Median (Res, King Co.): +12.0%
I think the difference lies in the following (emphasis mine):
OFHEO calculates appreciation based on repeat sales or refinancings of the same single-family properties.
Including refinancings may have worked in the past, but for whatever reason, it is now apparently skewing the numbers a bit higher than they are in reality. With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the other claims made in the article...
There's no single secret of these cities' apparent success, but many of them missed the housing boom of the past five years. From 2001 to 2005, annual appreciation in these cities was between 2% and 5%, far slower than the 7% to 12% national average, according to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight.
Between 2% and 5% from '01 to '05? Really? No, not really:
Quarter: OFHEO, Case-Shiller, NWMLS
Q4 '05: +17.2%, +18.5%, +17.3%
Q4 '04: +10.1%, +11.4%, +9.9%
Q4 '03: +5.3%, +7.1%, +11.3%
Q4 '02: +4.5%, +4.1%, +3.3%
Q4 '01: +5.6%, +4.5%, +5.6%
Looks like we got a late start, with only slight price increases in '01 and '02 but from '03 on, it was off to the races.
Now, their economies are strong...
Good thing our local economy is completely immune to any potential slowdown in the national economy, right?
...and housing prices are still perceived as affordable, luring buyers into the market.
Now it's just getting ludicrous. No one but an ex-Californian perceives homes in Seattle to be "affordable."
The growth of Portland, Salt Lake City, Boise and Seattle can be attributed in part to an influx of former Californians and people opting out of slumping Las Vegas or Phoenix.
Ah, well there you go.
While some worry that a new group of cities could face a boom-and-bust cycle, local real-estate agents and economists predict stable growth for the near future.
In other news, local burger franchise owners and beef producers predict stable growth for the near future in their own industry, as well.

Lest you still come away from the article with a puffed-up opinion of Seattle's superiority, take a look at the seventeen cities with higher appreciation than Seattle (according to the OFHEO):
  • Bend, OR
  • Wenatchee, WA
  • Provo-Orem, UT
  • Salt Lake City, UT
  • Boise City-Nampa, ID
  • El Paso, TX
  • Flagstaff, AZ
  • Corvallis, OR
  • Mount Vernon-Anacortes, WA
  • Longview, WA
  • Myrtle Beach-Conway-North Myrtle Beach, SC
  • Wilmington, NC
  • Miami-Miami Beach-Kendall, FL
  • Ogden-Clearfield, UT
  • Salem, OR
  • Tacoma, WA
  • Mobile, AL
I guess the Salt Lake City area is even more specialer than the Puget Sound.

(Dean Treftz, Wall Street Journal, 05.09.2007)

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

April Reporting Roundup

Here's a compilation of what your local press (aka real estate advertisers) had to say about last month's home sales data from the NWMLS. It's depressing to think that these sources are where most people get their news of the market from...

Elizabeth Rhodes, Seattle Times:
King County home prices keep rising, bucking national trend
Buying a home here: You'll pay even more

"Overall, people have been getting worn out paying what in their opinion is an inflated price," Martin said.

Plus there are significantly more properties to choose from compared with a year ago.
Mrs. Rhodes' article is riddled with inaccurate assertions such as a claim that decreasing sales are "explained" by increasing inventory (huh?), and a quote that sales activity is "improving" and "at a faster pace than last year." She also says "Whether April will be the strongest month remains to be seen," when in fact it is already known that March experienced both more sales and larger price increases than April. Take home lesson: When reality isn't as rosey as you'd prefer, just pretend that it is!

Aubrey Cohen, Seattle P-I:
Home sales in city shoot up 14% in April
Anshul and Christine Pandhi were in their second week of seeing what they could get for $500,000 to $700,000 if they moved from Tacoma to Seattle.

"It's expensive," Anshul Pandhi said. "In our price range, the pickings are pretty slim."

John and Sahrah Marcantonio sold their Woodinville house in November and have been renting in Seattle while looking for a house in the city.
Sahrah Marcantonio was pessimistic about the market, but didn't care.

"I think it's a bubble, we're at the peak of the bubble, and yet, I want a house now," she said. "It's for the long term."
Aubrey's article was much more even-handed than we've come to expect. I was floored by the quotes he managed to get out of recent home buyers.

Devona Wells, Tacoma News Tribune:
Housing market still shows signs of slowing
The jump in the number of Pierce County houses and condos for sale puts the county at a six-month supply, generally considered the point a market moves from one favoring sellers to one favoring buyers, said Dick Beeson, a Windermere real estate broker and MLS director.

"The news is, pay attention, sellers, you’re not going to have the spring and summer you usually have," he said.
Apparently the market just south of us is a bit harder to spin in a positive light. Of course, that doesn't mean they aren't trying...
...though sales have slowed, [John L. Scott agent David Gala] said Tacoma homes under $400,000 remain hot. Two of his listings priced at $250,000 and $210,000 sold in the last week after multiple offers, Gala said.

But agents say three to six months tends to be the time it takes to sell a home today. As recently as two years ago, homes often sold in a few days.
Mike Benbow, Everett Herald:
Buyers drive up condo sales
While Snohomish County houses are less expensive than in King County, they're still out of reach for many people in the market, especially with the tightening of loan qualifications that has followed the recent increase in home foreclosures.

That has attracted more people to condos and their much lower price range.
Those buyers had better get into any type of home they can possibly afford, because as everyone knows, if they don't buy now, they'll be (you guessed it) priced out FOREVER!

Rolf Boone, The Olympian:
Condos sustain housing market
The pace of new South Sound loan applications has so far been strong this year, said Jeff Devlin, a Wells Fargo Home Mortgage consultant. Devlin said he doesn't sense the "doom and gloom" today that hung over the real estate market a year ago.
Hmm. Year over year pending (res + condo) sales down 15%, listings up 50%. SFH median up 9% vs 23% (April '05-'06). But the market is in better shape today than a year ago. Yeah.

Just for kicks, here are a couple of stories from a little further out in Western Washington than we usually focus on.

Dave Gallagher, Bellingham Herald:
Home sales slowing as supply rises

Evan Caldwell, Longview Daily News:
Region's home sales bucking U.S. trend

(Elizabeth Rhodes, Seattle Times, 05.08.2007)
(Aubrey Cohen, Seattle P-I, 05.08.2007)
(Devona Wells, Tacoma News Tribune, 05.08.2007)
(Mike Benbow, Everett Herald, 05.08.2007)
(Rolf Boone, The Olympian, 05.08.2007)

Monday, May 07, 2007

Listings Way Up, Sales Continue Descent

It's time for April statistics from the NWMLS. King County SFH summary:

April 2007
Active Listings: up 38% YOY
Pending Sales: down 10% YOY
Median Closed Price: $465,000, up 11% YOY

Sales continued their descent, making April the 17th of the last 18 months to register a YOY decrease in pending sales. Likewise, inventory continues to balloon, registering the highest YOY increase to date.

Despite the downward pressure of increasing supply coupled with decreasing demand, median prices still rose $10,000, for a 10.85% YOY increase. Apparently the increasingly small number of people that are still buying are all too happy to continue paying higher prices. Perhaps they're frightened of being priced out forever.

Months of supply bumped back up to 3.00.

As is the custom, I have uploaded an updated copy of the Seattle Bubble Spreadsheet that contains the relevant data. Here is the recap NWMLS pdf.

Here's the supply/demand YOY graph:

Here's the chart of supply and demand raw numbers:Here's the graph of YOY percent change in the median sale prices of single-family homes in King County since 1994:I predict that the $10,000 increase in median prices will be the primary focus of our friends at the Times and P-I.

Tick, tock, tick, tock...

My Clients Don't Have Any Money

Living most of my life in Florida, cockroaches were a fact of life. In general, if you spotted one cockroach, that meant there were at least 1,000 others somewhere, waiting in the wings.

In the past few months homeowner subprime sob stories have been coming at us from all over the country, ad nauseam. With Washington state in the top five for toxic loans, you'd figure we'd see more local stories.

Here's one from the Seattle Times this morning: Borrower, beware: Debt disaster looms as rates rise on easy-money mortgages

It was a sweet little house, with affordable day care nearby for their 6-year-old son. Patrick Fultz and Laurel Swartz were hooked.

But when the couple — with no savings and about $20,000 in credit-card debt — shopped for a mortgage to buy their 1,200-square-foot house in Tukwila last year, they heard the same thing from lenders and in a home-buying class they attended: Forget it.

"You basically had to be Scot free, no massive credit debt, which we had, and to have money in the bank, which we didn't," said Swartz, 31. "How do people buy houses in America anymore?"

Fultz thought he had found just what he was looking for when he came across Gold Mortgage Lending in Renton on the Internet. "No income verification mortgage, zero down," read the firm's Web site. "We fund mortgages the others can't."

Erin Rearden, a mortgage counselor at Solid Ground, a nonprofit social-service agency in Seattle, said the deal Fultz and Swartz struck is typical, especially as the cost of housing skyrockets out of reach for so many.

"They wanted a home. And a lot of this comes from operating under the assumption that owning a home is an inherent American right. So when someone offers a way to do it, you want to go for it," she said.

Fultz makes $12.75 a hour driving a fish-food delivery truck. He recently paid off half of the 12 credit cards he used in buying a motorcycle, a couch and a television, going out to eat, "just buying stuff," Swartz was working at an insurance office, where she made $11.75 an hour.

The couple signed two mortgages to buy their $246,800 house in July. The first loan, a so-called pick-a-payment loan for 80 percent of the deal, had a variable interest rate. The second mortgage, at 12.5 percent interest, covered the rest.

Not long after they signed the loan, Swartz decided to dump her sedentary office job to become a personal fitness trainer. The new job paid less, $7.89 an hour, but she had the opportunity to earn commissions as she brought in clients.

The commissions, however, didn't materialize. At the same time, the interest rate on the first mortgage went up, from 7.06 to 8.15 percent — and it can go up every month until topping out at 11.5 percent.

Suddenly the couple were $300 a month short of paying their bills.

"I feel sorry for anyone who can't get into a house," Mills said. "We beg the banks to give us their turn downs. I help people; that's the bottom line."
Editors note: Always watch your back when a commissioned salesperson beings a sentence with "I help"

But today, people like Fultz and Swartz aren't the only ones having money problems. Mills, and brokers like her, have troubles of their own.

A meltdown in the subprime lending market is drying up the money pipeline.

Across the country, where home values are stalled or plummeting, lenders are watching loans turn upside down, with mortgages grown larger than property values. People behind in payments are losing their homes. Entire neighborhoods in parts of the Midwest and California are shuttered by bad debt.

The situation is nothing like that in Seattle, where increasing home values can still grease the mechanics of subprime deals.

But even here, lenders have stopped serving subprime clients or are imposing tighter requirements to qualify, from higher credit scores to a couple of months' worth of payments in the bank and at least some money down.

"For my clients, that is a deal killer," Mills said. "My clients don't have any money."
Wait a minute... I'm confused. I thought your customers were people that already didn't have any money? Or were you talking about the money to pay your broker fees?

The pullback has cratered the business model for brokers like Mills. She used to write 10 to 15 loans a month. In March, she wrote two. In February? None.

"I didn't make my own mortgage payment this month," Mills said in April. "But nobody feels sorry for me."
While the map of misery shows a percentage of toxic loans of roughly 15%, I wonder how many of these loans were written in just the last year or so?

Where will future "buyers" get the money for even a 5% down payment. If there are less buyers, what will that do for Seattle home values?

Now that we've seen one homedebtor facing foreclosure story here in Seattle, I wonder how many other stories are out there?

(Lynda V. Mapes, Seattle Times, 05-07-2007)

Friday, May 04, 2007

Throw More Money at the Problem

Problem: Housing in the Seattle area is too expensive.
Government solution: Artificially inflate the buyer pool by throwing millions in government loans at the problem.

Seattle will soon stake low-income housing developers in the cutthroat bidding wars for building sites.

The idea, which the City Council's Housing, Human Services and Health Committee approved as a two-year pilot project earlier this week, is to lend developers money fast and early — up to five years before they're ready to build.

The program will help non-profit developers secure sites before Seattle land costs get even more out of hand and better compete against their for-profit counterparts, who often can move more quickly, said Kollin Min, regional program director in Seattle for Enterprise Community Partners, an organization that helps fund low-income housing.
The program will get $2 million a year through 2009 from the city housing levy's operating and maintenance fund.

That's just a start, Min said.

"It's a very good first step," he said. "We need to have a larger pot to really make a dent in the problem."
The Legislature authorized a separate $1 million earlier this year for a similar program statewide.
Forty percent of the program money would go to home-ownership programs for residents earning 80 percent to 120 percent of the median income. Other money could go to rental housing for people making no more than 80 percent of the median income.
How does "spend more money" make sense as a solution for the problem of something being too expensive? I'm no economist, but I'm pretty sure that projects like these only serve to further drive up prices.

Should local and state governments bother trying to get involved at all, or should they just let the market work itself out?

(Aubrey Cohen, Seattle P-I, 05.03.2007)

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

To Open Thread or Not to Open Thread?

Thanks to the cessation of daily open thread posts during and after my recent vacation, participation in the forums has really taken off. However, when I announced on Monday that I would cease posting open threads for the foreseeable future, a number of you protested.

While I am certainly glad to see the forums well-utilized, I also don't want to alienate those of you who have contributed some of the most interesting discussion to this site. When I post daily open threads, forum usage declines, but without open threads, some people don't really participate as much. So I'm looking for some kind of middle ground.

Does anyone have suggestions for a way that we can facilitate open thread discussion without decreasing forum usage? I was thinking of reducing the open thread frequency, or placing it one click away from the front page (like the forums already are).

What do you think of either of those ideas, and what are some other things we might try?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Renting in Seattle "may make economic sense"

Finally some semi-useful information out of Dupre + Scott. Mr. Cohen reports on the "1-19 Unit Report" just released by Dupre + Scott in this terrifying tale of skyrocketing rents and plummeting vacancies:

Rental houses get scarce, expensive

The good news for people who cannot afford to buy a house in Seattle is that it may make economic sense to rent for the moment.

The bad news? Rental houses are a lot harder to find and pricier than they were a year ago.

The typical Seattle rental house now costs $1,604 a month, up 4.6 percent from a year ago, according to data that Dupre + Scott Apartment Advisors released Monday. House rents for all of King and Snohomish counties were up 6.5 percent from a year ago.

Dupre + Scott did not release vacancy rates just for houses, but among all King County rental buildings with one to 19 units, including houses, the rate declined from 3.7 percent a year ago to 3.1 percent now. The house trend is similar to that for apartments in general, according to Dupre + Scott.
It should be noted that even this report excludes homes or condos rented out by individuals. According to the Dupre + Scott website, the 1-19 Unit Report is derived from a survey of "apartment owners, professional property managers, and on-site property managers." Given the logistical complexity of such a task, you can't really blame them for not surveying individual owners, but it's important to keep in mind what this data is and is not telling us.
Dupre + Scott's April apartment report asserts that people would make more money renting, and investing the money they save elsewhere, than paying current prices to buy a home.

"There are a lot of reasons to own a home," Dupre + Scott co-owner Mike Scott said. "From a purely financial perspective I'd say no, it doesn't make sense. But if home prices go up 10 or 15 percent in the next year, I'll have to eat those words."
That makes about as much sense as the following: "There are a lot of reasons to visit a casino. From a purely financial perspective I'd say no, it doesn't make sense. But if you make 10 to 15 percent profit on your next visit, I'll have to eat those words."

No words will in fact need to be eaten, because even if home prices go up another 10 to 15 percent next year, it still doesn't make financial sense to buy a home right now. To put it another way... Just because a reckless decision paid off in the short term doesn't mean that it wasn't reckless, it just means that you were lucky.
Bob Melvey, assistant manager of Windermere Real Estate's Ballard office, said renting and investing the savings might pay off "if someone is very, very disciplined and they truly do put that difference in the stock market and they do a good job of managing their stock portfolio."

But most people would end up spending the savings on other things, Melvey said. "Owning your own home is, to a degree, a forced savings plan."
A "forced savings plan" where 80% of the money you "deposit" in the first five years simply vanishes (the interest portion of the payment), and from which you can only withdraw money by paying a 6-9% fee (not on the amount you have "saved" mind you, but on the total sale price) and relocating. Wait, that doesn't sound anything like a savings plan.

To give these figures a bit of perspective, let's say that the average single-family home at $1,583 (King/Sno) is comparable to the median home, which sold for $454,950 last month (King), resulting in an approximate PITI payment of $3,400. We will assume the homebuyer had 20% (almost $100,000) to put down, and we will ignore maintenance, HOA, utilities, and tax deductions in order to keep this simple. Right off the bat, the renter's monthly payment just 46.6% of the buyer.

It would take 13 years of 6.5% rent hikes before the renter's payment exceeded the homeowner's. Of course, during that time, the renter's $90,000 in liquid investments will likely have doubled or tripled, and that doesn't even consider that they're adding the monthly savings to the investment. If they bank the difference, their $90,000 could quite easily become $500-$600k. Also, if you think that rents will increase steadily at 6.5% per year for the next 13 years, I don't think you have a very good grasp of history.

Suffice it to say that despite the scary language in the headline of Mr. Cohen's latest volley, renting still beats buying in the Seattle area hands down (financially speaking).

(Aubrey Cohen, Seattle P-I, 04.30.2007)

Monday, April 30, 2007

Vacation Link Roundup

Looks like I didn't miss too much Seattle housing news while I was gone. I'm looking forward to seeing the April numbers next week. Here's a summary of what I noticed while clearing my inbox:

I'm also pleased to report that my nefarious scheme of going on vacation appears to have had the desired effect on the forums. Membership swelled by nearly 30%, and posting activity skyrocketed. Here are a few of the more popular and/or interesting threads:Therefore, I believe it is time to say goodbye to the open threads. For the foreseeable future, all user-driven discussion will take place on the forums. Thanks for your participation. I really enjoy reading what everyone comes up with.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

On Vacation, Check the Forums!

Click here to go to the forums.

I'll be on vacation with little to no Internet access through the 28th, so I likely won't be making new posts during that time. This includes open thread posts.

I strongly encourage everyone to head over to the forums while I'm gone. It only takes a few seconds to create an account, and the discussion is 100% user-driven.

Here are a few forum tips:

  • After logging in, you'll see an orange icon () next to any groups that have new posts since your last visit.
  • To post a link, use the following format: [url=]Here is my link[/url].
  • If you have problems, either PM Lake Hills Renter or Synthetik.
  • You can also try emailing me, but there's no guarantee I'll be able to get back to you.
Next time I'll try to line up a series of guest posters when I head out.

In the mean time, click here to go to the forums.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Developers! Developers! Developers!

Reporter Aubrey Cohen and the Seattle PI are at it again, this time pimping new development in Columbia City.

A Seattle developer has proposed a mixed-use project in Columbia City aimed at providing homes typical workers can afford to buy, while another developer also has condo plans in the up-and-coming South Seattle neighborhood.

The 63-condo development, called Columbia City Place, would be built on a vacant former auto lot at 5201 Rainier Ave. S., and units would cost between $200,000 and $400,000 -- plus whatever inflation tacks on in the two years before the project is completed, said Scott Shapiro, managing director of Eagle Rock Ventures LLC.

Shapiro said he and partner Murray Kahn are keeping prices down by using more basic finishes and wood construction for the upper floors, rather than concrete and steel, by installing above-ground parking and by building in Columbia City, where land is cheaper.

"It's a huge risk because no one's done condos of this scale in Columbia City," Shapiro said. "I could be in the right place at the right time or I could be three years early."
Or maybe three years too late?
"We've already explored heading north," he said. "We can't go east and we can't go west. Continued development going down the Rainier Valley is going to be a foregone conclusion."

While other developers are thinking about building in the area, Shapiro's project is "pioneering," Gardner said. "I think he's on the leading edge, definitely."
More like bleeding edge!

Columbia City is "a little neighborhood with a soul," said Denny Onslow, Harbor's chief development officer.

Projects such as these would have been "unthinkable" a decade ago, said Darryl Smith, who bought his Columbia City home in 1994 and became a Windermere Real Estate agent there the following year.

Smith said the projects would create new housing opportunities for people who cannot afford a house or those who might want a smaller home within walking distance of shopping and services. He also praised Harbor officials for saying they want to work with community members on their project and respect Columbia City's character.
Does anyone else call BS on this? If you need to sell something, simply cite affordability or the environment (or both!) and it's in the bag! Evidently Columbia City is the new Ballard.

Check out some of the comments on PI's blog:

"Face Reality" said "What this really means is that land and housing in Ballard, Fremont, Cap Hill, etc has become so expensive that even most developers can't afford to build because housing there is now beyond the reach of even the most affluent. ...Say goodbye to affordable housing in Rainier, hello to gentrification. As has already occurred in the “real” Columbia City."

"heebie_jeebies" added "I don't know why we have to accept these monster townhouse cookie-cutter firetraps...I live on Capitol Hill and have NOTHING good to say about allowing development and density that is absolutely killing our neighborhoods."

"financeguru" chimed in with "Wont development increase the property values of people that currently own near the new condo development? YES! I currently own a condo at the edge of Downtown and First Hill…and yes there are many areas that have high levels of drug usage and other things. Im getting my MBA at SU and it would be nice to see some of these abandoned buildings in the Capital Hill area cleaned up…"
(Aubrey Cohen, Seattle PI, 04-20-2007)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

WaMu Trying to Cope With Slowdown

Local mortgage giant Washington Mutual has been in the news quite a bit the last few days. On Tuesday, Seattle Times business reporter Amy Martinez made the (not-so-bold) prediction that WaMu won't escape subprime turmoil.

During the housing boom of the past several years, Washington Mutual was among the nation's top lenders in the high-risk sector of subprime mortgages.

Now subprime loans industrywide are failing at an alarming rate.

Although the Seattle-based thrift has cut back its subprime lending, it still has a lot of the loans on its books.

Exactly how vulnerable it remains will become clearer today when WaMu holds its annual shareholders meeting and releases first-quarter financial results.

The high-credit-risk market known as "subprime" represented 9 percent of WaMu's overall loan portfolio at the end of 2006. Analysts who follow the company predict first-quarter profit will suffer as a result.
Un-shockingly, she was proven absolutely correct later that day when WaMu's first quarter results were released:
Washington Mutual Inc. said Tuesday its first-quarter profits slid 20 percent amid a nationwide implosion of the subprime home loan market.
Kerry Killinger, Washington Mutual's chairman and chief executive, said the company's retail banking, card services and commercial groups fared well, while the home loan market - particularly the subprime segment for consumers with high-risk credit histories - remained a serious challenge.

Washington Mutual's home loans group posted a first-quarter loss of $113 million compared to a $52 million profit during the year-ago period. The company suffered a quarterly loss of $164 million on sales of subprime mortgages, alone.

To limit further damage as the housing slump continues, Washington Mutual said it had scaled back its subprime portfolio and had set aside more money to cover future loan losses: $234 million for the quarter compared to $82 million in first quarter 2006.

"Over the past 12 months, we have taken a number of prudent actions to reduce our exposure to the subprime mortgage industry," Killinger said in a statement. "These actions, along with a diversified business mix, limited our exposure to the mortgage market's downturn and position us well to expand and grow as market conditions improve."
Among those "prudent actions" is an open offer to refinance some of their riskiest loans into more traditional products at discounted rates:
Washington Mutual Inc. said Wednesday it will refinance up to $2 billion in subprime mortgages to help borrowers avoid default and foreclosure.

The program will allow subprime borrowers who remain current on their existing loans and are bracing for payment increases to apply for discounted fixed-rate loans or other refinancing options.

"Stepping up and helping our customers stay in their homes is in the best interest of our borrowers, our communities and WaMu," Kerry Killinger, chairman and chief executive of the Seattle-based savings and loan, said in a statement.
Will measures like these be enough to keep WaMu from experiencing serious financial pain as the consequences of yesterday's loose lending begin to pile up? Only time will tell, but at least WaMu has one important thing going for it: headquartered in the specialest place on earth!

(Amy Martinez, Seattle Times, 04.17.2007)
(Bill Virgin, Seattle P-I, 04.17.2007)
(Associated Press, KOMO TV, 04.17.2007)
(Associated Press, Seattle P-I, 04.18.2007)
(Bloomberg News, Seattle P-I, 04.18.2007)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

World-class not "merely boasting how darn great we are."

If I were the egocentric type, I'd probably think that none other than the P-I's Bill Virgin is a Seattle Bubble reader. A mere five days after I dispelled the notion that Seattle is "world class," Bill delivers the exact same message to a broader audience in today's column: So what makes a world-class city?

Is Seattle a world-class city?
During the heady days of No. 1 livability rankings and magazine covers and pop-culture references in music, movies and TV shows, Seattle got to thinking of itself as not just world-class but world-centric.
So should anyone care about whether Seattle is world-class?

In fact, there is an aspect to world-class status that goes well beyond meaningless exercises in civic pride (or, some would argue, overly and unjustifiably inflated ego) that does matter, at least in the realm of business and economics.
Which brings us to the question of how Seattle stacks up as a world-class city in the business sense.

The answer: Maybe not as well as we used to believe.

Just about every discussion of the economic fortunes of this region focuses on two companies: Boeing and Microsoft — with considerable justification.
And after that, what other sectors are there of which we can boast world-class status? Natural resource businesses like timber and fishing no longer figure prominently in the regional economy, much less nationally. Seattle never did emerge as a biotech center the way boosters hoped.

Interestingly, one sector in which Seattle has emerged as a leader is one in which it had not traditionally been a significant player — retailing. Such is Starbucks' status that it has influenced the direction of another giant, McDonald's, while Costco on a national level has forced none other than Wal-Mart to react to it.

Still, the portfolio is a little thin in terms of making Seattle a world-class business center. That's probably just fine with a lot of people. But if Seattle does aspire to world-class status as an economic development strategy, it's got some work to do, beyond merely boasting how darn great we are.

If you have to tell everyone you're world-class, maybe you really aren't.
Ding ding ding! We have a winner. Bill "gets it." Seattle is a nice city, but any way you look at things, it falls short of the "world class" title.

(Bill Virgin, Seattle P-I, 04.16.2007)

Drive By Commenting

Comments like this one crack me up:

I am not sure what I have stumbled in on. This is the first time I've seen this blog. It seems as though this site is a place where people are trying to convince themselves that the Seattle real estate market is going to fail and that it will be a glorious day of vindication for some (most of the contributors) and crow eating (the rest of society).

There are very few examples in the recent past of real estate being a bad investment over the long haul. It can be risky to buy if you know you need to sell in a couple of years. But if it is a place to live and you are planning to be there awhile it is probably the smartest investment you'll make.
Wait, are we talking about the "recent past" or are we talking about "the long haul"? Also, Seattle Home Owner, could you please explain to me exactly how one can cash in on "the smartest investment you'll make"?

A house is a place to live, period. A home is not a winning financial investment, except during times of irrational exuberance such as the period we are now leaving behind us.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Misdirection Master Strikes Again

In what is becoming a bit of a regular occurrence, Seattle's #1 real estate cheerleader yet again wields her powers of misdirection in response to a probing reader question.

Q: There is an entire group of people today who've never gone through a major recession. How will home prices be affected if we do have a recession like the pullback of 1974?

A: The recession of 1974, caused by high inflation and an oil crisis, took the wind out of the housing market. Homebuilding dropped 33 percent, according to Time magazine's Dec. 9, 1974 cover story. The Federal Reserve clamped down on the money supply. Mortgages became harder to afford.

But if we were to have a repeat of 1974, much more would happen because recessions cause widespread economic damage.
Exactly what that meant for house prices is hard to know because data from that decade is sketchy.

We can say, however, what the local fallout was from two milder, more recent recessions: 1990-91 and 2001-2003. The rate of appreciation fell, but house prices in general didn't. Here are the numbers:

After rising 28.9 percent in 1990, King County single-family home prices basically flat-lined for the next three years, rising just 1.2 percent in 1991, 0.1 percent in 1992 and 1.7 percent in 1993. Then they began rebounding, culminating with 10.1 percent appreciation in 1999.
It would appear that whenever the answer to a question is a bit too difficult for Ms. Rhodes to swallow, she decides to answer a completely different question that wasn't even asked. In this case, the question she appeared to be answering was actually "what is a recession, and how would Seattle be affected in a very mild one?"

Of course, the answer to that question is reassuring and ultimately useless.

(Elizabeth Rhodes, Seattle Times, 04.14.2007)

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Vulcan Ridiculous @ 2200

Ah, the joys condodebtorship.

When Jerry O'Leary, 54 and retired, put down over $100,000 dollars toward a new million-dollar condominium in February 2005, he thought he was buying his way into an innovative downtown lifestyle proposed by Vulcan Inc. Vulcan Real Estate's $200 million 2200 project on two and a half acres at Westlake Avenue...

However, on March 26, 2007 O'Leary filed suit...after a series of delays and construction disputes left him with a condo that...was "substantially [different] from the scope, nature, and extent of the project as it was described"...O'Leary recounts, "The quality, as promised, sounded great." Instead, he describes the building to The Stranger as "basically a Motel 6."
Oh, snap!
...some of the problems include irreparably damaged door and window frames; a poured concrete deck that sloped toward his apartment, causing leaks in the unit below; mounting construction delays; and unmet expectations. ...O'Leary is not the only person to encounter problems with 2200.

...tenants have dealt with minor annoyances such as low water pressure and leaky shower doors and pipes, as well as major design flaws like incorrectly positioned halogen lights that threatened to ignite kitchen cabinets. The problems were compounded, they say, by promises of room service from in-house restaurant Marazul, a rooftop "garden"—which according to a third resident is nothing more than "a big cement area with a couple of trees stuck in it,"

As of press time, several real-estate websites list 38 condos being resold in the building, and Craigslist reveals at least a dozen units available for rent or sale. ... according to John L. Scott Real Estate agent Ben Kakimoto, the number of units being flipped by investors "seem[s] like a lot" when compared to other condo projects of similar scope. Some of these units have sat unsold for months, with several of the pricier units remaining on the market even after $100,000-plus price reductions.

While Vulcan would not release information on its vacancy rate, anecdotal evidence hints that 2200 currently isn't the bustling urban utopia it was supposed to be. Resident Chris Tanaka notes that he "never see[s] that many people" in the buildings, and Dierst remarks that "the building is not full."

Matt Goyer, the operator of Seattle condo blog Urbnlivn and a program manager at real-estate website Redfin...believes the problem is oversaturation. "It feels like they're overbuilding in the higher-end market.... Goyer faults vacancies at 2200 to "people trying to make a fast buck. A lot of [these] people [have] unreasonable expectations."
Huh? What's so unrealistic about purchasing overpriced downtown condos during the peak of the greatest real estate asset bubble in history and expecting to flip them for an easy buck?
...units [at 2200] for sale have seen price reductions ranging from $1,000 to $175,000. And one seller is even throwing in a 42-inch flat-screen TV to sweeten the deal.
Is that 1080i or 1080p?
Addressing the O'Leary lawsuit, Jeffries states, "I don't know why Mr. O'Leary feels like that's something he needed to go to the media about." She would not respond to anonymous complaints about the development (nor did she return several calls after a few residents put their names by the complaints). "We're doing everything we can to take care of our homeowners. The vast majority of people at 2200 are really happy," she originally told us. We asked Vulcan to put us in touch with some of those tenants, they did not respond to the request.

On a recent Saturday night, as 2200's three concrete and glass towers loomed in the night—the downtown skyline to the southwest...many of the windows were dark, save for the glow of several flat-screen TVs large enough to be viewed from the street.
During 2005 in downtown San Diego, I noticed much the same. At the time I just assumed that everyone was simply still working at 10pm each night, desperately trying to make their $4500 mortgage payments.

When I am ready to purchase my next house after the crash, it certainly won't be a condo. I probably won't buy anything made after 2000 as they've likely been built of balsa wood and bailing wire.

While it's difficult to tell if Seattle will be hurt as badly as other bubbly areas such as San Diego (and this is only the beginning), it certainly won't be pretty. Be patient - a sixteen year speculative bull market in housing doesn't land quickly - and certainly not "softly".

As they like to say on HB, "got popcorn?"

(Jonah Spangethal-Lee,The Stranger, 04.12.2007)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

On Luxury Cars and World Class Cities

My car is so great. It has a built-in CD player, a driver's seat with four independent adjustments, a tasteful spoiler, a spacious trunk, climate control, a powered sunroof, and gets over 30 miles to the gallon. It's comfortable, good-looking, and fun to drive. My car is comparable to a BMW or a Lexus, and is a great fit for me. Did I mention how much I like it? I mean, BMW or Lexus are a good fit for some people, but they don't really fit my style. You know though, it really is surprising how cheap it was for me to buy, considering how much other luxury cars go for these days...

So why am I rambling on about my car? What could this possibly have to do with home prices in Seattle?

Every once in a while someone tries to make the case that high home prices in Seattle are justified (or even that prices are too low) on account of what a swell city this is. Their argument goes something like this:

Seattle is so awesome! In fact, Seattle is so swell that it is completely reasonable to compare home prices here to cities such as New York and San Francisco, where homes are much more expensive! Seattle is after all a hip, up-and-coming world class city, probably even the hippest, most up-and-coming world class city around. So you see, it totally makes sense for home prices to shoot through the roof around here. We're just catching up to other comparable cities.
I definitely agree that Seattle is a great place to live. Much like my car, Seattle has many attributes that I really like: low pollution, beautiful scenery, proximity to nature, and a decent job market, to name a few. That being said, comparing Seattle to New York or San Francisco is just as ridiculous as comparing my Saturn SL2 to a BMW or Lexus. They're just not in the same league.

Although I already knew this was the case, since I don't travel much (never been to New York, Boston, San Diego, and have only visited San Francisco once), it didn't really personally hit home with me until my recent business trip to Chicago. Even though I only spent one afternoon cavorting about and seeing the sights, I was immediately struck with the impression of "this is what a real world class city looks like."

These are a few of the things I noticed (and later researched) about Chicago.

  • Density: 12,604 people per square mile (source)
  • Extensive Rail system, with 8 different lines running through the heart of downtown (source)
  • Over 2,100 acres of waterfront parks bordering the downtown core (Lincoln Park, Millennium Park, Grant Park, Burnham Park), over 2,800 acres of waterfront parks total
  • 16 major sports teams, with 28 total championship wins (source)
  • Strong blues, soul, jazz, and gospel music scene. Birthplace of House music. (source)
  • World famous government center (Richard J. Daley Center), world famous skyscraper (Sears Tower)
Now here's how Seattle compares in those same categories.

  • Density: 6,901 people per square mile (source)
  • Patchwork rail system, with an independent monorail, various street cars, disconnected, infrequent north-south routes, and various in-progress light rail lines. (source)
  • 18.1 acres of waterfront parks bordering the downtown core (Waterfront, Myrtle Edwards, Olympic Sculpture), over 600 acres of waterfront parks total
  • 6 major sports teams, with 4 total championship wins (source)
  • Alternative music scene. Birthplace of grunge. (source)
  • World famous landmark (Space Needle), well-known market (Pike Place Market)
If I had thought of it, I would have asked some Chicago natives whether they think Seattle is an "up-and-coming world class city." I bet they would have laughed at me.

While I was researching this post, I came across the Wikipedia page on world class cities (or "global cities" as they are referred to on Wikipedia). It cites an "inventory of world cities" compiled by a university group in England. In their list, cities can have up to 12 points, with 10-12 point cities being considered "alpha world cities," and so on down the list. Here is the summary of the US Cities categorized on their list:
Alpha world cities (full service world cities)
  • New York (12 points)
  • Chicago (10 points)
  • Los Angeles (10 points)
Beta world cities (major world cities)
  • San Francisco (9 points)
Gamma world cities (minor world cities)
  • Boston (6 points)
  • Dallas (6 points)
  • Houston (6 points)
  • Washington, D.C. (6 points)
  • Atlanta (4 points)
  • Miami (4 points)
  • Minneapolis (4 points)
Seattle shows up way down the list with 2 points, having "some evidence of world city formation." Another categorization is quoted that lists "well rounded global cities" (such as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago) and "worldwide leading cities" (including Miami, Atlanta, and Denver), but Seattle is nowhere to be found on their list.

I mention these lists only to demonstrate that when I say "Seattle is not comparable to San Francisco or New York," it's not because I have some grudge against the city that I call home. I am not alone in my assessment of Seattle as a small city. It's not my biased opinion, it's a fact.

Again, I want to reiterate that I like it here. Seattle is great, and I am happy to call it home. But let's be honest, it is disingenuous to compare Seattle to New York or San Francisco. Let's enjoy Seattle for what it is instead of pretending it is something that it's not.

Much in the same way that I would not pay $40,000 for a Saturn sedan, I am simply not willing to shell out $450,000 for an average house in Seattle.

Update: It seems I've got an ally in Seattle P-I columnist Bill Virgin.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

King County Foreclosures Up 27% YOY

Couched in the mind-numbing bubbly language of a press release from Default Research comes this tidbit of information:

"Foreclosures increased by 27 percent in the Seattle area. That is an increase from this time last year," said Serdar Bankaci, president/CEO of Default Research Inc.
Cue the "but we're coming off of historic lows!" nonsense in 3... 2... 1...

P.S. (Does anyone know where to find historic foreclosure / default data for King County? I've had no luck locating a source for such data beyond the occasional press release like this one.)

(Default Research, PRNewswire, 04.11.2007)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Bubble Link Roundup

There have been a lot of real estate articles in the local dead tree outlets the last few days. It's time for another link roundup before I get too far behind and forget to mention some of them.

First up, it's Mark Trahant of the P-I with yet another thoughtful, well-reasoned take on Seattle's housing market.

What if housing prices decline by 20 percent? That would solve Seattle's affordability problem, right? Most folks would say this is impossible. The data from last week show that house prices keep increasing no matter what. Our boom continues, just slower and steadier. But both our region and our country have boom and bust cycles as predictable as weather. It's as much of our history as innovation, military might or baseball. One minute we're panning gold, the next we're trying to recoup our investment in those nifty machines that pluck gold dust from stream beds.
Just think about what those higher credit standards will require: A significant down payment, good credit and, in Seattle, a high income.

More than likely, what it will really mean is that the supply of homes will grow — and prices, sooner or later, will fall.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the Seattle Times encouraging first-time homebuyers to "learn the fine art of compromise."
Rolf Johnson and Kerrie Cooley had different jobs, different priorities and different resources, but on their brave hunt for a $250,000 home in the Seattle area they both learned it came down to what they were willing to give up.

Cooley let go of any notion of buying a house or living in downtown Seattle to find the modern, two-bedroom condo she wanted.

Johnson spent more than a year, bumped up his budget and moved farther from work to find the house, property and studio space he craved.

Compromise is definitely the name of the house-hunting game in the Seattle area, especially for first-time buyers who often can't come close to the $450,000 or so that it costs for a typical single-family house in Seattle and are looking more realistically at prices around $250,000.
Also worth noting is a pair of articles from the P-I and Times reporting on the recent blatherings of Senator Patty Murray. From the P-I:
The lack of affordable housing in Seattle and other places is a "silent epidemic," U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told representatives of housing agencies, developers, labor and environmental groups Friday.

"We all need to work together, whatever hats we wear, to start to address this crisis," Murray, who chairs the Transportation and housing and urban development subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said during a housing forum at Seattle's Opportunity Place.

Some at Friday's forum want more federal money, while others support incentives or requirements aimed at local developers. Cities and counties need to allow more homes through zoning, some said.
Here's what the Times had to say about it:
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who was visiting Seattle on Friday during a congressional recess, convened the roundtable with representatives of housing agencies, business, Sound Transit, the Puget Sound Educational Service District and social-service agencies to see what she can do at the federal level to help people with low and moderate incomes find affordable housing.
Adrienne Quinn, director of Seattle's Office of Housing, said a recent study by her office reveals that 51 percent of Seattle workers do not live in the city. Households earning between $60,000 and $100,000 a year are the least likely to live within the city limits, she said.

"People are able to buy someplace, but not in the city of Seattle," Quinn said.
As we all know, you're less of a person if you rent, so it makes sense that Ms. Murray et. al. would focus only on buying homes when stating that Seattle is in the midst of a "silent epidemic" when it comes to "affordable housing."

Lastly, here's the latest paid advertisement masquerading as an opinion piece from a "guest columnist." Steve Francks just so happens to be the CEO of the Washington Realtors. His editorial is quite transparently nothing more than the latest volley in the Washington Realtors' It's A Priority campaign.
Transportation experts are tearing their hair out trying to figure out how to fix Puget Sound gridlock. But if they really want to improve transportation, they should focus on housing.

There are just too many people trying to drive between home and their jobs each day. There isn't enough tax money in the world to pave our way out of this problem, especially with our population growing by a million each decade.

Instead of trying to deal with the symptoms, I suggest we address the cause: too few affordable home choices near where people work. That's something that we can fix — with a little help from the Legislature.

Home prices throughout our state continue to rise month after month. Wages, however, do not. The result is a huge gap between typical home prices and what typical families can afford. The Center for Real Estate Research at Washington State University, which tracks the gap with its "Housing Affordability Index," shows home affordability in Washington at a 15-year low. The gap is particularly wide for first-time home buyers, who, according to the index, could afford the local median-price standard only if they were living in Benton or Adams counties.

What's a middle-wage family to do? Hit the highway and drive to find an acceptable home you can afford. Between 2000 and 2005, 67,000 people moved from King County to Pierce County. Another 14,720 Pierce residents moved south to Thurston County during the same period.
If I can make some time in the next week or so, I'd like to write essentially a counter-point editorial of my own in response to Mr. Francks' drivel.

So what other recent local real estate articles have I missed?

(Mark Trahant, Seattle P-I, 04.06.2007)
(Heather Rae Darval, Seattle Times, 04.07.2007)
(Aubrey Cohen, Seattle P-I, 04.06.2007)
(Stuart Eskenazi, Seattle Times, 04.07.2007)
(Steve Francks, Seattle Times, 04.10.2007)

Monday, April 09, 2007

March Reporting Roundup

Back from my busy week of travel and recharged over the Easter weekend, it's time to post the March roundup.

As usual, let's kick things off with Seattle's #1 real estate cheerleader, Ms. Rhodes, with her fawning article about all about how great and wonderful it is that median prices increased last month.

After stalling for two months, home prices in King and Snohomish counties perked up last month, disappointing potential buyers who thought slowing price appreciation had presented an opportunity.

Brian and Jennifer Rutherford are experiencing King County's strengthening real-estate market firsthand as they shop for a Bellevue home in the $500,000 range.
"We were just hoping things would cool off. It might have cooled off from its highest point, but not too far," he said. "Now we're making more of an effort to step up our looking."
Thursday's news that Microsoft is leasing 1.3 million square feet of Bellevue office space, enough to house 4,000 employees, is a near guarantee that Brian Rutherford is correct about home-buying prospects.
Lennox Scott, chairman of John L. Scott Real Estate, said a shortage of affordably priced homes will keep the local market strong.
Wait, what? Am I the only one that sounds like utter nonsense to? Less affordable = strong market? Hmm.

Surprisingly, Mr. Cohen of the P-I chose to focus primarily on Seattle proper, where the picture is somewhat more grim.
There are more homes on the market in Seattle these days -- and their prices slowly are creeping up.

The number of homes increased by nearly half in March from March 2006, according to data the Northwest Multiple Listing Service released Thursday. The median home price was $418,000 — up 2.7 percent from a year earlier and 3.2 percent from February 2007.

The median price for a Seattle single-family house went up 4.5 percent from a year earlier, to $460,000, while the median condo price was up 5.8 percent, to $316,950.
Of course, a Cohen article wouldn't be complete if it didn't end on an upbeat with the same-old "strong market" arguments repeated yet again:
In a statement accompanying the Northwest MLS numbers, Mike Skahen, owner of Lake & Co. Real Estate, called the market for close-in Seattle neighborhoods "hotter right now than it was at this time last year," with homes in virtually every price range attracting multiple offers.

Dick Beeson, owner of Windermere Real Estate/Commencement Associates in Tacoma, said, "It just feels like a normal market with well-priced homes seeing offers in 30 days or less and sellers of overpriced properties having a gut check and a motivation check to see if they really are serious about selling."

Recent revelations about failing loans in the subprime market, which serves those with poorer credit, have caused trepidation about the national housing market.

But the Puget Sound region is fairly well protected from this because of its healthy economy, continued home price appreciation and fewer subprime loans compared with other parts of the country, said Erik Hand, president of John L. Scott Real Estate subsidiary Response Mortgage Service, in the MLS statement.
Ahh, that's better.

Down in Tacoma, it's getting harder to ignore the picture that the numbers are painting:
The median price was $274,950, up 5.8 percent over the same month a year ago, though down from February, according to figures released today by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.

Sales, however, continued to fall as the number of listings skyrocketed to 6,554 – up 48.6 percent from March 2006.
Bob Niehl, an agent for Crescent Realty, said Thursday that it’s not uncommon for the kind of house that once would draw multiple offers to sit for more than 100 days.
The Everett Herald appears to be doing somewhat of a victory dance, proudly proclaiming Snohomish County as immune to supply and demand.
Prices for homes and condominiums in Snohomish County continue to soar, even as sales of both in March continued to be down compared with a year ago.

The median price for single-family homes hit $382,550 countywide last month, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service report issued Thursday. That's nearly 16 percent higher than the median of $330,000 in March 2006.

Prices rose despite a 44 percent increase in the number of homes listed for sale from year to year and a nearly 18 percent drop in pending sales.
Finally, down in Olympia, slowing sales are all too obvious.
Thurston County single- family home and condominium sales dropped 7.5 percent in March, though last month’s results were softened by a surge in the condo market, the Northwest Multiple Listing Service reported Thursday.
Other year-to-year March home sales data for Thurston County:

• Total active listings for single-family homes increased 38 percent to 1,802, up from 1,303.
• The median price of a single-family home rose 4 percent to $254,950, up from $244,900.
• Total active listings for condos increased 133 percent to 49 units, up from 21.
• The median price of a condo dropped nearly 6 percent to $171,203, down from $182,000.
Sounds like a stellar spring bounce all around the Sound, wouldn't you say?

(Elizabeth Rhodes, Seattle Times, 04.06.2007)
(Aubrey Cohen, Seattle P-I, 04.06.2007)
(Devona Wells, Tacoma News Tribune, 04.05.2007)
(Eric Fetters, Everett Herald, 04.06.2007)
(Rolf Boone, The Olympian, 04.05.2007)

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Aubrey Cohen: Real Estate Cheerleader, Renter

I'll be posting the March reporting roundup either later today or tomorrow, but I caught this story in my inbox and I couldn't resist mentioning it. Although the subject is "Journalists gamble on job security at the P-I," the article contains some interesting information about one of our favorite local real estate reporters... (emphasis mine)

When Aubrey Cohen received an offer to become the real estate reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last August, he jumped at the chance. He'd already covered urban growth in Bellingham, didn't want to leave Western Washington, and was willing to gamble that the P-I would survive its current legal battle.

"I decided that at the very worst, I'd have a job for a year, and it was a good job," Cohen said.

Despite the P-I's uncertain future, Cohen is among several reporters who joined the daily in the last year because they believe the career benefits outweigh the risks.
Eventually, though, he couldn't pass up the opportunity to advance his career while remaining in the Northwest. Cohen and his wife sold their home in Bellingham and now rent in Seattle while they wait for the JOA ruling. If the P-I goes under and he can't find a job right away, Cohen reasons, the family can live off the money they made selling their Bellingham home.
Now why would Mr. Cohen be renting? For someone whose reporting seems to indicate a strong belief in continued double-digit appreciation for Seattle, the choice to rent seems... odd.

I mean come on man, you're missing out on our area's "extremely strong market fundamentals." Don't you know that "quite frankly, it's time to buy"?

(Heidi Dietrich, Puget Sound Business Journal, 04.06.2007)

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Sound Familiar? Sales Down, Listings Up.

March numbers from the NWMLS are available, and I managed to get a bit of a break before I head back from Chicago, so here comes the data.

March King County SFH summary:

March 2007
Active Listings: up 33% YOY
Pending Sales: down 11% YOY
Median Closed Price: $454,950, up 12% YOY

After an unusual YOY increase in February, sales resumed their previous course of down, down, down. This was the second year in a row that March sales were down 11% YOY.

If anyone tries to claim that this year is shaping up "just like any other year," or that the sales data points any less toward a softening than it has in recent months, they are either in denial or mentally handicapped. Month-to-month inventory jumped 10.42% from February to March, a larger spike between those months than any other year since 2000 (pre-2000 data is not available). February to March sales were up just 14.11%, making this the smallest increase between those months than any year since 2000.

While months of supply is still relatively low, it has increased 49% since March last year, and days on market has increased 33%. Still-increasing median prices are pretty much the only thing that housing bulls have to be happy about.

As is the custom, I have uploaded an updated copy of the Seattle Bubble Spreadsheet that contains the relevant data. The recap NWMLS pdfs are not available yet, but here is the detailed King County data.

Here's the supply/demand YOY graph:

Here's the chart of supply and demand raw numbers:Here's the graph of YOY percent change in the median sale prices of single-family homes in King County since 1994:You've got a little bit of a recovery last month, with "appreciation" increasing 3 points to 12%. We'll see what happens the rest of the spring.