In a Fortune Magazine article by Chris Morris, published in February, it is reported that in January 2019, there was more inventory available and houses sat on the market about a week longer than in January 2018.
As of January, there was an available inventory of 1.59 million homes overall, versus 1.53 million in December 2018. Of course, the article is lacking by treating the entire country as one monolithic real estate market. Needless to say, there are hundreds of markets, and they don’t always perform in lockstep.
Nevertheless, there is a subtle shift, even in mentality, that is more favorable to buyers as opposed to sellers, who until recently reigned supreme. Since we are primarily buyers (and then we hold for the long term), a buyer’s market is a positive for us.
It is interesting to note, and one of the reasons I am posting this blog based on an article several weeks old is that while in January 2019 sales were flat, in February 2019 sales surged up, but then dropped only slightly. This is likely to continue to lower rates and sellers having to adjust expectations. Overall, we can see that while there is a shift towards buyers in many markets, the market is still hovering near a relatively stable point. With the low-interest rates and more friendly sellers, this becomes a positive for the investor.
We like to buy brand-new homes. Clearly, the sellers for us are builders. Some builders don’t want to sell to investors. Our market teams successfully convince the builders that it pays to work with our investors, as they get good volume from us. As the mood changes, these very builders may become more receptive to working with buyers, and perhaps even offer more incentives.
This will be discussed in more depth in a podcast on our Premier Members area soon. We will also talk about this during our next ICG Real Estate 1-Day Expo on May 18, 2019
A classic question I get when talking to a would-be real estate investor is: “Shouldn’t we buy a home to live in first before buying investment homes?”
The answer is – it depends on where you live.
When considering owning your own residence, there are various layers of reasoning. Some are logic and numbers-based. Some are emotional, traditional and familial.
Owning your own home can be associated with safety, security, having “arrived”, satisfying family members’ aspirations, the stability of having a (hopefully) permanent place to live, and so on.
Of course, everyone has a different set of emotional considerations when it comes to owning a home. These vary from person to person and, needless to say, are hard to quantify.
In this post, I will address the logical, numbers-based approach to the question of whether to buy your own home as your first real estate move, or rent and buy investment homes instead.
The numbers tell the story when considering buying a home
If you are considering buying your own home, the price of the home matters, the rent required to rent that same home matters, the local property taxes matter, the mortgage interest rates matter, dwelling insurance rates matter, and even the new 2018 tax law weighs in.
If you live in a market where property taxes are relatively low (say, between 1 and 1.7 percent of the home price per year), and insurance rates are reasonable, then if you are considering buying a home under about $400,000, that should be a “no-brainer” as your first step. Between $400,000 and $500,000 would still be a reasonable range to consider buying the home. In such a market, once you step up to the $500,000 range and above, the math may well start to turn as you climb higher in price, in favor of renting a home in the area in which you live. Following that, owning rental homes in more optimal markets makes sense.
Watch out for high property tax and high insurance rates
In markets where the property taxes are high (like in Texas and Oregon), and insurance rates are high (Texas again, for example), the “no-brainer” number may shrink to $300,000 or so, while the range above which you may consider renting your own home while buying affordable investment homes in other markets, will likely be $400,000 or above. This is because with high expenses for property tax and insurance, (which as a homeowner you would be paying) the overall numbers and logic “turn the corner” faster.
Certainly, in expensive areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, New York City and others such markets, it is usually far more logical to be a renter, while owning rental properties in affordable markets, where rents are actually quite high as a percentage of the home purchase prices.
Our next quarterly expo is December 1st near San Francisco Airport. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and add “Read your blog post” in the subject line and come as my guest. We will get back to you with registration information. Learn more about the event at icgre.com/events.
The year is off to a decent start–the fears many investors had that mortgage rates will go up very quickly due to the Fed’s raising the short-term rates recently have not only not materialized, but actually, mortgage rates have gone down twice. I will address it in a separate blog entry but as you can see there is no immediate correlation. Needless to say, mortgage interest rates WILL go up at some point which in part serves to frame the most important aspect of 2016.
During 2016 mortgage interest rates are likely to remain quite low for the entire (or most of the ) year. As single-family homes investors, those of you with decent credit and not a huge portfolio can still qualify and get these coveted 30-year fixed rate loans that you can only get on Single Family Homes (technically 1-4 residential units).
This is the year to focus and be effective in buying solid homes financed by these 30-year fixed rate loans at these incredible interest rates and lock them forever. You will feel like a genius later on after rates have climbed and here you are with an under-5% loan fixed forever, and never changing with the cost of inflation. In a continuous manner, inflation erodes your fixed loan, and the tenant is paying it off one little month at a time.
Do this in 2016. Do this several times. You will be setting up your financial future.
As far as markets, there may not be large appreciation swings in most markets during 2016. In a funny way, the ever-solid Texas is appreciating decently now, but people have some questions about its overall economy.
Oklahoma City with brand-new homes (under 50% of the property tax bite of Texas; it is poised to provide better cash flow on similar rents and home prices – which it has) is a very serious candidate for solid investments.
Jacksonville, Florida is the market least appreciated in the state so far and carries the best appreciation potential. Also in 2016, the Panama Canal project is slated to be finished, potentially generating major large-ship traffic into the Jacksonville port. Will they finish this gargantuan project on time? Will it drift over to 2017? Regardless, it is a dominant event.
Get those good single-family homes and finance them with low 30-year fixed-rate loans. Rinse and repeat. You will very likely be quite happy in the future when you look back at what you have done. We will be discussing this in detail, along with market teams and incredible experts, during our next quarterly 1-Day Expo near SFO on Saturday, March 5th. Everyone citing this blog can attend for free with guests. Just email us at email@example.com or call us at 415-927-7504.
Happy New Year!:
In a Wall Street Journal article from December 31, 2014, by Kathleen Madigan, it is mentioned that overall in the United States (as per the Case-Shiller 20 City Index) prices were up 4.6% from the previous year by the end of October 2014. The pace of growth has slowed from 4.8% in September and 10% in the first quarter. The article goes on to say this could indicate the markets are moving toward stabilization.
Understandably, in Florida, there is likely to be more price appreciation, as the state as a whole reflects the recession effect due to the ultra-slow judicial foreclosure periods. All in all, however, it’s definitely time to look to the stable markets with great economies and low unemployment. It is time for the classic long term hold of houses, where the tenant pays off the (very low) fixed-rate mortgage while inflation keeps eroding it.
No doubt newer homes will figure more prominently in 2015. The classic investment thesis holds strong in 2015 with an extra HUGE bonus: super low interest rates are still here – but many think they will vanish in the coming years.
Happy New Year!
Below is the article in its entirety for your review:
SLOWING PRICE GAINS SUGGEST STABLER MARKET
By Kathleen Madigan (WSJ) Updated Dec. 31, 2014 12:41 a.m. ET
Yearly growth in home prices across the U.S. continued to moderate early in the fourth quarter, suggesting the housing market may be settling into a more sustainable recovery.
Prices nationwide increased 4.6% in the year ended in October, according to the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home-price report released Tuesday. That was down from 4.8% in September and a far cry from the 10%-plus gains in the first quarter. A 20-city measure more closely followed by economists increased 4.5% over the year in October, also down sharply from double-digit gains earlier in the year.
Demand for housing has slowed significantly in recent months despite stronger job growth, a rebound in consumer confidence and falling gasoline prices, which puts more money into consumers’ pockets. Sales of both new and existing homes fell in November. Yet the slowing trend is a positive for the 2015 housing outlook, say economists who follow the industry.
Price appreciation of about 5% is close to a sweet spot where more buyers are able to purchase a home and current owners accumulate housing wealth, but the market avoids a price bubble that could trigger a financial crisis, as happened in 2007.
“It’s a healthier market because first-time buyers feel more comfortable about coming in,” said Bill Banfield, vice president of capital markets at mortgage lender Quicken Loans, adding that the industry needs more first-time buyers to buy smaller homes that allow existing owners to move up into new construction or to an existing house that better suits their needs.
For 2014, however, first-time buyers accounted for only 29% of existing-home sales, according to data from the National Association of Realtors, much less than the historical norm of 40% for sales of primary residences.
Economists at IHS Global Insight agree slower price appreciation is positive for the housing outlook. “Home appreciation at a reasonable pace makes homeownership an attainable dream,” said Stephanie Karol, a U.S. economist at IHS Global. A repeat of the double-digit growth seen in early 2014 “would risk producing a bubble,” she said.
But just as each real-estate market is local, she pointed out the Case-Shiller price index of 20 cities masks the individual pricing experience going on across the country.
“Prices are rising fastest in cities such as San Francisco where geographic or legal constraints limit new construction,” Ms. Karol said. Cities with fewer zoning laws and more space—such as Charlotte, N.C., and Phoenix—are seeing smaller price gains.
Still, the average home-price gain of about 5% is good, she said, and IHS Global is upbeat about home demand and prices in 2015. The forecasting firm projects home prices, as measured by an index compiled by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, will increase 5% over the course of next year and sales of new and existing homes will average 5.92 million, up from 2014’s current pace of about 5.3 million.
Here is a link to the Wall Street Journal U.S. Housing Market Tracker:
The WSJ reports (in an article on Saturday 10/18 by Joe Light), that Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and mortgage lenders are in discussions to ease lending standards; including loans with 3% down to homeowners and allowing people with weak credit access to home loans.
Apparently, an agreement is in sight to enact these measures.
Even if none of this trickles down to investors (which I doubt), this is great news. As more people qualify for loans, greater demand for homes is likely to help push values up in many markets. It will also be easier to sell investment homes due to the larger pool of potential homeowner buyers.
I suspect that, as usual, the more lax lending standards will reach investors in one form or another; making investors able to increase their portfolio at the current incredibly low rates (from a historical perspective). We are already seeing a local lender in Oklahoma City lending to foreigners at good investor rates (albeit at 50% down), as well as to investor purchases for investors owning between 10-15 financed properties (also with 50% down. In fact the loan is identical to the foreign investors’ loan). This lender has already agreed to lend in Atlanta and may soon expand to other states as well.
This is positive news for investors, no matter how you slice it.
In a Wall Street Journal article from August 19th by Josh Mitchell, it is reported that housing starts are sharply up for the year and have seen a strong uptick in July. Housing starts bode well for a general housing recovery. We have already begun to go back to our old buying style of buying new homes from developers in Oklahoma City.
I am relatively sure in the coming months we will be seeing more attractive opportunities in buying brand new products in other markets as well. It took a long time for the builders to be able to put out a competitive product for real estate investors, as they played a serious “second fiddle” to existing homes, which were priced well below what they could offer.
We are pleased to see the trend as it was always our opinion that a prudent and safe real estate investment certainly includes brand-new homes with a builder’s warranty, with a fixed-rate 30-year loan paid off by the tenant and eroded steadily by inflation (as it is not pegged to the cost of living). This mode of real estate investment serves as the foundation of building a solid financial future and achieving long-term life goals of a solid retirement and sending our kids to college.
Builders have the ability to offer the buyers many “goodies” at a cost to them- that is much lower than the retail cost (an example might be a covered patio which costs $6K but only costs the builder $2K to build). This can create an attractive package for the investor.
We will have builders and new properties available at our upcoming 1-Day Real Estate Expo near SFO on Saturday, September 13th. I am looking forward to seeing you.
I am enclosing the full WSJ article for convenience:
U.S. Housing Starts Up Sharply in July – Renewed Strength in Housing Market Could Boost Economy
By Josh Mitchell
Updated Aug. 19, 2014 11:03 a.m. ET .
WASHINGTON—Home construction surged in July, a sign that renewed strength in the housing market could boost the economy in coming months.
Housing starts climbed almost 16% last month to an annual rate of 1.093 million units, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. That marked the highest level of construction since November, driven by a pronounced rise in new apartments.
Home construction rose 22% in the year through July, and a rise in applications for building permits last month suggests further gains this year. That could ease concerns at the Federal Reserve of a weak housing sector weighing on economic growth this year.
”With housing starts up 22% over the last year, the Fed’s concern about a ‘slow’ recovery in the housing market looks misplaced to us,” Economist John Ryding of RDQ Economics said in a note to clients. But details within Tuesday’s report raised questions about whether the construction gains will be sustained. Last month’s rise appeared to be due partly to a rebound in construction in the South after rainy weather caused delays earlier this summer.
Such rebounds are typically temporary. Also, the bulk of the increase was due to surging apartment construction, a volatile category that can mask underlying strength in the market. And it’s unclear whether the housing market will be able to maintain momentum if mortgages rates rise, as many economists expect them to as the Federal Reserve moves toward raising its benchmark short-term interest rates from near zero.
Amid the prospect of higher costs and weak income growth, Fannie Mae’s economics group downgraded its forecast for home sales and construction on Monday. It now expects construction of 1.43 million single-family units this year and next combined, down from an earlier forecast of 1.61 million units.
A measure of affordability, which takes into account interest rates, home prices and median household income, hit its lowest level in six years in June. That reflects a run-up in home prices.
Interest rates have fallen back to year-ago levels in recent weeks after rising late last year. The average rate on a conventional 30-year mortgage stood at 4.12% last week, down from 4.53% in the first week of the year, according to Freddie Mac.
But overall the report boosted hopes of a stronger housing recovery. In July, applications for building permits, a construction bellwether, climbed 8.1% to a 1.052 million rate. That suggests construction could pick up further in coming months. Sales of previously owned homes have picked up in recent months, buoyed by historically low interest rates, mild weather, and stronger job growth in the U.S. But sales of new homes have moved sideways. The latest pickup in home construction could signal builders are gaining confidence that overall sales will rise as the broader economy gains momentum.
From a year ago, home construction was up 21.7%. The home-construction market has steadily recovered from the depths of the recession but has yet to regain its strength from the levels that preceded the boom years in the 2000s.
At the height of the housing boom in 2005, just over 2 million homes were built. After the crash, housing starts fell to 554,000 in 2009, during the recession. Tuesday’s report showed that starts on single-family homes, which reflects the bulk of the market, climbed 8.3% in July from June.
Construction of multifamily units—mostly condominiums and apartments–rose 33% to a pace of 423,000 units, the highest level since January 2006. That category is more volatile. Other recent signs point to a strengthening housing sector.
A measure of home builder optimism rose two points to a reading of 55 this month, the National Association of Home Builders said Monday. Existing-home sales rose in June to the highest level since October, the National Association of Realtors said last month. The trade group is expected to release July’s data Thursday.
Write to Josh Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org
Up until the beginning of 2012 there were some states that lead the way as far as investor interest: California, Nevada, Arizona and Florida. That interest on the part of investors was justified, as these four states were the most clearly noticeable examples of recession housing prices. These four states were the “poster children” for extreme housing price collapse.
During 2012 and 2013 all four states exhibited strong housing price appreciation. Phoenix led everyone with a 70% jump. Las Vegas wasn’t far behind and California process improved rapidly. Florida prices went up but the uptick was tempered by far slower judicial foreclosure processes in Florida, as opposed to the quick and efficient trustee sale in the other three states.
Now, in the middle of 2014, Florida prices have improved quite a bit and yet, due to the slow foreclosure process, which creates a steady trickle of supply into the marketplace, Florida is still a place where investors look to buy. However buying in Arizona, Nevada and California has slowed significantly for now.Other states, which have not experienced such extreme price swings, are now becoming attractive investor destinations.
A prime example is Oklahoma City, with low unemployment and the benefit of the oil & gas industries. Rents are high and property taxes are low. Similarly, other “middle of the country” markets in states like Kansas and Missouri are starting to attract more buyers, as is the state of Texas (with a strong economy, high rents, but also very high property taxes and insurance rates) and states like Ohio.Overall it is possible that soon the effects of the recession will no longer be dominant and marketplace demand by investor will revert to parameters before 2008.
Some of these new markets will be present at our Real Estate 1-Day Expo this Saturday near the San Francisco Airport (see details at www.icgre.com). Call us (415-927-7504) or email us (email@example.com) and mention this blog entry and receive my book, for free, with registration at www.icgre.com.
Exploring this and other avenues for finding financial real estate success during our 1-Day Expo.
As many of you know, we are holding our 1-Day Expo on Saturday, June 14th from 10:00-6:30 p.m. Even though we have been holding these events for over 20 years, I am always excited before we hold them. I know I will learn so much from the expert lecturers, the market teams who bring information straight “from the trenches” and from all of YOU who attend.
Just the Q&A sessions are so informative, I have yet to partake in one of our events and not learn a tremendous amount of valuable information during these sessions.
The networking is also so valuable, bringing new connections and new synergy.
This time we have three expert lecturers:
Attorney Brett Lytle on Asset Preservation & Protection. Brett always sees the smallest details, which stay hidden from most observers. He has led countless people to create a safer, more secure way to hold assets and will teach all of us how to do this.
Lucian Ioja uses his vast experience and knowledge to show us how we can create multiple streams of income and plan our financial life in a proactive, fruitful way. He also teaches us to utilize many different avenues to create these income streams; from using insurance in a sophisticated manner to real estate and other vehicles that we will explore.
Roger St. Pierre will teach us about getting non-recourse mortgages to buy real estate, with financing, from our IRA accounts. A lot goes into this and that is why we invited Roger to instruct us.
There will be lenders with new types of investor (and homeowners) loans to tell us about.
We are bringing in three new markets with exciting deals at attractive price points, including brand new homes, as well as low-cost turn-key homes with tenants AND easy special financing even to investors who had been spurned by the banks.
Updates from the existing markets are always so fascinating. The work and preparation that goes into these refresher points from the markets always amaze me. There is so much to learn and so much to feel the pulse of what goes on nationally.
I’ve been asked to do something special for the blog readers, and we will give everyone who registers and mentions this blog, a free copy of my book Remote Controlled Real Estate Investing which goes into the details of buying properties far from home. So, register today to secure your spot and as an added bonus receive my book. For free.
I am excited and very much looking forward to seeing you at our event. The 1-Day Expo will take place near the San Francisco Airport, at the South San Francisco Conference Center. We set the Expo time so people can fly in and fly out on the same day if they are not from the San Francisco Bay Area – the day starts at 10:00 AM and ends at 6:30 PM, providing attendees from Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Seattle, Phoenix and wherever it is that you call home to arrive and leave on the same day.
Of course, for Bay Area residents it is an easy drive and everyone appreciates the ample free parking at the conference center.
In a recent article written by Kenneth Harney in the Los Angeles Times, we learn that four million homeowners are no longer “underwater” on their loans. As many of us know, a good number of these homes may be investor-owned. Obviously, this is good news for the economy at large.
It is also good news for real estate investors — if someone is in the process of foreclosure, rising prices lower the deficiency exposure for the individual (this is true for homeowners as well as investors, of course). In addition, investors with clean credit can use the rising equity to refinance and get the great rates that can be obtained today, and in many cases improve their cash flow (possibly) quite significantly.
Needless to say, in some of the markets investors may even begin to think about selling and if they bought in 2009-2011, they may already realize nice gains. Most investors are more interested in keeping the homes, as appreciation is likely to occur in markets that really overshot down during the recession (like in Arizona, Nevada, and Florida, which are specifically mentioned in the article as still carrying a lot of underwater properties). Nevertheless, the rising prices create a sense of success (not to be trifled with) and in some cases, more options and room to maneuver assets.
Here is the article:
4 million homeowners climb out of negative equity
More owners transitioned from negative equity into positive territory last year, a good sign for the economy overall. But many remain underwater on their mortgages.
By Kenneth R. Harney
March 16, 2014, 5:00 a.m.
WASHINGTON — The economy may be growing at a frustratingly slow pace, but one piece of it is booming: American homeowners’ equity holdings — the market value of their houses minus their mortgage debts — soared by nearly $2.1 trillion last year to $10 trillion.
Big numbers, you say, and hard to grasp. But look at it this way: Thanks to rising prices and equity levels, about 4 million owners around the country last year were able to climb out of the financial tar pit of the housing bust — negative equity.
Negative equity gums up people’s lives and the real estate marketplace as a whole. It makes it difficult or impossible for many owners to refinance out of a higher-cost mortgage into a more affordable one. It makes it painful to sell — you’ve got to bring cash to the table to pay off what you still owe to the bank. Plus almost no one wants to lend you money, at least not at reasonable interest rates secured by your real estate, when you’re deeply underwater. So you’re likely to spend less and invest less, and you’re probably not going to buy another house. Nor will potential new buyers be able to purchase yours.
So when 4 million owners manage to transition out of negative equity into positive territory, that’s significant news not just for them personally, but for the economy overall.
Two statistical studies released this month offered a glimpse of where the country is in terms of homeowner equity, seven years after real estate began to tumble and crash. The first was theFederal Reserve‘s quarterly “flow of funds” report. Among many other segments of the economy it toted up, the Fed found that homeowner equity has rebounded to its highest level in eight years — though it’s still not quite back to the $12 trillion it was during the hyperinflationary high point of the housing boom in 2005.
The second study, from real estate analytics firm CoreLogic, focused on the flip side — the impressive shrinkage of negative equity. According to researchers, nearly 43 million owners with mortgage debt have positive equity. Roughly 6.5 million owners are still in negative equity positions, however, down from more than 10 million a year ago and 12 million in 2009.
Who are they and where are they? Not surprisingly, they are heavily concentrated in areas that saw the wildest price run-ups, the heaviest use of toxic loan products and the steepest plunges during the crash. In Nevada, 30.4% of all owners with mortgages are underwater. In Florida, the percentage is 28.1%, and in Arizona, it’s 21.5%. Still, all three areas have improved sharply over the last two years.
Although non-costal California markets suffered some of the most dramatic declines in property values during the bust, researchers found that the state as a whole is nowhere near the top of the latest negative equity list. With 12.6% of mortgaged homes underwater, California has a lower overall negative rate than the national average (13.3%), and has relatively fewer underwater homes than Maryland (ranked 10th worst in the country with a negative equity rate of 16.2%), Ohio (19%), Illinois (18.7%), Rhode Island (18.3%) and Michigan (18%).
Among the best markets if you’re measuring for positive equity: Texas, where just 3.9% of owners are in negative positions, Alaska (4.2%), New York (6.3%), Oklahoma (6.4%) and the District of Columbia (6.5%.) Higher-priced houses generally have lower rates of negative equity compared with houses in lower-priced areas, many of which saw construction booms for entry-level, low- and moderate-cost homes in the suburbs of major cities during the boom years. Just 8% of mortgaged homes worth more than $200,000 have negative equity, compared with 19% of homes under $200,000.
Having positive equity is one thing, but do you have adequate equity? Or are you, as CoreLogic refers to the phenomenon, “under-equitied”? Researchers define under-equity as mortgage debt that is in excess of 80% of your home’s resale value
This is important in practical terms, they say, because having less than 20% equity makes it more difficult for you to pursue potentially helpful financial options, such as refinancing your primary home loan or obtaining an equity credit line. About 21% of all mortgaged homes nationwide are currently in this situation, and 1.6 million owners have less than 5% equity.
In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal there was an article (below) by Nick Timiraos regarding the effects of home price appreciation on affordability. As the article states, rising interest rates, a dearth of housing stock in many markets, still-tight lending criteria and a slow builder’s resurgence, create a real difficulty for many people to buy their first home. Needless to say, investors reap a certain benefit from this situation by enjoying an expanding demand for rentals. Since many investors have the means and sophistication to buy homes, the expanding rental pool actually improves the investment situation.
Here is the article as it appeared yesterday:
Surging Home Prices Are a Double-Edged Sword
Affordability Troubles Grow, Especially for First-Time Buyers
The U.S. housing market faces a challenge at the start of the spring sales season: higher prices.
It is hard to overstate the benefits of rising prices to the economy broadly and to homeowners, banks and home builders specifically after years of declines. Price gains have pulled more Americans from the brink of foreclosure and given home buyers more confidence that they won’t get stuck with an asset whose value will decline.
But those gains have a painful edge, too, especially because prices have bounced back so strongly. The increases have rekindled concerns about affordability, particularly for first-time buyers, and could damp the gains of a housing rebound still in its early stages. The U.S. housing market faces an unexpected challenge at the start of the spring sales season: home prices are on a tear. Price gains have pulled more Americans from the brink of foreclosure and boosted demand from consumers no longer afraid to buy.
“Prices ran up so fast in 2013, it hurt first-timers’ ability to become homeowners,” said John Burns, chief executive of a home-building consulting firm in Irvine, Calif. “It’s going to be a slower recovery than people had hoped because a number of people have been priced out of the market.” Home values nationwide are up 11% over the past two years, according to real-estate information service Zillow Inc. and 14% below their 2007 peak. Mortgage rates, which jumped a full percentage point to about 4.5% in the past year, have sharpened worries over housing affordability.
Even as prices have increased, housing still appears affordable by one traditional gauge. Since 1990, American homeowners have spent about 24% of monthly income on their mortgage payments, according to data from Morgan Stanley. Today, that payment-to-income ratio stands at around 20%, below the long-run average. The problem with that view of affordability: It assumes borrowers have great credit and large down payments. The ratio isn’t favorable for first-time buyers and others with lower incomes and smaller down payments, which increases their monthly financing costs. The payment ratio for first-time buyers was around 24% at the end of last year, in line with its long-run average, according to the Morgan Stanley analysis.
This pinch on first-timers is troubling because, so far, the housing recovery has depended to an unusual degree on cash buyers and investors. The relatively weak position of entry-level buyers could further suppress the homeownership rate—now off more than four percentage points from its 2004 peak—as more of them rent, said Vishwanath Tirupattur, a managing director at Morgan Stanley. Making matters worse, home prices are going up fastest in markets that are already expensive, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. Just 32% of California households at the end of last year could afford the monthly payments on a median-priced home in the state of $431,510, assuming a 20% down payment, according to the California Association of Realtors. That was down from 56% of households that could afford the payments on a $276,040 median-priced home in early 2012.
Rising prices are only part of the problem for first-time buyers. Inventory shortages and tougher mortgage-qualification standards benefit buyers who can make large down payments and those who can forgo a mortgage altogether. Because many markets have low supplies of homes for sale, all-cash buyers have routinely beat out first-time buyers by guaranteeing a quick, worry-free closing for sellers.
Meanwhile, federal officials have repeatedly increased insurance premiums on loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration, which serves many first-time buyers because it requires down payments of just 3.5%. While mortgage rates at the end of 2013 reached their highest levels in more than two years, the all-in cost of an FHA-backed loan—due to insurance-premium increases—was closer to a five-year high.
Rising prices are less of a problem for current homeowners seeking to trade up because they can tap growing home equity to make their next home purchase. An index tracking housing affordability from data firm CoreLogic Inc. shows that homes were 17% less affordable for first-time buyers at the end of last year compared with the year before, while the index was down just 6% for existing homeowners.
Ideally, higher prices would stimulate more home construction, which would ease inventory crunches that are partly responsible for price increases while boosting job growth. But builders have been slow to ramp up production, skittish after being caught with too much inventory when the 2008 downturn hit. Last year, many focused instead on higher-end houses, while entry-level construction was subdued. Sales of new homes last year rose by 14% from 2012, but the number of homes sold for less than $150,000 fell by 28%. Sales above $500,000 grew by 36%.
The worry is “a situation develops where construction remains low and prices continue to outpace incomes before first-time buyers can get in, and the next thing you know, you have to” bypass standard mortgage-qualification rules “to get people into homes,” said Thomas Lawler, an independent housing economist in Leesburg, Va.
Others fret that low interest rates have allowed prices to rise too fast relative to incomes, which have stagnated. While homes are still affordable on a monthly payment basis because of cheap financing, homes no longer look like a bargain when comparing prices to incomes. For the past few years, policy makers have focused on breaking a vicious downdraft in home prices. Now, it wouldn’t hurt housing to see price gains flatten out, especially if income growth remains tepid. If not, the housing market’s roller-coaster ride will continue.
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