Housing inventory crisis?

housing inventoryThe low housing inventory crisis has plagued the housing market for about six years.  Low inventory has frustrated home buyers and all but eliminated move up home buyers.  The ongoing housing inventory crisis is an obstacle to a balanced housing market.

As a result of the ongoing housing inventory crisis, existing home sales may see a decline in the next few months, when spring sales should be strong.  Seasonal increases are a given, as National Association of Realtors (nar.realtor) data indicated a 3.0 percent month-over-month increase for February existing home sales and a 3.1 percent month-over-month increase in the Pending Home Sale Index (the Pending Home Sales Index is a forward-looking dataset indicating the number of homes that are under contract).  However, February sales only increased 1.1 percent from last year.  But the tell of slowing activity is the 4.1 percent decrease in pending home sales from last year.

Most experts blame the sluggish home sale activity on low housing inventory.  NAR’s reporting that February’s seasonal month-over-month 4.6 percent increase of total housing inventory is expected.  However, the 8.1 percent decrease in housing inventory compared to last year is worrisome.

The Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors (gcaar.com) March 2018 data for single family home sales in Montgomery County indicated a decline in activity across the board.  Listings decreased 11.1 percent month-over-month and 7.8 from last year.  Contracts decreased 6.6 percent month-over-month and 6.9 percent from last year.  While closings only decreased 3.8 percent month-over-month, there was a 7.8 percent decrease from last year.

Another sign that that the housing market is in crisis is last week’s announcement from Zillow.  If you have not yet heard, Zillow is expanding their Instant Offer program and plans to jump into the housing market (zillow.com).  They plan to fix and flip homes by making cash offers and buying houses like other investors who participate in their IO program. The homes will be listed for sale with real estate agents who subscribe to Zillow’s Premier Agent program, as well as select partner brokers.

Zillow Chief Marketing Officer Jeremy Wacksman stated,

“Even in today’s hot market, many sellers are stressed and searching for a more seamless way to sell their homes…They want help, and while most prefer to sell their home on the open market with an agent, some value convenience and time over price. This expansion of Instant Offers, and Zillow’s entrance into the marketplace, will help us better serve both types of consumers as well as provide an opportunity for Premier Agents to connect with sellers. This is expected to be a vibrant line of business for us and for our partners in the real estate industry, while providing homeowners with more choices and information.”

The venture into flipping is a huge deviation for the internet juggernaut, whose revenue is mostly generated by selling advertising and leads to real estate agents and loan officers.  The reaction in the industry is mixed, however Zillow’s stock dropped 7 percent the day after the announcement.  Critics, including experienced real estate investors, scoffed at Zillow’s ambitious plan to flip a house within ninety days.

In a market where home owners are reluctant to sell, and frustrated home buyers are dropping out, Zillow needs to find ways to increase lead generation to grow subscribers (see why tech models looking for alternate revenue).

While being ridiculed by many, Zillow’s flipping plan may be a brilliant strategy to generate home seller leads for agents.  Zillow acknowledges in their press release that “the vast majority of sellers who requested an Instant Offer ended up selling their home with an agent, making Instant Offers an excellent source of seller leads for Premier Agents and brokerage partners.”  If Zillow’s plan works, it could also grease the wheels of the housing market by turning reluctant home owners into sellers.

As a home seller, the home sale inventory shortage limits your competition.  But be aware that it’s not entirely a seller’s market.  Your home’s condition can significantly lower the sales price, or even prevent a sale.  Serious consideration should also be given to your listing price.  Additionally, you should focus your attention to preparing your home to show to home buyers.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Social media and housing

social media
Social media (infographic from dustn.tv)

You should have already realized that all of your internet activity, such as social media, search engines, etc., leaves your digital fingerprints.  In today’s interconnected world, you should assume your online profile, pictures and posts become the intellectual property of the online entities you use .  So, it should not faze you that Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress this week because of ongoing privacy concerns.  This week’s congressional dog and pony show will most likely not reveal much.  Nor is it expected to change social media’s influence on the public.

Does social media really affect your opinions and decision making?  Maybe.

Content providers have been criticized for deciding what people view through alleged censorship.  Besides your online social interactions and connections, the ads you see can also influence your opinions and behavior.  Consider Facebook’s targeted advertising system, which has been criticized for violating the Fair Housing Act.  A recent lawsuit alleges that certain groups are being discriminated against because advertisers can target ads based on age, gender, disability, family status, among other criteria (see Facebook Vowed to End Discriminatory Housing Ads. Suit Says It Didn’t; nytimes.com/2018/03/27/nyregion/facebook-housing-ads-discrimination-lawsuit.html).

In the internet age, data collection is big business.  Data collection allows marketing firms to target classes with their clients’ products and opinions.  Content providers have not only been criticized for collecting volumes of personal data, but also for manipulating search results and viewable content.  As it turns out, the FANGs (a collective term used for content providers, such as Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) not only collect your data but can influence your opinions and behavior.  Especially when it comes to buying or renting a home.

You can surmise that real estate content providers (such as Zillow and Realtor.com) shape your opinions too!  They publish opinions and research about the housing market.   They also can influence your choice of real estate professionals.  They promote agents who pay for placements on their sites to get consumer leads.  These real estate professionals touted as “local experts.”

Social media influences housing decisions

A landmark study found direct evidence of social media’s impact on real estate choices.  The 2017 study by Baily, Cao, Kuchler, and Stroebel (The Economic Effects of Social Networks: Evidence from the Housing Market; July 4, 2017; Available at SSRN: dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2753881) used Facebook data to explore the multiplicity of individuals’ social networks, and then analyzed the effects of people’s interactions on their housing decisions.

They found that, indeed, social media does influence decisions on housing.  The research suggests that social media influences a person’s housing market expectations. When friends experience home price increases, home buyers will pay more for a home and/or buy a larger home. Additionally, renters are more likely to buy a home.  Likewise, when friends experience “less positive house price changes,” home sellers are more likely to accept a lower sale price.  The data also indicates that people will consider real estate an appealing investment when friends experience large home price increases.

The authors acknowledged that although this study examined social media’s influence on real estate outcomes, they suggest that effect is broader and can be applied to other subject matter.

Content providers wield great power.  They manipulate news feeds via algorithms.  They can also decide who they can ban from their sites.   It’s clear that social media’s influence goes beyond data collection.  It’s not only the social interaction among your connections that affect your opinions and behaviors.  It’s also the paid ads and promoted opinions that appear alongside your friends’ posts that solidify expectations and opinions as gospel.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Fair housing for all

fair housing
Fair Housing (infographic from chicagorealtor.com)

Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, better known as the Fair Housing Act turns 50 this year.  Title VIII was the culmination of a number of laws that focused on personal rights.  Personal property rights are protected in Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.  The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was enacted to specify that all citizens, regardless of race or color, were equally protected under the law, which includes property rights.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.  The Fair Housing Act expanded the protected classes by prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of dwellings based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and familial status (the presence of children).

Some states and localities further expand the protected classes specified in the Fair Housing Act.  For example, Maryland protects fair housing regardless of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.  Montgomery County protects fair housing regardless of race, sex, marital status, physical or mental disability, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, presence of children, source of income, sexual orientation, age and family responsibilities.

Some say we have come a long way in protecting fair housing rights.  But have we?  Even though we have come a long way to protect the rights for a number of groups, some still find it acceptable to discriminate against those who are not listed as a protected class.

It was reported last week that a home seller in Sacramento CA put her home for sale with the caveat to not sell to a Donald Trump supporter.  Some legal experts say the home seller may run into a legal challenge based on the First Amendment.  There are only a few states that include political affiliation, activity, or opinion as a protected class against discrimination.  California’s Bane Civil Rights Act includes political affiliation as a protected class against violence or the threat of violence.

Drew Bollea of CBS 13 of Sacramento (sacramento.cbslocal.com) reported that the home seller stated that she did not want to sell to a Trump supporter.  And when it was pointed out that it could possibly narrow the buyer pool by 39 percent (39 percent of Sacramento voted for the President), she said that she did not care because her point was more important than money.  She stated, “When you’re talking about principles, ethics and morals, it runs very, very deep.”

Principles, ethics and morals Indeed.  Going back to the intentions of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the spirit of the Fair Housing Act is inclusion.  In today’s politically divisive atmosphere, there are many who would agree with the Sacramento home seller’s rationale of her discriminatory demand.  However, her excuse proclaiming “principle, ethics and morality” harken back to the rationale of discriminatory practices of the past.

April is National Fair Housing Month.  It’s ironic that while President Trump proclaimed this year’s Fair Housing Month recognizing the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Fair Housing Act, those who voted for him are singled out.  It appears there is still much work ahead for fair housing advocates.  In his proclamation, President Trump urged “all Americans to learn more about their rights and responsibilities under the Fair Housing Act and reaffirm their commitment to making homeownership within reach, no matter one’s background.”

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Interest rate increase – Don’t panic

interest rate increase
45 years of mortgage interest rates

Last week, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decided to raise the federal funds rate. The federal funds rate is the interest rate that is charged to banks for borrowing overnight funds to maintain the required target funds. Although the Fed interest rate increase means that a banks’ business is getting more expensive, it doesn’t necessarily mean that mortgage interest rates increase in kind.

If mortgage rates are not always affected by the Fed’s interest rate increase, then what is?

Katherine Reynolds Lewis pointed out that the FOMC’s interest rate hike indirectly influences jobs, wages, prices of the things we buy, and other items (7 ways the Fed’s decisions on interest rates affect you; bankrate.com; March 20, 2018). She states, “Sometimes mortgage rates go up when the Fed increases short-term rates, as the central bank’s action sets the tone for most other interest rates. But sometimes mortgage rates fall after the Fed raises the federal funds rate.” An example of this is the seventeen rate increases during 2004-2005 when mortgage interest rates initially dropped, then slightly increased a year later. And most recently, the three Fed rate increases during 2017 when mortgage interest rates remained stable.

The reason why a FOMC interest rate increase doesn’t always affect mortgage interest rates is because mortgage interest rates are tied to the bond market. The bond market is typically a bellwether of the economy. It is highly likely that the bond market baked in last week’s Fed’s rate increase prior to the FOMC announcement. Bond yields have already been increasing due to an improving economy, which pushed mortgage rates higher in recent weeks.

In fact, the Freddie Mac Press release the day after the Fed’s announcement indicated that mortgage rates increased one basis point (freddiemac.com; March 22, 2018):

“The Fed’s decision to raise interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point puts the federal funds rate at its highest level since 2008. The decision, while widely expected, sent the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury soaring. Following Treasurys (sic), mortgage rates shrugged off last week’s drop and continued their upward march. The U.S. weekly average 30-year fixed mortgage rate rose 1 basis point to 4.45 percent in this week’s survey.”

Immediately following the Fed’s interest rate increase, NAR’s chief economist, Lawrence Yun, statedWe are in the middle innings of monetary policy normalization (nar.realtor, March 21, 2018).” Yun believes that the labor market is pushing the Fed to act to stave off inflation. He stated that consumers should expect more rate increases throughout 2018. However, he believes that increased new construction can belay future Fed rate increases:

“Housing costs are also rising solidly and contributing to faster inflation. The one thing that could slow the pace of rate increases would be to tame housing costs through an increased supply of new homes. Not only will more home construction lead to a slower pace of rate hikes, it will also lead to faster economic growth. Let’s put greater focus on boosting home construction.”

Yun’s call to home builders to increase housing stock is preaching to the choir. The housing market’s tight sale inventory should already be spurring home builders to crank out new homes. But there are challenges. The latest new construction statistics released by the US Census (census.gov) indicated that building permits issued during February were 5.7 percent lower than January’s permits, but 6.5 percent higher than last February.

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Negative equity stats likely erroneous

negative equity
What is a short sale (infographic from lender411.com)

Before the Great Recession, there was the foreclosure crisis of 2007. That was the year that the housing bubble popped and home negative equity soared. Many home owners negotiated with their lenders to keep their homes, while others lost their homes to foreclosure. The Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 was one of the first measures to assist distressed homeowners during the financial crisis. The Act initially was to end in 2009 but has been extended annually. The Act was recently retroactively extended for 2017.

The purpose of the Act was to address tax liabilities that distressed homeowners faced when they tried to save their homes. Because debt forgiveness is typically considered taxable income, a mortgage balance reduction via mortgage modification or short sale would have resulted in a tax bill to a homeowner who was already experiencing a financial hardship.

Recent home equity gains in the housing market should help many home sellers who would have otherwise needed a short sale. Highlights from CoreLogic’s Q4 2017 Home Equity Report (corelogic.com) indicated that about 4.9 percent of mortgaged homes have negative equity (which is a huge improvement from the almost 31 percent reported in 2012 by Zillow’s Negative Equity Report). Additionally, CoreLogic reported that the national average of home equity gained by homeowners over the past year was in excess of $15,000. However, there is disparity in home equity growth by region.

Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic stated:

“Home-price growth has been the primary driver of home-equity wealth creation. The CoreLogic Home Price Index grew 6.2 percent during 2017, the largest calendar-year increase since 2013. Likewise, the average growth in home equity was more than $15,000 during 2017, the most in four years. Because wealth gains spur additional consumer purchases, the rise in home-equity wealth during 2017 should add more than $50 billion to U.S. consumption spending over the next two to three years.”

The National Association of Realtors testified on March 14th to the U.S. House Ways and Means Subcommittee hearing on “Post Tax Reform Evaluation of Recently Expired Tax Provisions” to make the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act permanent. In his testimony, Realtor Barry Grooms discussed the plight of many homeowners who are surprised to find that they are upside-down on their mortgage despite national home price gains.

Grooms made an argument why the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act should be permanent.  The Act has been retroactively extended each year in recent years leaving many short sellers “sweating it out” until the end of the year.  Part of the decision-making process for a short sale is a potential tax liability. Many home sellers take the chance that the Act will be renewed retroactively. But others do not want to take the chance of incurring a large tax liability.

Negative equity statistics are likely to be erroneous. The number of homes with negative equity is probably under-represented due to deferred maintenance.

Yes, home prices have significantly increased, which has grown home equity. But the statistics for home equity assume that all homes are worth “retail value.” The retail value of a home is the full price a home can sell. In today’s market the home must be in better-than-average to excellent condition to sell for retail value.  We don’t know the real value of any home until it’s sold.

In his testimony, Grooms touched upon a number of issues why homeowners are selling for less than they owe. However, not addressed by Groom is the number one reason why homeowners are under-water and why many home sellers need to sell via short sale. Property condition. The property condition crisis was highlighted in a February 2013 article by the Harvard Joint Center of Housing Studies entitled “The Return of Substandard Housing.” The lack of updates and/or deferred maintenance in a home can significantly decrease its value.

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