Friday, May 8, 2009

Leslie Appleton-Young of CAR #121

Bruce Norris is joined this week by Chief Economist for the California Association of Realtors, Leslie Appleton-Young.

Bruce starts by asking how many members C.A.R. currently has? In 2009, she estimates there are 160,000. Peak membership was in 2007 when there were 211,000 members. The numbers are better then both originally thought they would be.

Things have really changed and people are doing very different things than they were two years ago. More work is out there for REOs, working with investors, and first-time buyers.

Bruce asked if the membership encouraged by what you were able to say for 2009? Leslie says the market, in terms of transactions, has seen the worst. The market bottomed, in terms of sales, in the fall of 2007. We had over a 25 percent increase in sales in 2008. The problem is that there is a lot of uncertainty right now about everything, but particularly about the economy. That is what is hard to gauge right now. There has been a lot of initiative coming out of Washington that has not yet had a chance to impact on the street. It is easy for an economist to say “jobs are a lagging indicator”, which they are, but this restructuring could go on for a while, and it could get a lot worse.

Leslie says she is able to carry a message that the distressed REOs and short sale component of the market is bottoming, and slightly improving, with respect to prices. Sales have gone up sharply in the regions of the state, such as the Inland Empire, where you have a significant amount of the listing inventory falling into the distressed category, so that housing is extremely affordable. There are parts of the state where homes are selling below replacement cost. I think that is very encouraging, but there is a cloud over the country and the world, because it is uncertain how long this recession will be. That will have an impact, and I do not think anybody knows.

Bruce says that the hardest part about this real estate downturn is you have to consider so many factors that you have never had to contemplate before. The local, national, and global economy comes into play. Leslie says we have political issues, we have environmental issues, we have swine flu, and we have the economic issues that are really difficult. Housing is just one part of it. Clearly, subprime started the ball rolling about 3 years ago. There is no doubt that this is a systemic issue related to risk taking, transparency, fee driven events with no accountability, and so on. In order to rebuild confidence there needs to be some major changes in how these industries are regulated. That is happening in Washington now.

Bruce says typically when you start down the path of regulation there’s a danger of over-regulation. Leslie says that is possible, but there needs to be more regulation now so that people know what they are getting when they make an investment. That is what is really crippling the lending market. Investors do not want to have anything to do with mortgage backed securities, because they do not trust the paper. There’s no way around it because you need this intangible item called confidence and trust, which is not going to come back on its own.

Leslie says she never thought she would never see the statewide media and home price drop 38 percent in one year. Bruce says he agrees. Investors are buying properties right now at prices we have not seen since 1987 because of the REOs. The median price is probably not highly accurate because there is a mixed inventory.

Leslie says that is absolutely true. She debates average versus median with people all the time. The issue is the fact that it is the moderate and low end of the market that disappeared in 2006 and 2007, and the high end was maintaining until September of 2007 when you could not get a jumbo loan. In 2006-07, the market contracted, in terms of transactions, by more than 20 percent during each of those two years, and yet the median home price was at a very high point.: The high end was still going strong, but that all changed in September 2007. One of the themes, in remarks to C.A.R. membership is “leverage your local market knowledge”, because a national, statewide, regional, or county statistic is not going to be enough. It will not be accurate for the decisions that your clients are making with respect to a particular neighborhood.

Bruce talks about a recent survey where the customer was asked, “What will the direction of prices be in 1, 3, 5, or 10 years?” The dominant answer was “I do not know”, and yet they still bought and Bruce was surprised. Leslie says there are a lot of things going for the market right now. The federal government is buying rates down to 4.5 percent, there is an 8,000 first time home buyer tax credit, there is a 10,000 dollar state income tax credit for construction, there is the FHA financing, there is conforming loan financing that is fairly readily available, and you are looking at prices that are half what they were 3 years ago. Bruce says that interest rates are also 2/3 and the affordanility number is way high.

Leslie says if you look at PITI in the last two years, you can see that it has been cut in half. Bruce talks about his 24-year old daughter and purchasing her first house. It is a big thing when you have your first chance to own a home. It’s an FHA purchase, in which she will have $4,000 or $5,000 dollars down, will receive an $8,000 dollar check from the federal government. She previously rented a room for $700 in another area, and her payment on a perfect fixed house is $804. Bruce says most families have two incomes so he doesn’t think there has ever been a time where California real estate has been this affordable.

Leslie says she challenged an audience last week to examine what their assumptions are about price appreciation over 3, 5, and 10 years, and to make sure that was not driving their decision. It was important for them to understand that housing prices come down.

Bruce says that is part of this issue. There were a lot of realtors, investors and home owners that were very accustomed to just owning a house that created an extra $50,000 to $100,000 dollars whenever they wanted it. Leslie says homes won’t be seen as a piggy bank any more.

Leslie challenges everybody to look back at the past 3 or 4 years, and study it, and be engaged in the public policy debate that is going on in Washington. Look back at the post World War II period up until 2002, you can see that housing debt was different. People treated the home ownership process very differently. It was hard to get a mortgage. Foreclosure and getting into trouble was not viewed as an option. That did not happen unless there were extraordinary circumstances. The fact of the matter is there were a significant number of people who refied out of reasonable loans into risky loans. Many of the deals that went on during the boom were cash out, so people were put in harm’s way.

Bruce says important is the velocity of this downturn. Leslie uses a slide from the late 70s that shows it took 5 years for the market to shrink about 60 percent. In the last 80s and early 90s it took 5 years for the market to shrink. This time it has taken 3 years for the market to drop 44%. Prices are typically sticky on the way down because if the market is not good then why would discretionary sellers decide to sell. In the last couple years there has been a lot of nondiscretionary sellers.

Bruce says that the job issue doesn’t look like it will be solved immediately. Leslie says the big question, in regards to the housing market, is the economy. The problem resides within job losses and confidence. The problem is not that people cannot get financing, particularly conforming financing and FHA.

Bruce says in Riverside, 45 percent of the buyers are under water. Then other people are out of work, or under employed. When you add up these pieces you realize that you need the new buyer to emerge, or you need to attract migration to California, and jobs play a part in that. We are going to have a challenge in the next 18 months while we find out who is going to buy all this stuff.

Leslie says she’s been floored by the first time buyer response, and the affordability is clearly the trigger, but there were a significant number of people who were on the sidelines waiting for this to happen, and they timed it right.

Bruce says there is a definite shift to the type of buyer. It’s really geared towards a first time buyer.

Leslie says she thinks most buyers are getting fixed-rate loans. She doesn’t know why anyone wouldn’t get a fixed-rate loan.

One of the things said in a recent survey was that 56 percent of people qualifying said that on a scale of 1 to 10 of difficulty in getting through the financing they had a scale of 9 or 10, over half the people found it pretty tough to get that loan closed.

Leslie says it was a survey that was done in the middle of last year, so it will be interesting to see if the scale changes when we do it again this year. Leslie’s hope would be that the Obama initiative helped that. Another issue with difficulty is not that the funds are not available, but you have got to document everything. You have got to have a very strong FICO score, and you have got to have your W2s. The problem is not that the money is not there, it is that they want to make sure that they are going to get their money back, and who can blame them?

Bruce says you have to set up the next set of loans to be safe, so when there is another mortgage backed security in our future that it is actually as advertised. Leslie says transparency is critical for us to get our market back. She said on many occasions that rapid price appreciation trumps underwriting. She does not think we can count on that any more. It is an incredible risk to take.

Bruce said the projected median price for 2009 was around $250,000 and he wonders if that is where we’ll end up. Leslie says $250,000 is a reasonable number. When CAR calculates a statewide median for the entire year it is recalculated from scratch. It is not the average of monthly median. They include everything that is sold during 2009 into the bucket, and then get the median. What I am seeing in the market today is that the price softness is at the high end. It is not a huge factor in the market right now because that is a small part of the overall sales. I thought it was very interesting in our March data that we saw an increase in the median home price from one month to the next. It is likely that we are bouncing around the bottom in terms of prices. There’s a lot of talk about multiple offers at over asking price.

Join Bruce and Leslie next week as they continue the conversation.

Leslie Appleton-Young is Vice President and Chief Economist for the California Association of REALTORS® (C.A.R.), a statewide trade organization with members dedicated to the advancement of professionalism in real estate.

Mrs. Appleton-Young directs the activities of the Association's Member Information Group. She oversees the analysis of housing market and brokerage industry trends, member communications, and membership development activities. She is also closely involved in the Association's strategic planning efforts and is a well-known speaker in California’s real estate community.

Before joining C.A.R. in 1984, Leslie Appleton-Young was a consultant with Telesis Inc. in Rhode Island. She also spent several years working as a research associate at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and as an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mrs. Appleton-Young earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from the University of California, Berkeley, and her Masters from the University of Pennsylvania.

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