San Diego Real Estate Market Prognosis August 2007

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The buyer's market is rapidly aging. Properties that are priced correctly are moving, and moving well. On properties with potential for profit, they're moving fast, and sometimes getting multiple offers. Of the last twelve properties clients of mine were seriously interested in, four went "Pending" before they put an offer in, and three more were situations where the listing agent claimed there were multiple offers, and in retrospect, I believe that contention. Bargain property is moving.

This isn't just personal experience. I do get a fair amount of exposure to the experiences of other agents. Four other full time agents in my office, and dozens of others through property scouting. Another agent in the office had a Notice of Default hit her listing. We told her she'd get an offer if the client reduced the price to where we told her. She didn't get one offer. She got four offers within forty-eight hours, and we were able to play them against each other to get almost the previous asking price. I wouldn't say that's a statistical argument that can be extended to the entire San Diego market, but with as much direct evidence as I've accumulated, I'd say it goes beyond merely anecdotal evidence. The market is getting ready to turn.

This isn't to say it's a great time to be a seller. It isn't. Many sellers - and listing agents - seem to have their heads stuck in the days of two years ago, where a highly upgraded property meant a major boost in selling price. No longer. The buyers out there now are highly sensitized to both price and condition, and they are looking for the best overall bargain. Not just beautiful, highly upgraded properties, but at a competitive price also. With the seller to buyer ratio having ballooned to 42 to 1 as of the start of August, they are getting both.

Here's what I'm telling my buyer clients: There's nothing out there right now that's worth getting emotionally attached to before the sale is consummated. If you like the property, make an offer of an amount you would be happy to pay for that property. If the seller will sell for a price you're happy with, great. If not, I'll find you something just as good where they will. If this seller won't deal, the next one will. A large proportion of sellers don't have any choice. They have to sell, most of them because they really couldn't afford the property in the first place. Security guards making $33,000 per year should not be getting $800,000 loans, to name one situation I walked into not too long ago.

What I've told prospective listings is "If you have any choice, don't". I've got signed instructions to keep my one listing as a "pocket listing" until next Spring. In other words, if I can bring him a buyer, great, but don't market the property via MLS or other mass media. But he doesn't have any particular need to sell. If he did have a need to sell, I'd tell him to make it as pretty as possible as cheap as possible, price it as low as he can stand, and be willing to negotiate his price so low it hurts - and maybe a little bit more. If he doesn't need to sell so bad that he's willing to do that - and he's doesn't - then he doesn't need to sell and should wait for a better market for sellers. The only way to attract a buyer is to out-compete the other 20,000 sellers out there for one of the about 500 serious buyers' business. Location and physical size are fixed. Condition and price are not. The buyers out there are highly sensitized to everything. Instead of a beautiful gourmet kitchen boosting the sales price by $25,000, what this market means instead is that an otherwise identical property is more attractive at the same price than one that hasn't got it. You are unlikely to get enough extra money to notice. What you are likely to get is the property sold, while the otherwise identical property sits on the market for the same price.

Indeed, the property in less than desirable condition is going to sell at a substantial discount, if it sells at all. There's starting to be substantial opportunity for flippers once again, albeit with the mirror image of the way things were going two years ago. Instead of buying at the market price and selling the upgraded property at a premium, now they're buying at a large discount and selling the upgraded property at about market price. It may be intelligent, but the average buyers out there aren't interested, and they're not willing to deal with the ten people who'd rather be foreclosed upon than take the only offer they're going to get to get to the one who will take the offer. I hate short sales and I admit it. Most of the profitable opportunities for buyers out there right now are nonetheless ugly properties in a short sale situation. Not just for flippers and investors, either. A family that wants a place to live that they're willing to fix up can do extra-ordinarily well for itself right now. It's better to buy at a discount now, when you are in complete control, than to hope for a premium when you eventually sell. This is also the historically normal way of the market.

The San Diego market has been on the bleeding edge of the national trends through this whole boom and bust cycle. The "good news" that came out of that was that all of the exotic programs that are usually dead were still available to the less ethical loan officers, at a point in the cycle where they're usually historical toast. The bad news was that while the rest of the country was still going gangbusters, we were basically banging our heads on concrete walls in trying to get short sales approved by lenders. Well, the lenders now have their heads in the right place to approve short sales, just when there's signs of a rebound in the local market.

Indeed, the slopes and inflections in trend lines had me believing we might see a small bit of recovery this year, and we actually have, if only at the most competitive edge of the market. Now, with the peak spring and summer season largely past us, I think we're going to see the buyer's market mostly continue until spring of next year. This means another several months where those buyers who are willing to come off the sidelines at a time of year when most buyers aren't are going to be able to drive hard bargains. Sellers can either choose to out-compete other sellers for the buyers that are out there, or have the property sit unsold until the market turns. Even in trendy, highly desirable communities, buyers currently have the power. As a seller, you can accept this or your property can sit unsold. The longer it sits unsold, the less bargaining power you have.

Here's the statistical run-down on the most recent six months: 13,272 properties sold, 3335 in escrow - versus 19,265 canceled, withdrawn, and expired. Assuming seventy percent of those in escrow eventually close, that's about a 43.5 percent probability of any sale at all - in the best time for sellers there is. On the other hand, the comparable figure last year at this time was 39.8% - and last year I didn't discount pending sales by thirty percent - I just took them as presumptive sales.

Furthermore, we're now in the period where most of the unsustainable loans that were written have already bitten the people they are going to bite. We're coming up on two years since the music stopped and everyone ran for the sidelines locally, which means that most of the two year fixed rate loans have already adjusted, and many, if not most, of the negative amortization loans have already hit recast. Furthermore, unless they've been living in a cave, and they haven't - they bought a home - almost everybody who has an upcoming adjustment they can't afford has figured it out. Their homes are already on the market. The difference between selling now, before the Trustee Sale, and later, after the Trustee has deeded it to the lender, are not large as far as the buyers are concerned. The only difference is that after the Trustee Sale, the lender knows how much money they're losing every day.

My point is this: There's only so much desperation out there, and we've already seen the largest influx of it into the sellers' listings here locally. San Diego is a resilient market, one of the most resilient in the country. People want to live here. People are willing to pay higher prices to live here. The ones making more income than national average - a large percentage with technology and biotech and defense and other highly paid industries here - can afford to pay those prices. That's the demand side. On the supply side, there just isn't a lot of dirt left. Unless we change our laws and attitudes about what constitutes a buildable lot and the acceptability of high density housing, there just isn't a lot of room for our population to grow further. We're hemmed in by immovable obstacles on about 330 degrees of the circle (The Pacific Ocean, Mexico, Camp Pendleton, and Cleveland National Forest). Since this is the United States, and we don't tell our citizens where they can live, the way we discourage people from living here is that the price will keep going up until enough people decide voluntarily that they're not willing to pay it. Thus far, we haven't lost as many people to out-migration this cycle as we did last cycle. Back in 1991 and 1992, U-Haul was essentially allowing people to move here for free, there was such a demand for their inventory on one way trips out. They haven't gone nearly so far of late.

I'm also seeing a lot more pent-up demand this cycle than we had last cycle. Instead of moving out, people are waiting for the market to hit bottom. Well, the local market isn't going down as far as most people think it is. As I've said, at the most competitive edge of the current market, sellers are seeing not only fast action but lots of interest. People are willing to pay those prices. People are very willing to pay those prices. Even with the psychological fear of further market decreases, those who are willing to buy are not only willing but also able to pay current prices. So much so that they're practically racing to be first in line when they find something that is a worthwhile bargain. What do you think is going to happen as soon as the average buyer, who's been holding off for two years, gets it into their head that the market may have hit bottom? Without the psychological fear that's keeping them on the sidelines now, expect to see a large influx of serious buyers, drastically curbing the ability of buyers to drive harder bargains. In short, a seller's market. It's a positive feedback effect. The more people come off the sidelines, the more strongly the market will turn, and the more people will want to come off the sidelines.

As I said yesterday in my loan market article, the gonzo 100% stated income low credit score programs are gone, and they're not coming back any time soon. This means you're not going to see the same kind of frenzy as drove the market three or four years ago. Personally, I doubt that sellers - or listing agents - are ever going to have that kind of power again. The loans that enabled that stuff are no longer being offered. People are going to have to have at least two of three things: Good credit score, a significant down payment, and ability to prove they make enough to afford the loan. Failing that, they're going to pay very high interest rates, high enough to keep them out of properties that they could otherwise qualify for. That's going to keep a damper on market increases, at least until the lenders develop collective amnesia again.

At this point, where most of the buyers who are going to buy this year are already out there in the market, I don't think the market is actually going to turn until next Spring. Meanwhile, those buyers who are willing to come off the sidelines now, before the market has actually turned, are going to be much happier than those who wait until the market has already turned. The time of very best bargains locally is already past, but since I don't know anyone with a time machine, we have to consider what we've got looking forward.

Caveat Emptor


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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on August 8, 2007 10:01 AM.

Real Estate Loan Market August 2007: Subprime Meltdown Continues was the previous entry in this blog.

Form for Revision of Property Tax Assessments (San Diego County) is the next entry in this blog.

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