Looking Beyond The Bubble: What's Next For Highly Appreciated Markets
(This was originally published March 31, 2006)
Doing my workout this morning I asked myself what's next for the real estate market.
The state of the market here locally is that prices are and have been in decline. There is no longer any mystery about whether they will decline, only how much and for how long. One of these days, the Association of Realtors and those pollyannas who preach that you always make money on real estate will admit it.
What comes next? Obviously increased defaults, as short term loans come up for adjustment and people are unable to make the payments, as I've said any number of times, and unable to refinance because they owe more than the property is worth. Short sales also increase, as people try to just get out. More Notices of Default means more trustee sales, as well. If the property sells at auction, somebody probably got a bargain. If it doesn't, the lienholder owns it (subject to senior liens) and that may be even better.
All of these are happening already. Daily foreclosure lists have more than doubled locally from a year ago. Trustee Sales are up, and so are REO's (Real Estate Owned by those who were originally lienholders). Check, check, and check. All about as surprising as gravity. What I'm trying for here is at least one prediction that has not already come true.
Rates have been rising of late, but there is a limit as to how far they are likely to go, if only because Bernanke and company are very shortly going to have irrefutable evidence of all of the above stuff nationwide. A nationwide economy has a lot of something analogous to inertia. Takes a while to move things in the direction you want them to go. More time, and more effort, than most folks, particularly bankers running our money supply, are likely to realize and sit still for without further pushing, which they have done a bit too much of, in my opinion, by about one full percent on the overnight funds rate. Once things get going in the direction that the Fed has been pushing them for the last two years, they are similarly going to have a lot of momentum built up. Bond investors are going to dry up at attractive rates, and Sarbanes Oxley or no, you're going to see private companies going public again because it's the only way they can raise capital at attractive prices, and the flow of public companies going private is likely to mostly stop. (Hard to think of Sarbanes-Oxley as a brake upon economic activity, but in the short term, that's what it's likely to prove. CEOs and CFOs are not used to the idea of personal responsibility for corporate activity, and while the cost of private capital is even vaguely competitive with public, private will be their choice. It's going to take a while for countervailing forces to come into play).
When bond rates rise, so do mortgage rates. When mortgage rates rise, and people can only afford the same payments, prices fall, further exacerbating the price fall that's already happening. Lenders are already between a rock and a hard place to a certain extent, but it's going to get worse. Keep in mind also that aggregated mortgage bonds are an attractive investment because of their historical level of security, and even though that's going to be compromised to a certain extent, rates are going to rise if for no other reason than that is what the money costs. I expect rates on A paper thirty year fixed rate home loans to stabilize somewhere around seven percent, at least for a while. Shorter term fixed rates will be cheaper once the yield curve normalizes. Given the prices things have sold at in highly appreciated markets, this is likely to permanently popularize medium term hybrid ARMs, as saving one percent in interest on $500,000 is well worth the cost of refinancing every few years, and people are refinancing every two years on average anyway. Two and three years fixed is really too short for most folks, but five is probably more than fine.
Here's another newsflash. I'm not going out very far on a limb here, but a three bedroom single family residence in a reasonable neighborhood here locally is likely never to drop back into the sub $300,000 range again. I'd bet money it's not going below $250,000. Yes, the market got badly overheated - but not that badly overheated. Furthermore, if past Southern California history is any guide, we'll lose about 30 percent of peak value, and then start going back up again. No fun if you're a semi-skilled worker trying to raise a family, but the most likely scenario nonetheless.
Now what's going to happen to the people who have bought highly appreciated properties who can actually make the payments? Well, if prices fall, they can't sell for what they bought for until they recover. They don't want to do that. But they don't want to be in a negative cash flow situation, where the rent they get from the property doesn't cover their expenses, if they can avoid it. They definitely don't want to be in that situation to a larger extent than they can avoid. A $500,000 purchase with a 6 percent first and 10 percent second yields principle and interest payments of $3276, plus property taxes of $520 and insurance costs of $120 per month, means that the owner is out $3916 per month without any repairs or management expense. A monthly rental of $1900 isn't going to cover that. A monthly rental of $2500 isn't going to cover that. This is going to put more upwards pressure on rental rates. $2500 is the entire gross monthly income of someone making $14.75 per hour, by the way. But the people feeding the mortgage alligator don't really care, all they know is that they have to pay the bank so much per month, and set aside so much for the state and the insurance company. This is also going to put upwards pressure on wages, and therefore prices. Inflation kicks into higher gear, which puts more upwards pressure on interest rates. Vicious cycle.
And this phenomenon is going to be part of what eventually helps prices make a comeback. If somebody is feeding the landlord $3000 per month, they're going to be more amenable to paying it to the bank instead. Especially since they get tax breaks, and most especially because when you buy the property you intend to live in, you take your monthly cost of housing out of the column that says "what the market will bear," which is subject to changes - and usually increases - and put it into the column that says "this is under my control." If you buy with a sustainable loan, your monthly payment is going to be under your control forever.
(It is to be noted that even if that $500,000 property loses $150,000 in value the day after you buy it, historical 7 percent per year increases will have you back in the black in about five years, and ahead of a market return on the rent you would have saved in about ten. Thirty years down the line, your net benefit from the purchase as opposed to invest the extra money over the cost of renting and investing the excess in the stock market, will be somewhere between $800,000 to $1,000,000. An almost irrefutable argument in favor of buying a home, if you plan to live there a while. Yeah, it's no fun being upside down while it happens. But the eventual payoff isn't exactly chump change, even by the projected standards of thirty years from now.)
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