Does Recent Market Activity Align With Reality?

Historically, December and January are slow months in residential real estate but the historical norm didn’t apply to anxious Westside/South Bay buyers wanting to take advantage of record low interest rates, FHA financing, tax incentives and sellers finally giving into a 20-25% price correction from market heights.

The market is the hottest it has been in over 3.5 years with the term “multiple offers” becoming a normal phrase out of a listing agents mouth while buyers are flowing into open houses priced under 2 million dollars like the economic collapse at the end of 2008 never happened.

Homes and condos priced below $850,000 are seeing a ton of traffic. This past weekend, condos in my office that have been on the market for over 30 days priced between $400,000 and $800,000 had 40 to 60 perspective buyers checking them out. Last year at this time, condos not considered new listings would be lucky to draw the attention of 5 to 10 people for an open house.

Even the high end ($2,000,000+) house hunters are getting serious. Thanks to a proliferation of all cash buyers (mostly international) combined with a weak dollar properties in areas like Malibu and Beverly Hills are finally moving at a faster pace.

The top producing agent in Malibu closed out December with $26.5 million in sales, one of his best months of the year. Cash-rich buyers looking to capitalize on lower prices have rushed into the market in recent weeks and the sales pace has continued through January.

For the first time in 2 1/2 years, the median price has posted a year-over-year gain in 2 1/2 years according to MDA DataQuick. This activity has lead to the median home price in Southern California to rise 4% higher than it was in December 2008.

Will this surge last?

The major question on many people’s minds is whether this is going to last. In my opinion, it will only last as long as government incentives are in place and the dollar continues to weaken. Unfortunately, that is not a good mix for the economy in the long run and reality will have to set in at some point. The government incentives and record low interest rates created an artificial bottom that will eventually have to be broken before true progress can be made.

A strong discount in the market has already occurred and I am not saying it is a bad time to buy. However, buyers need to make sure they are looking at least 5 years down the road and not getting too caught up in the incentive hype which is driving much of the market (under a million dollars). Some experts worry that once certain government policies and programs wind down the housing market could falter.

Some buyers are so concerned with getting the tax credit and taking advantage of interest rates that they want to put in offers on properties that do not really fit what they want.

Home purchasers have to realize that finding the right home for your needs is far more important than an $8,000 tax credit. Furthermore, once the tax credit is gone a very good chance exists that the purchaser will get that credit back in a reduced purchased price on the property that truly fits their needs.

Christopher Thornberg, principal of Beacon Economics, states “The bounce in the housing market is due to government policy, not due to fundamentals,” he said. They only delay the solution — they only delay the healing process.”

When you combine these programs expiring with banks taking up to 18 months for foreclosures to get through the system along with shadow inventory (i.e- Bank owned properties or seriously delinquent properties not listed on the market), the housing market is not where it needs to be yet to make a realistic recovery.

On a macro level, 64,000 listings are currently available on the MLS for Southern California compared to 160,000 in 2007. Without looking at the details, one would think this means total stability in the market. However, a closer look at the shadow inventory shows us a scary back-log with 160,000 properties not part of the current inventory. Not all of these properties will hit the market due to loan modifications but even if just 60% of them become available it will drastically change the landscape of the market. This inventory has to work through the system before we start to see a stable recovery.

The fundamentals of buying a home, especially in an uncertain market must be followed. A home is purchased to live in and not as a tool to get rich quick or a status symbol. A home buyer should be purchasing because the home fits their needs for at least the next 4 to 6 years, the monthly payments are aligned with their income, they can take advantage of the tax benefits of owning a home and they will be happy if they make a 2-3% annualized return when they sell.

In the long run owning real estate in South Bay/Westside areas is one of the best leveraged investments one can make if the proper fundamentals are used.

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