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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Fleckenstein: Seattle "Just a Little Less Dark"

Wow, Aubrey Cohen over at the P-I is really slipping lately. First he prints the prediction that Seattle will see "slight year-over-year price declines this spring or summer," and now he has penned an entire article about Bill Fleckenstein's "not-so-rosy" outlook for local real estate.

Like many economists and real estate professionals, hedge fund manager Bill Fleckenstein thinks Seattle's housing market is, relatively speaking, in decent shape. But, while others see Seattle as a bright spot, he describes it more as just a little less dark.

The national market is going through "probably one of the biggest, most dangerous bubbles we've had in this country," said Fleckenstein, president of Seattle's Fleckenstein Capital, MSN columnist and a panelist Tuesday at a forum on housing trends sponsored by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

Although Seattle is in better shape, its home prices will go down, Fleckenstein said after the meeting. Asked if he would buy a home in Seattle now, his response was an immediate, definitive "no."
"I really think it was more of a lending bubble and an abdication of responsibility by the lending institutions," he said. "Anybody with a pulse could borrow any amount of money."

Meanwhile, the rising home values created equity, which homeowners cashed in to live beyond their means, Fleckenstein said. He said the [national] market peaked in mid-2005 and has serious potential for prolonged trouble.

Real estate prices declined for a decade after Japan's equity bubble burst in 1989, with commercial property values falling 90 percent and home values down 70 to 80 percent, Fleckenstein said. "You can look to see what happened in Japan as where things could go."

The ultimate depth of the fall is not yet knowable, he said. "When the tide starts to go out, then you start to find out all the crazy stuff that's gone on."

Fleckenstein said the recent tightening of lending standards could affect the lower end of Seattle's home market, while the national fallout would hit the city's higher-end buyers.
I don't really have much to add. I've been reading Bill's stuff over at MSN Money for a while now. He's a sharp guy, and was accurately warning of a national slowdown and credit tightening well before it all began. I'd think carefully before dismissing his local predictions just because they don't reflect your preferred version of the future.

(Aubrey Cohen, Seattle P-I, 01.31.2007)

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Notes From the Trenches

Last Wednesday there was some great conversation about what people are experiencing as they are out there right now trying to find a home. I think it's worth re-posting these comments on the front page, since they give a good feel for what the housing market is really like right now that you can't get just by looking at graphs and spreadsheets.


I've actually started looking seriously at homes in the $400k-$500k range and have toured probably at least a dozen from the Kennydale Area up to Juanita/Kirkland. Here's what I've noticed:

1) Pretty much everything you've heard about flipper renovations is true. These people are morons. I've seen some work so shoddy that it would blow your mind. We toured a home in Newport Hills and the owners were still there - he pointed at the electrical plates and said, "we upgraded to the latest style!" Um, yeah. You went to Home Depot and dropped a hundred bucks and spent the afternoon with a flathead screwdriver. No.

2) The $400k-$500k unrenovated properties are bottom of the barrel garbage. Borderline unliveable. Most of these are in such a state of disrepair they will probably need to be torn down. We saw a house in Finn Hill that had been vacant for quite some time. It smelled like death. My wife said, "this place is haunted!" I saw something - I'm not sure what - but it was brown, papery, and slightly organic looking in the fireplace. I asked our agent what it was and she just said, "let's get out of here!" And a steal at only $450k.

3) Prices are all over the board and don't appear to be based on recent nearby sales or appraised value + whatever. People are just asking whatever they feel like and seeing if they can get any bites.

4) The increase of inventory is definitely accelerating. It's all crap though.

5) Most builders are idiots. They will shoehorn a house into just about any space, regardless if the front door of one house is directly facing the house next door. Yeah, I want to look out of my living room window and see my neighbor reading the newspaper in his bathroom. Most are still not offering concessions.

6) I'm not seeing any of these houses move. No one is buying them. However, if a decent house at a decent price does get listed, it is snapped up immediately. The crap is sitting forever though.

7) This has been one of the worst and most depressing experiences of my life. I've seen more than one house that *could* have been nice but had been ravaged by a flipper and had the price jacked up $100k from the purchase price a year ago. It seems every flipper runs out of money and you can tell exactly where they did - 4 out of 5 rooms will have hardwood floors, for example. The last one will have 30 year old filthy carpeting in it. 3 out of 5 closets will have been redone - the last two look like something like the meat locker from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Anyone who thinks this is a "healthy market" is certifiably insane.
I know what you mean, Peter. My wife and I went to an open house a few weekends ago. We could tell that the owner had done some shoddy renovations, but we thought we would have to redo it and so we would have wanted a discount *because* of the renovations (if we had even wanted the house -- which we didn't because the floorplan was horrible).

I enjoy messing with the realtors. They ask if I am in the market and I say, "No, I'm currently priced out of this market. I only make $X per year." (where X is significantly above the mean income for the area). The last realtor I said this too got excited and started telling me that the owners would probably sell for less than the asking price and that he could get me a good deal on the house.

Wow, I haven't been looking as hard at as many properties as you have, but your observations exactly parallel my own. What a strange twilight-zone of inventory and comps we're looking at right now.

I came back from the last place we walked through (SFH in Greenlake listed at $699, which was absolute junk inside) with a resolve to renew my apartment lease through 2007 - let the flippers flop.

The only thing worth less than a "fixer" is a house where someone did a crappy remodel/flip on a fixer. Now I have to tear out all your shoddy garbage and re-do it. Honestly!
If you are going to buy (like we are) it is extremely important to do loads of homework and tons of driving. We've been looking since the first and still haven't set foot in a house. One passed the drive by sniff test but fell out due to the flood report.
So have any other readers been out there looking at homes? What have you experienced? Is the market as strong as local real estate agents would have us believe? Let's hear your tales.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Seattle's PMI Risk Index Continues Climb

The latest PMI report (pdf) is out, and much to no one's surprise, Seattle's risk index has increased yet again.

Jumping 14 points from the fall to a total of 167, Seattle now boasts a PMI that is 2.6 times its Summer 2005 low of 64. Although Seattle's Risk Index is still a good margin below regions such as San Diego or Sacramento, it is certainly interesting to note that it has now increased in five of the last six PMI reports.

But don't you worry, Seattle is special and all that. Surely price growth will simply stabilize, and the Risk Index will head back down.

(PMI Mortgage Insurance Co., Winter 2007 Report (pdf), 01.2007)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Foreclosures On The Rise, Even In Seattle

Here's some interesting news. Apparently even double-digit appreciation isn't enough to keep foreclosures from rising around here, much like they are across the country:

Following a national trend, Washington state's mortgage foreclosures increased significantly last year, claiming 18,527 homes.

In the Seattle/Bellevue/Everett area, one in every 136 homeowners was displaced by foreclosure, as was one in every 75 Tacoma owners.

Still, the state and the Seattle area faired better than the nation as a whole, according to RealtyTrac, a California-based foreclosure-information provider. It released its 2006 annual report late last week.

Washington state foreclosures grew 25 percent last year compared with a year earlier — far below the national increase of 42 percent.
Phew! Thankfully we're safe because we're "far below the national increase."

However, since Ms. Rhodes mentioned that we are "following a national trend," and given the assumption that the Seattle housing market lags most of the nation by six months to a year, I wonder how much foreclosures increased nationally in 2005?

Let's see... Ah, here we go:
January 23, 2006 – RealtyTrac™ ... today released year-end data from its 2005 U.S. Foreclosure Market Report, which showed that 846,982 properties nationwide entered some stage of foreclosure in 2005, and a 25 percent increase in the number of new foreclosures from the first quarter to the fourth quarter.
Hmm, interesting.

(Elizabeth Rhodes, Seattle Times, 01.27.2007)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Kirkland-Based HouseValues Continues Slide

More bad news for local real estate lead-generation company HouseValues:

Amid a slumping real estate market, HouseValues Inc. is cutting 12 percent of its work force and closing its online lead generation business for mortgages.

Sixty employees are losing their jobs, all at the company's Kirkland headquarters.
In a memo to employees, HouseValues Chief Executive Ian Morris said that the company has encountered a number of challenges because of a "steep decline in transaction volume in many local real estate markets."
A HouseValues employee, who was not involved in the layoffs and asked not to be identified, said that "morale has been very low and a lot of people have been quitting from all departments." As of September, the company employed 590 people. But the employee count has drifted lower in recent months as people have left for other jobs.
Also, HouseValues stock is down another 46% since I last mentioned them nine months ago. Maybe it's just me, but now doesn't exactly seem like the best of times to be building a business centered around real estate sales.

(John Cook, Seattle P-I, 01.25.2007)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"This is a great time to buy a home."

Check out this absolutely delightful paid advertisement masquerading as a "guest editorial" in today's Seattle Times. It's penned by Mr. Samuel L. Anderson, the executive officer of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

The media have been all abuzz over the past year about the softening in the housing market.
At the same time, local analysts point out that even though home sales in the greater Puget Sound region have slowed, now is still a good time to buy a home, particularly in our area.

What does this slowdown really mean for consumers? Is it wise to sit back and wait for a home in the hopes that prices may drop? Most real-estate experts in our region say don't bet on it.
Oh really? Okay, well why is that exactly, Mr. Executive Builder Man?
One reason we have not experienced the steep decline seen in other markets is that while other parts of the country face an oversupply of housing, we do not.
So you're saying that supply is not growing faster than demand, so we're not headed for an oversupply? Interesting... very interesting.
Here in Washington state, the Growth Management Act (GMA) actually limits the supply of new housing entering the market by directing where new development can occur. As long as GMA is in place, we are very unlikely to find ourselves in a housing glut.
Growth management act, huh? You don't say.
Another key factor is that the area in and around Seattle has a healthy supply of jobs and a strong regional economy — factors most experts agree help keep prices from falling.
What a compelling argument.
Sitting on the fence waiting for the absolute best deal is a gamble that prevents consumers from taking advantage of buying a home, while prices are moderating.
In today's housing market, the real risk is in waiting to buy a home.
Unlike some cities where the real-estate market is in a slump, the Seattle area is healthy and analysts feel certain it will stay that way. As a result, the deep discounted prices some consumers have been hoping for simply won't be happening here.

For consumers sitting on the sidelines, the bottom line is simple. Homeownership is always attractive. Besides being a stepping-stone to a future of financial security, homeownership provides a sense of community and personal satisfaction. In fact, studies show that homeowners are more content with their lives, enjoying a stronger sense of belonging and increased activity in community groups.

The equation is simple: Since housing is always a smart investment and interest rates are still near 40-year lows, savvy consumers know this is a great time to buy a home.
Well dang, I'm convinced. Now is a great time to buy, and I'd better be quick about it or else I'll be priced out forever, doomed to be a miserable, broke, dissatisfied loner, renting from the man for the rest of my life.

(Samuel L. Anderson, Seattle Times, 01.24.2007)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Listing History

My thoughts on the issue while working hard.

A balanced perspective

The dissemination of data from the NWMLS to the public will be limited for a variety of reasons. Safety and protection of potentially personal information of each seller is paramount.

I am uncertain whether the issue of safety and protection of personal information should fall into the category of “transparency” for everyone to see. Some things should be kept out of the general public view. For example, theft has been an ongoing issue for the membership of the NWMLS—meaning that listings are a target for thieves, including new construction (appliances disappearing, furnishings and even mechanical items such as copper and other equipment).

Most sellers probably would not be pleased if the brokerage posted the time the house was on the market. The implications of a languishing listing means it is probably overpriced or there is some other problem such as poor location, poor condition or a combination of factors.

Market Time & Re-listing

There may be companies such as Zip Realty or others that will indicate if a home was re-listed or will post the total time on market. I have not researched this. The idea of disclosing this information, particularly in a slowing market or correcting market as one may define it, has the potential to have a negative affect on the value of a home if you are a seller. As a buyer, this information allows for a more level playing field. Buyers certainly had little to grasp on during the past couple years when the market was so hot. Realtors recommended removing as many contingencies as possible when making an offer or consumers would have little chance to buy the home. For many buyers, this exacerbated an already difficult buying experience. I heard about it first hand from many who sat across from me while going over their closing documents.

From a consumer’s perspective, many want the Realtor community to shape up. Many want full transparency, but the matter is complicated. The issue of agency and representation does not allow for certain facts to be transparent. Agency and representation does have merit.

Tim Ellis is correct. Much of the market time data and re-listing that goes on is manipulated. It is manipulated to assist the seller in having a sound market position. So, the agent representing the seller is doing their job. However, the interesting phenomenon to see is how this issue is being dealt with through the in-house NWMLS membership. The agents were tiring of this routine themselves. Today, we have the cumulative days on market (CDOM) being recently introduced to hopefully reduce the manipulation within the membership of the NWMLS.

As Ardell DellaLoggia and others suggested, there are some techniques that agents utilize to work around the days on market issue—also re-list the same property having the CDOM counter show zero. Sometimes there are good explanations for this. Sometimes it is clear market manipulation.

If I were buying, I would want to know how long a home has been on the market and how many times the home has been re-listed. In addition, I would want my agent to confirm the sales history (which is now publicized on various web sites) and underlying financing (King Co. shut this down via website, but Snohomish Co. is still available via web). In a swift moving market, much of the information gathered could save a buyer from making a costly decision. Buyers are able to discern if the home was recently flipped and whether the improvements merit the asking price.

The benefit of providing a true picture of time on market or re-list history is that it would put pressure on the sellers to market and price the home in an authentic competitive manner. For Realtors, I would think this would be helpful. That type of transparency may trigger phone calls from sellers indicating that they need to make a change—either make it worth what they are asking or drop the price to a level that is more reasonable. Rather than the Realtor initiating the delicate conversation of dropping the asking price, the seller is opening up the door for that conversation first, based upon what the market is dictating.

-S-Crow, your consumer driven Sentinel.

Hello Again, Condo Anecdote

This is at least worth a brief mention. Another unit has come up for sale in the condo complex in my neighborhood that was the subject of my first anecdotal post. Actually, it's not "another unit" but rather the same unit that sold just over a year ago.

In December 2005 Unit #6 was bought for $300,000. It is now on the market for $350,000, a 16.7% price increase. Given that the most recent county-wide data (pdf) shows condos up 21% from a year ago, perhaps the asking price is too low?

Since county-wide data is based on an ever-changing data set of new homes, remodeled homes, sub-divided lots, condo conversions, and so on, same-unit sales are the best way to gauge the actual appreciation in the market. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to sell this condo, and what the eventual sales price is.

Monday, January 22, 2007

If the MLS is an advertisement...

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I'd like to continue Friday's conversation about the re-listed house on Avondale.

Thanks to yet another reply by Ms. Reed as well as a series of replies from Ardell, it has finally gotten through my thick skull that "cancel and relist" is different from "let expire and relist." Ms. Reed is guilty only of the latter, which is technically not a violation of NWMLS rules.

Although I now understand the difference, it seems to me like a trivial distinction. Ardell claims that a seller's agent that uses a short listing agreement in order to be able to re-list an unsold property "takes the risk of being replaced as the seller's agent by having short contracts." However, it seems to me that once the benefits of re-listing (falsely appearing to be a "fresh" listing) are explained to the seller, they would be more than happy to keep the agent on board, knowing that this is an agent that is willing to pull whatever kind of tricks are necessary to sell their house.

In fact, Ardell had an awful lot to say on the matter. Here are a few quotes that I found most interesting:

The general public's perception [of the MLS], the one most focused on really the least of our concerns.

I am sorry that no one wants to understand that the mls system is not meant for the public to use as a means for purchasing property without an agent.

The public's view [of the MLS] is an "advertisement" for the most part, and not a "sharing of the agent tool". ... It is just a small view of the big picture and one to give the public an "idea" of what is out there...not the whole story.
If the publicly-accessible portion of the MLS is an "advertisement," shouldn't it be held to truth in advertising standards? When a property appears as "new on market" despite having languished non-stop on the market for months upon months, how is that not a deceptive practice? To simply brush off such concerns by saying that the MLS is "not meant for the public" seems a bit cavalier to me.

Ms. Reed's tactic, which Ardell describes as both something that "we [agents] hate" and "an excellent job" appears to have paid off. As Ardell pointed out, the listing has gone to "subject to inspection," presumably meaning a twenty-five to thirty-five thousand dollar payday is in the beleaguered Ms. Reed's near future. When the transaction shows up in the public records, I'll post the last update on this house.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Update: Anecdote: Reloaded

Sarah Reed, the listing agent of the still-unsold $1.275 million-dollar home left a comment on my recent post about her listing. I feel it is only fair to reprint her comment here on the front page so that more people are able to read her defense.

So here it is, word for word.

Regarding my listing on Avondale-I wanted to set the record straight about my intentional relisting of the property. I try to always write a shorter listing agreement than the average agent as it better serves the client/seller. I do not "cancel and relist", or intend to deceive the consumer or other agents. I wanted the listing to expire contractually, and be relisted after the first of the year so that it would have an MLS # starting with 270. Largely because so many agents only search the new listings for their clients, overlooking perfectly fine homes with a bit of market time. Buyers always ask how long a property has been on the market, and I am always honest with my clients in every way. The Days On Market is clearly available to all agents, though the MLS does not print it to the consumer. My sellers always get a detailed explaination of my reasons for writing a shorter listing contract, and the benefits it gives them. Ultimately, the descision is theirs.

Certainly, I have had a few issues to overcome with this property, as the last agent blantantly overpriced it since he does not live in or do much business in the area. Also, he had it in the zip code for the city of Sammamish. Finally, the school district was wrong, and the photos were lack luster. The former agent really SHOULD have relisted the home with each of the massive price drops he was forced to do by his lack of accurate info and pricing, and did the sellers a huge disservice by not. He was likely afraid that they might cancel his service, which they were eager to do in the end. The home is very well constructed and finished nicely, and is finally appropriately priced. There was an appraisal done this summer for value only, and it came in at $1,550,000.

The current listing contract is written to expire the first week of March. I did this to appeal to the lazier agents out there that only search for "new listings". More paperwork for me, but I'm not lazy.

One more thing. I agree that there are alot of unprofessional agents out there harming the public. It would be valuable to the industry and the safety of the consumer if we had stricter regulations surrounding the obtaining of a real estate license in this state. If you ever get the chance to vote for stricter guidlines and laws for real estate professionals, PLEASE DO! We try to be a self-policing industry, but not everyone shares the high ethics that we all should subscribe to. Unfortunately, there are alot of people that get in the business to take advantage of the public.
I'm not really sure what point Ms. Reed is trying to make here. Again, I'm no real estate professional, but the rule seems pretty clear-cut to me: "You may not cancel and relist a property, even with a new listing agreement and new listing input sheets, unless there is a material change to the listing" (emphasis mine).

I don't understand how "I try to always write a shorter listing agreement than the average agent" excuses Ms. Reed from the rules.

Perhaps one of our readers from Rain City Guide can enlighten me?

P.S. (Please refrain from making personal attacks on Ms. Reed in the comments. Thank you.)

HouseMath 2.0 - Lending Woes - News

I've received a few e-mails over the past holiday season, some asking if I disappeared. Yes, I read this and many other Blogs every week. I'm not hibernating. So here's what's up:

When people decide it's time to buy in the market this is a cool tool to use.

May I introduce the HouseMath 2.0 website. Last week, I e-mailed Kerill Sheynkman, the wizard behind this tool, if I could get his permission to blog about it. Some may have already seen the introduction to this over at Zillow Blog, but for those who haven't seen it I would encourage you to spend a few minutes to familiarize yourself with this great resource.

When you hit the "Analzye " button, your presumptions come to life. Please don't make fun of the $315,000 sales price for a home in Seattle that I used, it's for illustration only.

Below is a screenshot of financial analysis tools such as creating your reports in .PDF format.

HouseMath 2.0
HouseMath 2.0
Interestingly, Kerill Shenkyman resides in New York and has previous working relationship ties to Glenn Kelman over at RedFin. Small world. 2007 is going to be a great year in the innovation of real estate tools and Web 2.0 blog arena.

Lenders are scrutinizing loans

One of the perks of being in real estate is that I enjoy discussing issues with the people who are actually conducting business. It encompasses a large sphere: from builders, to Ardell and loan officers.

A lot of discussion is taking place about lending right now and the struggles of the sub-prime market. Seems like the tune out there is changing quite a bit. Inman News has a lot on the plate this morning (check it out quickly before the articles go subscription).

From Inman News:

Bernice Ross on "The demise of the housing ATM"
Bradley Inman on "The subprime tsunami"
Mortgage Lenders Network being shut down (evidently failing to fund on 1,409 loans across the country)

I spoke with a couple loan officers early this week and the responses were that lenders were scrutinizing transactions more. For example, one broker mentioned that an underwriter actually dropped the value of an appraisal from x amount to x amount and required that interior photos be taken along with obtaining two new comp's (comparable homes). In another example, funding conditions came back with more hoops to jump through in terms of actually verifying borrower deposits and funds to close.


Before I forget, check out ShackPrices new mapping tools. Packed with innovative features. I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Galen Ward, the wizard behind this great tool at a function a few weeks ago. I look forward to them rolling out some new features that are coming soon.

- S-Crow

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Does Job Growth = Home Buying Demand?

An article in the Times yesterday about the Puget Sound's job recovery following the dot-com bust got me thinking again about the oft-claimed jobs to home prices correlation. The usual assertion goes something like this: "Prices are justified because our economy is strong (i.e. - lots of jobs), and as long as we keep adding more jobs, home prices will not stop increasing, because more jobs equals more demand." It's certainly a comforting belief for inflated housing enthusiasts to hold when the local job situation is on an upswing:

Even though it ended on a somewhat muted note, 2006 was still the best year for job creation in Washington in nearly a decade, according to figures released Tuesday by the state Employment Security Department.

The state averaged nearly 2.87 million nonfarm payroll jobs last year, a gain of 3.2 percent, or 91,500 jobs, over 2005's average. That was the most nonfarm jobs added in a year since 1997, when 98,600 were created.

The year-end figures also show that 2006 conclusively marked the Puget Sound region's full recovery, in terms of total jobs, from the dot-com collapse and subsequent recession of the early 2000s.
The article included a nice graph showing the number of jobs in the four-county region since 2000. It has been well demonstrated in other markets that job growth or loss does not directly relate to home prices, but I thought it would be interesting to compare the Seattle Times graph with some data from the Seattle Bubble spreadsheet to see how well the more jobs = more demand = rising prices claim has held up in King County over the last five or six years. To obtain data about the number of jobs in King County I went to Workforce Explorer, the source cited in the Times article.

First I present you with the graph that comes closest to supporting the view that jobs are the primary source of demand.When you compare the percent change year-over-year in both the number of jobs and the median (residential only) home price, the curves actually almost line up, with both job and home price changes being increasingly positive from about early 2003 to the end of 2005. However, the total change in home price increases during that time went from +7.3% to +20.0%, while the total change in jobs went from -1.9% to +2.3%. Despite the similar curves, I think it would be difficult to argue that such a slight change in the job situation drove the major price increases seen over the same period.

Here is same data presented in a slightly different way:At the end of 2006 there were roughly 4% more jobs in King County than January 2000, yet home prices had increased a whopping 85%. I'd like to hear the logic that tries to argue that such a paltry increase in jobs will cause that large of a price increase in homes.

Now let's take a look at home sales. Supposedly the improving job situation is driving demand, and demand is measured by sales, so let's see how the two compare.Hmm. It would appear that sales were experiencing the strongest growth during a time when the number of jobs was actually declining. In the summer of 2003 sales were up by as much as 45% over 2002, and yet the job market was still declining by roughly 1.5%.

Looking at the raw numbers of jobs versus sales the disparity becomes even more clear:If jobs are supposed to drive demand, why is it that once the number of jobs began to increase in early 2004, sales actually leveled off? And why have sales been dropping off so steeply in the last year despite what the Times reports as "the best year for job creation in Washington in nearly a decade"? Could it be, perhaps, that the number of home sales and prices of sold homes in fact have very little to do with the number of jobs in a region?

I challenge anyone out there that still believes more jobs = more demand = rising prices to show me the data that supports any sort of correlation between those data sets. Lacking that, I hope we can finally put this dead argument to rest.

All of the above graphs—and the data behind them—can be downloaded in Excel format.

(Drew DeSilver, Seattle Times, 01.17.2007)
(Workforce Explorer, Industry Employment: Historical Series, 01.2007)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Slowing Condo Market? Not Here! Not Here!

The New York Times yesterday ran a story about the struggling condo market in many parts of the country, and with as much attention as it received, you just knew the local news couldn't let it go unanswered. Enter Aubrey Cohen of the Seattle P-I with Seattle bucks trend on slumping condos.

Seattle's market was not to blame for a recent decision to change a planned 34-story downtown building from condominiums to apartments.

Rather, the slumping condo markets in cities such as Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Miami and Boston affected the national firms that fund such buildings, said John Schwartz, northwest regional director of Keller CMS, which is managing the Terry Avenue Apartments project.

"There was quite a bit of skittishness," he said. "I think the Seattle market clearly has a little different story to tell, but a lot of the big equity players, they take a wider view."

The frenzied condo market in many cities has collapsed since the middle of 2006, dragging down prices and scuttling projects -- or at least forcing them to change, according to a New York Times report Tuesday.
Seattle's housing market has fared better than those in other parts of the country in recent months, with continued year-over-year price increases, despite increasing inventory and falling sales, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. The area's condo market, meanwhile, has been stronger than the market for other types of homes.

Seattle real estate professionals and economists agree that the city's job creation, relative lack of speculators and the fact that its boom never rose as high as other places kept its housing market healthy.
A Boston real estate consultant cited about 600 condo projects in the city's metropolitan area, with about 49,000 units in various stages of development, according to the Times story. Seattle has fewer than 9,000 condos in the works, according to Williams Marketing Vice President Warren Ballard.

"We don't have anywhere near the volume of construction that some other markets have," Ballard said. "You cannot go anywhere in Seattle and find a finished, brand-new condo to buy."
Really? I guess Mr. Ballard hasn't bothered reading Urbnlivn lately, where Matt has been tracking dozens of condos coming (and sometimes sitting around) on the MLS.

Let's see how this article holds up to the standard "our market is magically stronger than all others" type of article. Prominent mention of continued appreciation: check. Citing job growth as keeping housing strong: check. Un-supported claim of fewer speculator purchases than elsewhere: check. Looks like we've got all the makings of the classic Seattle real estate fluff piece.

Plus, as a bonus, Mr. Cohen threw in the odd comparison of the Boston "metropolitan area" (population 4.4 million) with just "Seattle" (population <600,000). So the Boston metro area has seven times the population and five times as many condo projects as the city of Seattle. Go figure. Also, it is made apparent later in the article that the 9,000 condos figure doesn't include apartment conversions, which numbered 7,000 (this time in the entire Seattle metro area) just last year.

In any case, direct numerical comparisons with other markets seems rather pointless to me. What really matters is whether there are more condos coming online in the next few years than there is demand. Maybe demand for condos in Seattle is just a lot lower than other cities, and 9,000 will push us over the edge. Who knows? It's not like we can count on Aubrey Cohen to actually do some serious investigative reporting on condo demand.

(Aubrey Cohen, Seattle P-I, 01.17.2007)

Update: Over at Seattlest, Michael van Baker compares Cohen's reporting to the Titanic's claim of being "unsinkable."
Meanwhile, condo enthusiast Matt Goyer of Urbnlivn says that "this article is just a little too go-go-go, even for me."

Monday, January 15, 2007

Who's Buying Condos in Kirkland?

We're used to hearing unsupported claims that "young professionals" and "empty-nesters" are providing the bulk of the demand for condos. Well, finally we have a first-hand account of who's actually buying condos (in downtown Kirkland, anyway).

Amie Lynn is the community sales manager for Miller Condominium Marketing, which recently opened The Boulevard, a 119-unit condo building at 598 Central Way, and 128onState, a 124-unit building at 128 State St.

She said most of the two-bedroom condominiums — which make up about a third of the stock — sell to empty-nesters who are downsizing into smaller, lower-maintenance places in more urban areas.

"They can afford the higher price points because they had great appreciation in their last house," Lynn said. "More and more people want to spend their weekends not maintaining a home. They want to enjoy what the city has to offer."

Retirees, too, have purchased condos downtown as second homes, Lynn said. They winter in California or Arizona and come back to Kirkland in the summer to visit old friends and family.

The remaining studios and one-bedroom condos go to single people ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s, Lynn said, though the majority are in their 30s.
So it sounds like "young professionals" are in the minority in Kirkland. I can't say I'm surprised that "most" of the condos are selling to people that are actually downgrading their home. When prices spiral upward out of control like they have lately, young people have a hard time buying, and existing homeowners looking to upgrade find that they can't even afford to trade up.
What's not springing up downtown are young families — the condominium units that are big enough for couples with children are typically more expensive than they can afford. But Lynn said that's something that could be changing over the next decade.
Whoops! Looks like the writer let a little bit of truth slip in there. Maybe they figure that they can get away with implying that prices might actually be headed down soon because the King County Journal hasn't got anything to lose.

(Erica Hall, King County Journal, 01.15.2007)

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Where did the "Open Threads" go?

In an effort to de-clutter the front page, I have modified the dates on all "Open Thread" posts to 25 years prior to their real post date. Open threads will still be posted regularly, but in order to find them you'll need to click the open threads link at the top of the page, or browse the archives at the bottom of the sidebar for posts with dates in the 80's.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Anecdote: Reloaded

Many of you may remember the million-dollar new construction that I've been following since June of last year. Recall that it was originally listed at $1,625,000, has seen four separate price reductions (down to $1,275,000—28% off), and was most recently re-listed with a new brokerage and a shiny new description.

About a year ago I posted about a warning the NWMLS had posted to local agents. Here's the heart of it:

You may not cancel and relist a property, even with a new listing agreement and new listing input sheets, unless there is a material change to the listing (e.g., a significant change in the price of the property, a remodel, a change in zoning, or a change in ownership).
What does this have to do with the listing in question? Well, after fifty more days of apparently zero interest in this increasingly stale listing (240 cumulative days on the market), the listing agent—one Miss Sarah L. Reed of RE/MAX—has apparently decided that the new year is a good time to generate some fresh interest in the property by brazenly violating NWMLS rules.

Old price: $1,275,000. Old description:
A warm & elegant tribute to the distinctive northwest craftsman lifestyle! New majestic custom home on over 3 peaceful, close-in acres w/equestrian opp. Featuring glistening hardwoods in sun-filled rooms, arched doorways, library, slab granite, state of the art stainless steel gourmet kitchen-6 burner viking. Open & flowing w/soaring ceilings, greatroom, dining, family~bonus designed for entertaining. Showcase master suite retreat w/fplc, spa bath, dual closets. Caretaker-nanny-ext.Family wing.
"New" price: $1,275,000. "New" description:
A warm & elegant tribute to the distinctive northwest craftsman lifestyle! New majestic custom home on over 3 peaceful, close-in acres w/equestrian opp. Featuring glistening hardwoods in sun-filled rooms, arched doorways, library, slab granite, state of the art stainless steel gourmet kitchen-6 burner viking. Open & flowing w/soaring ceilings, greatroom, dining, family~bonus designed for entertaining. Showcase master suite retreat w/fplc, spa bath, dual closets. Caretaker-nanny-ext.Family wing.
You can also see (if you have a ZipRealty account) that the pictures are identical between the old and new listings.

I'm just an unsophisticated blogger, not a real estate professional, but it sure doesn't look to me like there has been a "material change to the listing." Tsk, tsk Ms. Reed.

Seeing something like this almost exactly one year after posting about the NWMLS warning leads me to wonder whether January is perhaps a particularly popular month to violate the NWMLS rules regarding re-listing properties.

Update: Be sure to see Sarah Reed's response to this post.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Prices Unleavened in 2007?

So what's in store for the Seattle housing market in 2007? Everyone's got an opinion, and yours truly is no exception. But before I get into my guesses, let's review the predictions of local "experts" that have been trumpeted in the media in the last few weeks.

From a December 22nd P-I article:

"I think very easily by spring this could be an extremely strong real estate market," said Bill Riss, chief executive of Coldwell Banker Bain, in Seattle. He said he was planning on home prices going up an average of about 10 percent in the coming year and about the same number of homes to be sold next year as in 2006.

Analysts say strong job growth will continue to drive demand in the area.

"Really, the driver of the housing costs is demand, which is fueled by jobs," said Randy Bannecker, a consultant housing specialist for the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors. He predicted year-over-year price increases would be 6 percent to 10 percent in 2007.

[WCRER Director Glenn] Crellin predicted slight declines in activity in 2007 and year-over-year price increases that would be down around 3 percent to 5 percent by the end of next year.

Matthew Gardner, a local land-use economist, predicted activity would slow from recent highs and price increases would settle to 7 percent to 9 percent in Seattle and 5 percent to 7 percent in rural areas farther from jobs.
Don't forget Ms. Rhodes' preferred vision, discussed here earlier.
What will 2007 bring? Here's what Seattle real-estate experts are saying.
[Seattle real-estate economist Matthew Gardner] expects closer-in areas to appreciate about 10 percent over the coming year; farther out, 7 percent appreciation will be more the norm for single-family homes and for condominiums.
And of course I have to mention the outlier in the bunch, from Saturday's P-I:
Michael Simonsen, chief executive of Altos Research, in Palo Alto, Calif., has noticed cooling in the Seattle home market.
Simonsen predicted that Seattle would start seeing slight year-over-year price declines this spring or summer, although he said the city had a strong economy, and its housing market would fare better than outlying areas.
So the general consensus among the media's preferred "experts" seems to be a fairly optimistic +7—10% to the median price in 2007, thanks to "jobs." Granted, median price doesn't give us a very complete market picture, but it's the best metric we've got.

As far as the jobs argument goes, I believe it is a false hope to think that as long as the sheer number of jobs is increasing, housing prices will also increase. It is true that a large drop in employment will usually lead to a housing downturn, but housing can decline despite a strong job market. For evidence of this, see Rich Toscano's investigation of San Diego's housing market in the 1990s. Of course I'm sure that the local housing bulls would retort that San Diego didn't have Boeing and Microsoft.

Before I tell you what I think is in store for 2007, let's take a look at what I guessed back in April about the remainder of 2006:
In most parts of King County appreciation slows to a crawl through the end of the year. The closer to Seattle you get, the more stagnant the appreciation. Near the end of summer and into fall, inventory begins to build slightly. Realtors and newspapers proudly proclaim a "soft landing."
"Appreciation slows to a crawl" was clearly incorrect. Appreciation did indeed slow to 12% YOY county-wide and 10% in Seattle (pdf, page 2), but that's hardly "to a crawl." I think prices were held a bit higher than I expected thanks to the unexpected drop in mortgage interest rates. My call on inventory was spot on, with active listings up 20-30% YOY the last three months of the year, and as evidenced by the newspaper quotes above, the press is definitely still pretty optimistic about the market.

Here's my 2007 prediction from April:
Inventory stacks up at an increasing pace, prices are level in some areas, slightly declining in others. By the end of the year, prices in some areas are approaching 2004 levels. Realtors still in denial.
With inventory already increasing over 20% YOY, it will be hard to increase the pace, but certainly possible. I expect to see active listings at least 15% over 2006 levels for the first half of the year. During the same time, I expect sales will decline at least 5-10% from 2006, dropping back to levels last seen in 2002 or 2003.

As far as the median price goes, I doubt that it will be "approaching 2004 levels." That would be a roughly 25% drop from today's price, which is highly unlikely save for some sort of scenario that includes a major natural disaster. More realistically, I guess that the King County "residential" median price at the end of this year will be between five percent down ($418,000) and three percent up ($453,200).

I expect we'll see more toward the low end if interest rates begin to edge upward again, lending standards are actually tightened a bit, and the local economy moderates. If interest rates hold steady or drop, new even-more "creative" financing is brought to market, and the economy goes gangbusters, we'll probably end up at the high end.

Maybe the "experts" are right and prices will go up another ten percent this year. Maybe I am underestimating the willingness of Seattle homebuyers to jump into greater and greater debt for an unchanging product. No doubt they've already demonstrated themselves to be far more willing than I ever would have guessed. However, as the real estate party winds down around the country, I have yet to hear any good, well-thought-out reasons ("Microsoft and Boeing" doesn't count) that we will escape the slow landslide.

Whatever happens, most of the action will probably take place March through May, so we'll most likely have a pretty good idea by June where we'll be in December.

So what are your predictions (and the reasons behind them) for 2007?

(Aubrey Cohen, Seattle P-I, 12.22.2006)
(Elizabeth Rhodes, Seattle Times, 12.30.2006)
(Aubrey Cohen, Seattle P-I, 01.06.2007)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Local Builders Offering More Incentives?

In a Lynnwood Journal puff piece that reads more like a sales ad than a news article I found these interesting anecdotes:

Local lenders, such as Golf Savings Bank, are offering incentives, such as $1,000 off closing costs for certain new home communities, like Edmonds Cascade Cottages.

And local developers, such as Puget Sound Homes of Everett, are extending generous buyer's incentives for purchases of homes into January, to spur sales activity during a typical slower time of the year. However, as the market heats up again after the 15th of January, these buyer's incentives may go away.

Realtor Rick Horst, from the Everett office of Windermere Real Estate, represents Puget Sound Homes and Bellrose, a community of 28 single family homes located at the north end of Mill Creek. According to Horst, buyers at Bellrose can choose between a 2007 Ford Mustang, with a $23,000 MSRP, a $17,000 buyer bonus for use in closing costs and/or down payment, or having their first six months worth of mortgage payments paid by the developer.
One example of this [builder incentives] is the Acadia community of homes in Silver Lake, currently being offered for presale through John L. Scott Real Estate. Listing Agent Paula Hovander believes builder D R Horton will extend some portion of the buyer bonus offered in December, when the presale campaign was launched for their community of 36 single family homes. A total of seven homes were sold in December, with a $10,000 buyer bonus offered through DHI mortgage as an incentive to quick start presale activity.
Aren't these the kind of things that builders do when they are having a hard time selling at current prices? If the local housing market is as "healthy" as some would have us believe, why would homebuilders be resorting to bribes to get people to purchase new homes? Not having been shopping for a hew home lately I couldn't say how common this is becoming, but the fact that it's happening at all is still more evidence that things are slowing around here.

I kind of wish that we had a local blog that followed new single-family homes the way that Matt over at Urbnlivn follows condos. It would certainly help give us a better idea of how much the market is softening.

(Jolene Anderson, Lynnwood Journal, 01.08.2007)

Monday, January 08, 2007

Lending News: Washington State Cracks Down?

A pair of articles printed Saturday in the Seattle Times show some slight tightening of lending practices in our state.

Nineteen states, including Washington, and the District of Columbia have moved quickly to warn state-regulated lenders about the hazards to consumers from nontraditional mortgages.

Tens of thousands of state-licensed lenders and mortgage brokers are affected by the advisories, also known as a "guidance."

Such loans include interest-only mortgages and other arrangements where the borrower cuts monthly costs by paying back less than full interest and nothing toward principal.

The states are following closely behind federal banking regulators, who issued a sternly worded advisory in late September to the lenders they supervise, telling them they should not make these loans to borrowers who may be unable to repay them.
In 2003, just 10.6 percent of new loans tracked by First American LoanPerformance, a San Francisco-based real-estate information service, were nontraditional mortgages. But during the first nine months of 2006, about 34.1 percent of borrowers used these loans to buy or refinance homes.
Many economists now say the surge in these loans contributed to the real-estate boom of the past few years. Regions that had the highest rates of nontraditional lending were those areas where housing prices rose most quickly.
In Washington State, where the Department of Financial Institutions sent out its warning about three weeks ago, the guidance covers 1,767 mortgage brokers and 356 consumer-loan companies.
Not being in the mortgage lending business myself, I am not qualified to comment on whether the new "warning" will actually slow the spread of suicide lending. Hopefully potential home debtors will at least be better informed about what they're potentially getting themselves into with the more dangerous loans.

The second article deals with who is allowed to work as a loan officer in our state.
Until this month, virtually anyone could work in Washington as a loan officer for a mortgage broker — even convicted felons whose job gave them access to borrowers' most sensitive financial information.

But a new day has dawned, and it's mortgage brokers who pushed for the change.

A new state law, which went into effect Jan. 1, requires the state's 8,000 loan officers employed by mortgage brokers to be licensed. They write more than half of Washington's home loans.

Exempt from the new law are loan officers working for banks, credit unions and savings and loans. Also exempt are those working for consumer-finance companies.

Loan officers at mortgage brokerages must pass a background check meant to weed out those convicted of recent felonies or financially oriented misdemeanors, such as credit-card fraud. Also out are those who've generated a significant number of business-related complaints to state regulatory agencies.
I would think that shady loan officers are more likely to push people to take on more loan than they can truly afford, so this also comes as welcome news. I don't know if either one of these will do much to stem the tide of suicidal financing, but they couldn't make the situation worse. If these new regulations actually do significantly decrease the number of exotic loans that are issued, it would go a long way toward reigning in the runaway appreciation of the last few years.

(Kirstin Downey, Washington Post, 01.06.2007)
(Elizabeth Rhodes, Seattle Times, 01.06.2007)

December Reporting Roundup

After just nine months of increasing YOY home inventory and fourteen months of declining YOY home sales, the local media has apparently taken notice. Even Elizabeth Rhodes at the Seattle Times can't ignore the slowing trend:

In fact, buyers weren't racing to make offers anywhere in the central Puget Sound area last month, according to home-sales numbers released Friday by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
But nowhere could the drops be attributed to a lack of homes to choose from.

Indeed, last month the number of houses and condos available increased 48 percent in Kitsap County, 42 percent in Pierce, 34 percent in Snohomish and 24 percent in King, compared with the previous December.
I can hardly believe I read such a thing with Ms. Rhodes' name on it, but there it is in black and white. I guess the inevitable slowdown has become impossible to ignore.

Aubrey Cohen chimes in at the P-I with what I think may be the first in-print prediction of actual YOY price declines for the Seattle market.
"It's more of the same," said Glenn Crellin, director of the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at Washington State University. "My expectation is that we're moving into a period where sales are going to remain strong, but certainly not as strong as they had been, and where prices are going to be moderating and stabilizing."
Michael Simonsen, chief executive of Altos Research, in Palo Alto, Calif., has noticed cooling in the Seattle home market.

"Any comparison with last year is down in terms of demand and numbers of sales," he said. "Not great but certainly not falling through the floor."
Simonsen predicted that Seattle would start seeing slight year-over-year price declines this spring or summer, although he said the city had a strong economy, and its housing market would fare better than outlying areas.

"While we see some positive things to keep the bottom falling out, we don't see any big catalyst that will let prices jump upwards," he said.

Price cuts might not reassure already skittish buyers, Simonsen said. "I kind of think that people are attuned enough to the bubble headlines that if we see year-to-year price declines that might even scare people."
Of course, it just wouldn't be a news roundup without an article proudly proclaiming what a "healthy market" we have. This month's optimism comes to us courtesy of Mike Benbow at the Everett Herald:
December home sales dropped in Snohomish County, but prices continued to rise, according to information released Friday by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
December followed the trend for about the last six months where listings rose dramatically, sales slumped and prices continued to climb. Unlike many areas of the country, prices in the county continue to rise each month.

"The market is really healthy now," [Windermere broker Vern Holden] said. "I think everyone prefers the more balanced market we have today compared to a year ago."
And just to round out the experience, here's John Gillie at the Tacoma News Tribune with your monthly dose of lame excuses:
In a twist in the law of supply and demand, median December home prices in Pierce and 18 other Washington counties were substantially higher than in the same month in 2005 despite a larger supply of homes on the market and fewer sales.
December figures released by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service on Friday followed the pattern seen for several months, stubbornly refusing to join the price deflation that has happened in other markets as the supply of homes increases and sales slow.
...sales undoubtedly have been affected by the dose of miserable winter weather – record rains, devastating winds and heavy early season snow – Washington has had the past two months.
Things should get really interesting if we do actually see YOY price declines this year. I can't wait to hear the excuses for that.

(Elizabeth Rhodes, Seattle Times, 01.06.2007)
(Aubrey Cohen, Seattle P-I, 01.06.2007)
(Mike Benbow, Everett Herald, 01.06.2007)
(John Gillie, Tacoma News Tribune, 01.06.2007)

Friday, January 05, 2007

Inventory Up, Sales Down (Sound Familiar?)

December stats are available from the NWMLS. Here's a summary of the "residential" figures:

Active Listings: up 23% YOY
Pending Sales: down 9% YOY
Median Closed Price: $440,000, up 12% YOY.

I'll update this post later today with the usual graph and links to the updated spreadsheet and the NWMLS pdfs.

Update: Sorry about the delay. Here's the Seattle Bubble Spreadsheet, and here is the latest inventory & sales graph:

As you can see, inventory jumped slightly less YOY than it has in recent months, and sales dropped YOY slightly less than they have in recent months. Is this the beginning of a trend toward inventory and sales stabilization? I'm going to go with "no" for now. We'll really see come March.

What to Blame? Not Growth Management.

Here's a guest editorial from today's Seattle Times that says something I've been saying all along: The "home prices are high because we're running out of land because of Growth Management" argument doesn't hold water.

The cost of housing is spiraling out of control in many parts of the Puget Sound region. King County is redefining sticker shock for homebuyers as the median price of housing approaches $440,000. Years of double-digit increases are a serious threat to many people's dreams of home ownership, and to our region's livability.

As the problem escalates, the search for real solutions has become increasingly high-stakes. To tackle this challenge effectively, we must work together with accurate information. We must also move beyond misleading and misdirected attacks on environmental and growth-management laws. The evidence suggests these attacks are misleading and unwarranted.

Opening rural areas to sprawl development doesn't increase housing affordability, nor does protecting rural areas from irresponsible development make housing unaffordable. The state's Growth Management Act actually requires local governments to take steps to improve housing afford-ability and choice.

The Brookings Institution has found that market demand, not land constraints, is the primary determinant of housing prices. Its study, "The Link Between Growth Management and Housing Affordability: The Academic Evidence," reported that "housing prices are actually determined by a host of interacting factors, such as the price of land, the supply and types of housing, the demand for housing, and the amount of residential choice and mobility in the area." In other words, the impact of growth management on housing prices is only a part of the equation, and a relatively small one here.

In our popular area, demand is the big driver of housing cost; people want to move here and stay here. Increased income and purchasing power also are major factors in the rising cost of housing in our region.
"Market demand... is the primary determinant of housing prices." You don't say. Like maybe, market demand created by loose lending and low interest rates? The article mentions "increased income and purchasing power," but then goes on to over-emphasizes "our relatively high local wages" (without providing any actual comparative data), and essentially ignores the fact that the "increased purchasing power" comes from loose lending and rock-bottom interest rates.
In the end, our message is simple. We must do more to tackle the housing affordability problem in our region. But, we cannot succeed unless we focus on the facts about what is really driving our housing costs.
I agree completely. Which is why I am so disappointed that in the entire 56-page study, the hand that lending standards and interest rates have had in creating the excessive demand of recent years is essentially completely ignored. Go ahead, search the pdf for "interest rate" or "financing" or "lending." Nada. They also chose to ignore the mass psychology that comes into play when appreciation of an asset is believed to be a "sure thing." In my opinion those are the two biggest reasons that the price of housing has shot up so much in the last few years.

I get the feeling that the purpose of the study wasn't to highlight the true reasons that housing is unaffordable, but rather to prove that growth management isn't the reason. I have said all along that "not enough land" is a bogus argument for skyrocketing prices, but this study does a disservice by ignoring the true driving factors in our recent price run-up.

(Aaron Ostrom & Carla Okigwe, Seattle Times, 01.05.2007)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

2007 Optimism, Part III: Some Cracks Appear

This is the last post in this impromptu series. There were just so many articles out there full of "expert" quotes and predictions about the Puget Sound's economic outlook for 2007. Here are three more articles that discuss the interaction of the local housing market with the greater local economic picture. Surprisingly, the housing affordability elephant in the room is actually not completely ignored:

The Good Ride Continues in 2007
Because of relatively high rates of in-migration and household formation, the regional housing market will continue to do better than its national counterpart in 2007 and 2008.
Dick Conway, (Washington CEO)

2007: A Sound economic picture
The one sector no one sees much of a lift from is housing, either in new-home construction or resale activity and prices. Pedersen says in-migration and employment growth are counterbalanced by the deterioration of affordability.
Bill Virgin, (Seattle P-I)

Area's solid economy vulnerable to cracks showing up elsewhere
So even if the local real-estate market holds up better than its national counterpart, "if the U.S. housing market pulls the country into a recession, then we have a problem," Conway said.
Drew DeSilver, (Seattle Times)

I'm keeping this post short because I've said about all I feel like saying on the topic for now. We'll see how things pan out.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Optimism on the Menu for 2007

In addition to the standard E. Rhodes fluff piece that Synthetik posted about on Sunday, there were a couple other articles posted over the weekend that conveyed a general sense of optimism about Seattle's housing market in the coming year. Here are a few choice quotes from Mike Benbow's article in the Everett Herald titled Smiling at the slump:

David Toyer was having Christmas dinner with relatives when one asked him how he felt about the housing market.

Toyer, a vice president for Barclays Northwest, a major developer in Snohomish County, gets that a lot.

Most people expect him to be down in the dumps, or at least very concerned. That, he said, is because they've been listening to national newscasts about areas of the country where home prices have dropped like a rock or sales have plummeted due to overbuilding.

Indeed, The Associated Press named the rocky housing market the top business-related story of 2006 because of worries that it could push the nation into a recession.

Trouble is, the housing market in the Northwest in general and Snohomish County in specific did well this year and is expected to continue to be strong in 2007.
Toyer is very positive about the housing market for 2007, partly because he's seen the numbers in a study recently conducted for his firm by New Home Trends, a consulting firm in Mill Creek.

"There's no reason to think we will not have a very healthy housing market," he said. "We've got some things here that are different than everywhere else."

One of the unique elements, he said, is a state Growth Management Act that forces developers to build close to cities or within them, a law that is gradually reducing the amount of available land.

Toyer also noted that with hiring at Microsoft, Boeing and many other businesses large and small, most analysts are predicting a good economy in the Seattle area in 2007.

That's attracting people looking for work, and many would like to buy a house, he said.
Mr. Benbow goes to town, throwing all the classic arguments out there. We've got "Seattle is special," "we're running out of land," and of course the ever-popular "Boeing and Microsoft will save us," all in just the first few paragraphs! Never mind the uncomfortable fact that affordability continues to drop like a rock, and there is no evidence that all of these new jobs are paying any better than existing ones. Methinks Mr. Benbow's article is heavy on claims, but light on supporting evidence or critical examination, as usual.

Justin Matlick takes a more balanced look at Washington's situation in the Puget Sound Business Journal's general state economic outlook for 2007, but the high point of the article is the clever illustration that so delightfully epitomizes the unwavering hope of local housing optimists.
The Puget Sound economy in a nutshell
Illustration: James McFarlane
Click to enlarge
With the national economy expected to continue decelerating in 2007, how will Washington state fare?

First, the big worry: housing. Economists generally agree that the state's housing market will continue to slow throughout 2007, especially in the Puget Sound region, and a precipitous decline could drag down consumer spending, slow the construction industry and dampen economic growth.

On the bright side, the state's economy is poised to continue growing even as housing slows. Around Puget Sound, a strong international economy will continue fueling demand for key Washington exports such as Boeing airplanes and Microsoft software. Outside the region, economists expect the economy to continue expanding, albeit at a more moderate pace.
While the national housing slowdown has finally hit Washington — in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, the Northwest Multiple Listing Service has reported falling home sales, rising inventories, and slowing home-price appreciation throughout the second half of 2006 — homes in core Puget Sound areas are still logging double-digit price appreciation.

[Union Bank of California senior economist Keitaro] Matsuda said this indicates that the housing market in the Puget Sound region and throughout the state is a long way from hitting bottom.
I don't know anyone who has claimed that the housing market around here is "hitting bottom," so I don't really know what point Mr. Matlick was trying to make with that statement. Moving on...
"It will still take a while before things start to really slow down," Matsuda said.

While Matsuda could not guess exactly how far housing will fall, he did say that it's now clear the national housing expansion has been founded on solid economics, and has not been the bubble many feared.

"If it was a bubble, the markets that experienced the strongest appreciation should also experience the largest price drops, and that hasn't happened," Matsuda said.
Whoa, hold on a minute there. How is anything "clear" at this point? If anything is clear, it's that the national housing expansion was not "founded on solid economics," because nationwide housing statistics are moving in reverse. Furthermore, Matsuda seems to believe that "hasn't happened," means the same thing as "won't happen," which is something I happen to disagree with.
For Washington, this means any declines will likely be more moderate than severe, especially since the rest of the state's economy will likely continue growing at a healthy pace, according to Matsuda and [local economist Dick] Conway.
So really, the primary argument for optimism comes back to... Microsoft and Boeing. I realize that both of these companies are doing well right now, and I certainly hope it continues to be the case. However, I truly do not believe that the recent positive performance of two companies is enough to hold up our entire region's economy.

I'm not calling for a huge pile of doom and gloom for the Seattle area, but unless the vast majority of the area's new jobs are paying $80k or more, I think that 2007 will see the start of price contractions in Seattle. I think the unaffordability ceiling has been reached.

What about you? Are you generally optimistic about 2007 for the Seattle area housing market? Do you buy the arguments that we're special and will continue to see price gains while more and more cities across the nation experience price declines?

Stay tuned in the next week or so for a more detailed post dedicated to my personal 2007 guesses. Let's keep the comments in this thread focused on these two articles and more general local economic impressions.

(Mike Benbow, Everett Herald, 12.31.2006)
(Justin Matlick, Puget Sound Business Journal, 12.29.2006)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Finished Basements: What Could Go Wrong?

If you have spent some time looking at homes for sale around here, you have probably noticed that finished basements are frequently used as a major selling point, with some listings even counting a finished basement in the advertised total square footage of a home. However, as an article in today's Seattle P-I points out, finished spaces are not all created equal.

These days, children play, parents work and mothers-in-law sleep in basements. Homeowners move in big-screen televisions and overstuffed chairs with cup holders to create basement theaters.

But many never consider how they would get out of the basement if there were a fire, earthquake or torrential storm.

"I hadn't even thought about that. Now that we spend so much time down there, we should probably think of an escape plan," said Mike Kimelberg, whose bedroom is in the basement of his new Montlake house.
However, for decades now, Seattle codes have required emergency escape windows or doors from bedrooms in new or remodeled basements.

And, for about 15 years, Seattle codes have required new or remodeled basements to have a door leading outside. Regulations also mandate a window with a sill less than 44 inches from the floor and a clear 2-by-3-foot opening so people can climb out easily, said Rick Lupton, engineering and technical codes manager for the Seattle Department of Planning and Development.

But those rules rarely are enforced unless a permit is sought or there is a complaint.

"We have no way of enforcing it unless someone complains," Lupton said. "The rule applies more to rentals than private homes. If the tenant calls us, we will go look at it."

Realtor Jane Orvis, of ReMax Northwest Realtors, said she has seen illegal basement bedrooms used as a selling point, either included in a house's bedroom count or acknowledged with phrases such as "2+ bedrooms."

"It's kind of weird to go into a house and see a bedroom with no windows or a tiny, little window," she said. "There's nobody policing sales of houses that are not to code."

Orvis said she'll talk with buyers about any such issues if they're serious about a house, but largely relies on inspectors to point out code issues.
With so many homes out there being remodeled "under the table," improperly finished basements aren't the only issue. It's not uncommon for homeowners (or real estate "investors") to cut corners when DIY'ing their remodel work, and once the pretty trim and the granite countertops are down, a potential buyer has no easy way of knowing if the work was done to code.

Of course, all that really matters to most buyers is the wow factor. People will continue to merrily jump into the largest purchase of their life, largely blind to potentially expensive pitfalls that may await them down the line.

(Kathy Mulady & Aubrey Cohen, Seattle P-I, 01.02.2007)