The Housing Chronicles Blog: House hunters finding that it's not a buyer's market everywhere

Sunday, May 3, 2009

House hunters finding that it's not a buyer's market everywhere

I was happy to (finally) see an article on how housing markets vary greatly by neighborhood; one of my chief complaints with the press (and many economists) is offering punditry on the latest regional releases from Case-Shiller or Dataquick while providing almost zero guidance on what that actually means for buyer and sellers. While these stats are certainly useful in gauging the overall trends for a metropolitan area, they're not necessarily germane to the neighborhoods in which people live or are looking to buy. From an L.A. Times story:

Real estate brokers and investors say would-be buyers misunderstand how the drop in housing prices has affected desirable neighborhoods. Just because an abandoned house in a troubled part of San Bernardino County might be going for $200,000, it doesn't mean you can get a nice place in Sherman Oaks for that amount -- or even twice that amount.

House hunters are trying to pounce on deals from sellers they expected to be frantic -- if not curled in the fetal position. What they're finding instead are bidding wars as low interest rates and pent-up demand in traditionally stable or chic areas have kept prices up -- not as high as the market's peak, but not nearly as low as they had hoped.

"The biggest problem," said agent Phyllis Harb, "is that people are overreacting to housing statistics, thinking they can come in and make an offer 20% below price."

As sales figures and home buyers' anecdotes are underscoring, when the residential real estate bubble burst, it set off several distinct sprays that created false hopes and confusion.

Though nearly 20,000 homes in Southern California sold in March, a 52% jump from a year earlier, a sizable number of those transactions occurred in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where foreclosures exploded. In the region overall, foreclosure sales accounted for 55% of March's deals.

Bank-owned or not, the cheaper properties are dominating the sellers' block in the notoriously expensive L.A. County real estate market. In March, 2,871 homes under $300,000 were sold compared with only 734 a year earlier, according to real estate information firm MDA DataQuick.

At the higher end, just 202 homes priced above $1.2 million changed hands last month, compared with 354 in March 2008.

Houses priced from $400,000 to $800,000 represented less than a quarter of the market in March, down from about 45%, meaning fewer offerings for would-be buyers in that mid-market or pickier sellers, according to DataQuick....

In classic economics, buyers should have a decided advantage in neighborhoods in which supply dwarfs demand. Where there's typically a six-month inventory of houses for sale in coveted Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades and West Hollywood, for instance, there's a year to two years' worth today, agent Christopher Hain said...

Predicting where values are headed is hardly a science either, no matter what the cable-TV experts or the galaxy of websites with every imaginable statistic say. For one thing, people selling costlier homes tend to have deep pockets buffering them from needing a fire sale to stay afloat. If they don't like the bids, they can pull their property off the market.

Banks are an even bigger X factor, and not just because of their stricter lending requirements and bailout havoc. USC real estate professor Tracey Seslen said she'd heard that lenders were carefully timing the release of homes they'd repossessed to avoid further flooding the market and driving prices down more. Those institutions also know that a fresh avalanche of foreclosures from people with resetting loans may be looming...

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