Sunday, February 17, 2008

What is the State of The Housing Market? (Multiple Choice)

What is the State of the Housing Market? Please choose the best answer.

A. Looks like the start of a recovery. NAR Q3 2007 Report indicates roughly half of US markets show an increase in median home prices.

B. About flat, plus or minus 1%...OFHEO reports Home Prices down 0.4% in Q3 2007

C. We have years of decline ahead of us…start keeping cash--strike that, better make it Euros--in your mattress, folks! Case Shiller reports “The Sky is Falling, The Sky is Falling!” (Ok, that wasn’t really a headline attributed to them, but that’s basically the message in all of their press releases…pick which ever press release you want.)

Ok, pencils down. You all get a gold star. No matter which one you choose, you're correct. Why? It comes down to the methodology.

The National Association of REALTORS® statistics captures the median value of home transactions that come from all of the Multiple Listing Services nationwide. They cover all home sales at all price points, and release data in a relatively timely manner.

OFHEO, the government agency that works with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, also releases its quarterly analyses. They cover 287 markets, but because they are primarily concerned with the conforming loan market, the track only resales that meet that criteria (until recently, loans under $417,000. See my post on Conforming Loan Limits.) It also includes refinancings, which arguably have more generous appraisals. FYI, OFHEO does typically include an attempt at reconciling their numbers to Case Shiller. Because CS is a privately owned index, the exact methodology is impossible to duplicate.)

Case-Shiller, which is probably the most widely quoted analysis, covers only 20 US markets BUT includes ALL price points and loan types—exotics, sub-prime, and limited documentation. Of course the 20 metro areas covered are very large ones, which typically have more expensive homes (anyone ever compare a 4BR colonial on an acre in North Arlington to a 4BR colonial on an acre in Cleveland?) It excludes 13 states completely and has limited information on 29 others—so incomplete or missing data from 42 states! It also weights transactions—a $700,000 home gets weighted twice as heavily in their index as a $350,000 home. But isn’t a 10% decline a 10% decline, regardless of the baseline? Apparently not.

Dramatic headlines sell papers--remember all the 2004-2005 headlines screaming Buy! Buy, Before You're Priced Out Forever! Doesn't sound like a great idea in hindsight, does it?) While I’m definitely not saying that those in the industry can’t spin stats better than a Maytag, I did find this little tidbit from the NAR pretty interesting:

“Another factor that rarely gets attention is that Dr. Shiller, a Yale professor, has a side business in Chicago. His index is used at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for hedging housing futures values. The more hedging of bets that occur, the more profits go into Dr. Shiller’s bank account. And more hedging of the bets will take place if people believe there will be a crash in housing values. So naturally he has a financial incentive to “scare” the market.”

So what’s a buyer to do? Whom to believe? First, understand the methodology and if one matches up with your situation, pay closer attention to that one. Are you in one CS’s 20 markets and looking to use a no doc loan for a $600K home? CS may be the better measure for you. Are you looking to buy below $417,000? OFHEO may be a better report for you. Want the broadest measure possible? Use NAR. I find that with statistics, perception is reality, and no one calls a market bottom until it’s months behind us, and in the meantime, life goes on. If you’re buying a home, as opposed to an investment property, then do what's best for you, pick a time that works with your life, plan to stay there at least 3-5 years, and buy only what you can afford.

Read more: See my post from last year on Yes, the Market is Down 7% AND up 1%

Read more: from one of my favorite mortgage blogs on spin in the mortgage industry headlines: How Ignoring Adjectives Can Improve Your Understanding of Mortgages

Read more in the Carnival of Real Estate, which included this post. They make the extremely important observation that all real estate is local, so national trends don't mean very much in the first place! Read my posts making similar points here and here. This one is also interesting to look at the very different foreclosure stats, even from county to county, in our area.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

WSJ: "Beyond Auctions" Article on Buying Foreclosures

There's a fantastic article today online in the WSJ: "Beyond Auctions: Ways to Buy Foreclosed Homes."

It explains why there are actually very few bargains to be had in foreclosure auctions, and why buyers (especially first time buyers) need to instead focus on bank owned property (REO). There's a good list of do's and don'ts too. It goes on to say--and I find this to be true--that "Some of the banks will sit [on a property] until they hit their target number -- they may get 20, 30, 40 offers before they're ready to take one....Potential buyers should...put in a realistic bid. You can't expect to bid 50% of the asking price and hope to get it."

Of course there are tons of foreclosures in the Northern Virginia area as a whole, but painting the entire area with one brush stroke can be dangerous. Take a closer look at the foreclosure stats below.

On the bottom, you can see where Washington, DC, falls compared to other major metropolitan areas. But even that average (about 88 per 10,000 homes) is misleading...Looking at the top part of the chart, I've broken it out by county. You can easily see that DC, Arlington, and Alexandria are a very different market than PG, Stafford, Loudoun, and PW. Are there parts of Arlington that have more foreclosures? Of course. But the moral of the story is to make your decisions based on your specific situation--where you want to live, what type of property you want, etc....and not by a perceived "bargains" of price or availability. You may be surprised at the details behind those "opportunities."

Read more: Blog Post - "I want to buy a foreclosure."

Data Source: GMU Center for Regional Analysis

Read more: Alexandria Real Estate News

Read more: Falls Church Real Estate News

Friday, February 8, 2008

Conforming Loan Limit Increase

In conjunction with the stimulus package on its way to the President's Desk, a new conforming loan limit is on its way in our area. The final legislation effectively limits the increase to certain high cost areas including California, Boston, NY, and metro DC. In our area, the limit will be $562,500, up from $417,000, for the remainder of 2008 only.

The impact of this generally will mean lower rates, and perhaps easier refinancing, for loans between the old limit and the new one. However, the actual rate differential between this new "tier" and "original" conforming loans (still below $417K) remains to be seen; the rates likely won't be equal because of some market constraints. Namely, the temporary nature and limited geography means lower volume and lower trading liquidity, which equals lower demand for these types of securities. So will it help? Yes. Dramatically? We'll see.

Read more: Why Didn't the Fed Cut Impact Mortgage Rates More?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Crime Reports for DC, MD

One of the things that is frustrating to both clients and REALTORS is that we are prohibited from commenting on whether or not a neighborhood is "safe" due to Fair Housing Laws. (See article "What Realty Agents Won't Tell You.") The web, however, fills that void nicely with a variety of tools, and now there's a new one that looks very useful: Just enter the address and the map populates with recent crime data, including police calls and arrests.

As this CNN article states, the site had its inspiration in a local Arlington County resident, and is not without its own controversy around privacy and other matters. Nonetheless, it's a valuable tool for buyers investigating potential neighborhoods.

It doesn't appear to have Virginia data yet (the site has a form where you can request the data from your local police department); DC and Montgomery County, MD are already online.