February 1, 2013

Irrational Exuberance Then And Now

It’s Friday desk clearing time for this blogger. “In activity reminiscent of real estate’s bubble years, the number of homes statewide selling at more than $5 million reached an all-time high last year. Foreign buyers spent 24% more on U.S. real estate last year than in 2011, according to an annual survey by the National Assn. of Realtors. Asian shoppers are particularly interested in California homes, the study said. Sandra Miller of Engel & Volkers, a broker who specializes in international buyers and luxury properties, said that ‘the money is really coming from everywhere.’ While her office is dealing with an onslaught of Italians, buyers are coming from London and Germany. Chinese buyers are snapping up homes in the $1-million to $5-million range for their children, she said, but not ultra-luxurious estates. ‘The very, very large sales last year were done with Russian money,’ Miller said.”

“A tear-down in the so-called Tree Section of Manhattan Beach drew 20 offers in March, selling for $1.352 million — $250,000 above the asking price. A 2,600-square-foot Midcentury-style house in need of work in the same block attracted 15 bidders. Listed at $1.6 million, it sold for $1.88 million. ‘Everybody is shaking their heads,’ said Dave Fratello, an agent with the Real Group in Manhattan Beach. ‘This is crazy.’”

“Niu, the owner of a factory that supports a chain of clothing stores in his hometown in Fujian province, is looking in New York City for a second home, and he’s willing to pay as much as $3.5 million for it. Although he can barely speak English, Niu - he asked that his full name not be used - needn’t worry that the language barrier could impede a deal. That’s because brokers who aren’t native Chinese speakers can take a course, Mandarin for Real Estate Professionals, starting next month at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.”

“Zhang Qi, a 28-year-old Beijing native who came to the US in 2007 to study, is currently working at a New York consulting firm. He pointed out that policies in China prevent second-home purchases, to prevent overheating in the housing market. ‘If you already have a piece of property in Beijing, the policy doesn’t support your purchase of a second one,’ Zhang said. ‘The purchase-limit policy in China is to control and cool down the real estate market,’ he said, though it has also sparked a ‘crazy’ jump in housing prices.”

“Auckland homeowners are being encouraged to sell their houses to wealthy Chinese investors in a television marketing push. For $7000 a month a Chinese television producer is offering to aggressively advertise Auckland houses in daily 30-second commercials to potential buyers in mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Australia. Ian Thornhill of Barfoot & Thompson raised concerns after an Epsom deal when a Chinese investor bought a house then left it empty, saying he worried about the future for his family. ‘I don’t think it’s a good thing at all. Kiwis are getting really upset. They can’t compete with Asians who have the money and they pay more,’ Mr Thornhill said.”

“In Vancouver, foreign buyers, mostly from China, have been blamed for increasing housing demand and prices and turning friendly neighbourhoods into ghost towns by not living in the properties.”

“A taxi driver in Toronto said he remembered seeing Asian-looking men lining up in the rain outside a new residential development, two days before its grand opening. Intrigued, he approached them and asked some questions. Many turned out to be Chinese students lining up for interested buyers for some quick cash. Most of the others he tried to talk to were Chinese nationals who couldn’t speak a word of English. ‘It was the most mind-blowing scene I’ve ever seen in my life,’ the unnamed taxi driver later told his customer, Chinese businessman Zhu Weijun, himself an investor in Canada’s property markets.”

“It’s not just Toronto that was feeling the impact of a stream of wealthy Chinese. Another residential development of 150 units in Canada’s New Westminster sold out within two hours of its opening. It turned out 40 per cent of the buyers were Chinese, said a report. Sheng Mingchang, a Chinese investor who has bought houses in different countries, said he had learned that contrary to what the Chinese had expected, many locals are not grateful that their properties are gaining value.”

“‘The locals now have to pay a higher property tax after the appreciation, which means they will sacrifice their vacation budgets and skip more movie trips because of the foreigners’ buying,’ he said.”

“The possibility of a farmland bubble dominated the sixth annual Iowa Land Investment Expo, where speakers explored whether the blistering pace of price increases gives way to a disruptive decline or a soft landing. Iowa prices surged 24 percent to $8,296 an acre in 2012, after jumping 32.5 percent in 2011 and 16 percent in 2010, according to the annual Iowa Land Value Survey published by Iowa State University. An 80-acre tract of land in Sioux County, home to some of the nation’s most productive land, sold for $21,900 an acre in October.”

“‘The cure for high prices is high prices,’ said Jim Knuth, senior VP of Farm Credit Services of America. ‘Are we in a bubble? The answer is yes, but it’s not the bubble you think. We believe we’re in a profit bubble.’”

“A U.S. housing-market revival may prove illusory and the threat of further weakness remains, said Robert Shiller, a professor at Yale University. ‘It’s a good housing market in the sense that mortgage rates are very low and prices have come down to normal levels, so yes, it’s a good time to buy if nothing bad happens,’ Shiller said. ‘But it’s also a very bad housing market in that most of the mortgages are being supported by the government, and we have the Fed and this buying program. It’s a very abnormal market.’”

“‘We’ve been five years in a slow economy, and it could go quite a bit longer,’ he said. ‘We’ve seen gross domestic product growth at sub-normal levels.’ He added, ‘I think we’re pretty far from irrational exuberance, maybe 50 years away.’”

“An Indiana economist said Tuesday’s economic report from the Commerce Department confirms that the United States is almost certainly in another recession. The economy unexpectedly shrank from October through December for the first time since 2009. ‘The shrinking of the economy in fourth quarter by a slight 0.1 percent almost certainly marks a new American recession,’ Ball State University economist Mike Hicks said in his weekly column. ‘Indeed, because we have good data back to World War II, there has been no quarterly decline in GDP on record without a recession.’”

“Williamson County conducted a property loan audit that revealed some major red flags. The county clerk said 60,000 home ownership deeds and documents have not been filed properly in the clerk’s office, and that could mean possible foreclosure for some homeowners. It was a full house Tuesday inside Williamson County Commissioners Court. Homeowners filled the room asking why they could lose their home. ‘It’s the American dream,’ said Williamson County homeowner Kevin Bierwirth. ‘What people want, I mean, everyone wants a house to feel free.’”

“Bierwirth is also a real estate agent. Bierwirth said he fell behind on his payments, and when he began looking for help he claimed the loan documents were in shambles. ‘I always believed that if you can’t pay, you can’t stay,’ he said. ‘You either walk away, which I was not about to do because I am trying,’ he said. ‘Don’t take my house. It’s not that I don’t pay, it’s not that I can’t pay.’”

“In September 2011, initial foreclosure filings in Nevada totaled about 4,700, on par with a yearslong trend of thousands of such notices each month. In October 2011, the number of notices of default plummeted to about 1,200, according to Realtytrac. Initial foreclosure notices have since crept up, reaching over 1,500 in December, according to Realtytrac, but they’ve never returned to their previous levels. Many point to AB 284, an ‘anti-robo-signing’ state law that took effect that month.”

“Rocky Finseth, who lobbies for the Realtor association, recalled appearing on a radio talk show and fielding a call from a taxi driver who said he’d heard about the law and stopped paying his mortgage. ‘It sent out a mental shift to the homeowner — ‘I’m going to sit here and kinda live rent-free,’ said Keith Lynam of NVAR.”

“‘There aren’t enough homes going on the market. That’s absolutely creating an artificial, temporary bubble,’ said Victor Joecks of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank that supports repealing the law. ‘When the bubble bursts, there’s going to be a fall. Do we want to drag it out, or have some pain in the short term and experience recovery?’”

“Home prices will rise between 7 percent and 8 percent in the Seattle area this year, an increase not seen since the housing bubble in 2006, according to the National Association of Realtors’ chief economist Lawrence Yun. ‘The difference between then and now is that prices are much lower now, even though they are rising,’ Yun said.”

“Another difference: There’s no easy credit anymore, and lenders have much stricter criteria for borrowers taking out a home loan. The result is a housing market that is driven by solid market fundamentals, such as job growth, so ‘these price increases are genuine,’ Yun said.”

“The housing market is supposedly roaring back. Home prices are seeing their biggest annual gains since 2006. Renters must be rushing back to buy, right? Not exactly. According to a recent Raymond James report: ‘Renter household formation remains at the strongest level in decades. Roughly 1.32 million new renter households were formed in the past year (including owner conversions), while the number of owner-occupied households declined by 175,000. Resident turnover and move-outs to homeownership remain near historic lows for most operators. Incoming leasing traffic is more than offsetting move-outs while paying higher rates.’”

“The home ownership rate declined yet again in the fourth quarter of 2012, according to a new report from the U.S. Census. It now stands at 65.4 percent, down from 66 percent a year ago and from a high of 69.2 percent in 2004. If you include the 5.3 million borrowers who are delinquent on their mortgages or in the foreclosure process, per LPS, the real home ownership rate is even lower.”

“‘The fact that the housing recovery is being driven principally by investor demand means that the slight decline in the homeownership rate in the fourth quarter is unlikely to be the last,’ notes Paul Diggle of Capital Economics.”

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