Homebuying in January the highest in a decade

Some news from the American housing market: home sales were up in January.

Home sales rose 3.3 percent in January from December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.69 million, the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday.

Steady job gains, modest pay raises and rising consumer confidence are spurring healthy home buying even as borrowing costs have risen since last fall. Some potential buyers may be accelerating their home purchases to get ahead of any further increases in mortgage rates. With few homes available for sale, buyers are pressured to rapidly close a deal as they find a suitable property…

Just 1.69 million homes were on the market nationwide in January, near the lowest level since records began in 1999. It would take just 3.6 months to deplete that supply at the current pace of sales, matching a record low reached in December. Supply is usually equal to about six months of sales in a balanced housing market...

The bulk of the stronger buying is occurring among higher-priced properties, the NAR said. Sales among homes and condominiums priced at $100,000 and below fell nearly 10 percent in January compared with a year earlier. They rose slightly in the $100,000 to $250,000 bracket and jumped by roughly 20 percent in homes priced at higher levels.

This is part of a long climb out of the economic crisis of roughly a decade ago. On one hand, increased buying could be seen as a good sign but there are still troubling signs including a lack of supply and higher demand for more expensive properties.

When do we reach a point where this is the new normal?

Claim: Millennials can’t buy a house so they are serfs

Joel Kotkin makes a bold claim regarding the inability of millennials to purchase a home:

Like medieval serfs in pre-industrial Europe, America’s new generation, particularly in its alpha cities, seems increasingly destined to spend their lives paying off their overlords, and having little to show for it.

No wonder that rather than strike out on their own, many millennials are simply failing to launch, with record numbers hunkering down in their parents’ homes. Since 2000, the numbers of people aged 18 to 34 living at home has shot up by over 5 million…

It’s time for millennials to demand politicians abandon the policies that have enriched the wealthy and stolen their future. That means removing barriers to lots of new housing in cities and, crucially, embracing Frank Lloyd Wright’s notion of Broadacre Cities, with expansive development along the periphery.

These new suburbs, like the Levittowns of the past, could improve people’s lives, while using new technology and home-based work  to make them more environmentally sustainable. They could, as some suggest, develop the kind of urban amenities, notably town centers, that may be more important to millennials than earlier generations. One thing that hasn’t changed is the demand for affordable single-family homes and townhomes. But the supply is diminishing—those under $200,000 make up barely one out of five new homes.

This is a familiar argument for Kotkin: millennials really do want to own homes in the suburbs – like many other Americans since the early 1900s – and economic policies limit their opportunities.

But, this argument is still overstated in its claim that millennials are serfs. Kotkin gets at a deeper question: is homeownership essential to the American way of life? More specifically, a suburban home in a nice community? There is much in American history to suggest that owning land and a home is key, even if it isn’t a right. Yet, does it necessarily have to always be part of American life? Could Americans decide that they value other things (and not be forced away from homeownership by forces outside of their control)?

A college degree leads to more geographic mobility

Americans with a college degree are more likely to leave where they grew up and end up in metropolitan regions:

Today, people with a college degree are more likely than they used to be to move to metropolitan regions with good jobs and other people like them, and this means both that those regions do better over time and that the return on that education is even greater. Almost half of college graduates move out of their birth states by age 30, according to Moretti. Only 27 percent of high school graduates do. As booming cities draw in new college-educated workers, employers seeking these workers follow, and cities continue to gain strength like magnets. This improves the prospects of everyone in the region, including those without college degrees. The working-class strongholds that once prospered without college-educated workers, on the other hand, are doing worse and worse, as computers and robots replace the workers whose jobs haven’t been sent overseas, and, as a result, an oversupply of labor brings down wages for everyone still there.

It’s not just that a college degree leads to higher earnings or more opportunities; it is also that people with college degrees tend to cluster in certain locations. Even in a world where technology could theoretically allow workers to be far away from their workplaces, the clustering in desirable cities of employers, cultural scenes, and places to live with a high quality of life is linked to education levels.

Another side effect of this clustering is that cities tend to have diverse and vibrant economies while smaller communities simply can’t access multiple options. Thus, even if a smaller community has a single thriving industry, this may not work well:

Focusing on one type of industry could be a successful strategy; Warsaw, Indiana, a relatively small town in the northern part of the state, is the orthopedic capital of America, with dozens of orthopedic device companies small and large located there and a bustling economy as a result. Elkhart, Indiana is the epicenter of the recreational vehicle industry, and manufacturers and suppliers are located there, creating good jobs when the economy is doing well. Cities and towns may be able to convince a cluster of a certain type of companies to locate there, and reverse their decline. “Every place has to look at its comparative advantage, and find a niche,” Ross DeVol, the chief research officer at the Milken Institute, told me.

Having lived near Elkhart during the financial crisis, such a strategy can look good in boom times but be disastrous in down times.

Looking toward the future, are there any particular industries or sectors that would be willing to spread out geographically in order to build stronger American communities? This might limit their profits or make it difficult to attract certain employees but could it be worthwhile to invest in smaller communities in the long run (either for the communities or also for a competitive advantage)? Even sectors like health care are finding it difficult to maintain facilities in small towns because of the advantages that consolidation and economies of scale offer.

Are we already to the point where people live in rural areas because (1) they are “stuck” there or (2) because they are already well-off and have the resources or option to live there?

Defining a McMansion, Trait #4: A symbol

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.

The fourth trait I see in the term McMansion is using the object as a symbol for a larger concept or concern. With this trait, the particular characteristics of the house – size (absolute or relative) and the architecture – matters less than what the McMansion is related to. I don’t think what the McMansion is linked to has changed all that much since I published my paper but I will highlight two areas in which I have seen the McMansion connected to in recent years.

The housing bubble that started in the United States in 2006 has had long-lasting consequences. The use of “McMansion” grew in the early 2000s as housing did well but the term was also used a lot as the housing market plunged. The McMansion became a symbol for the problems with the hot housing market: people bought bigger houses than they needed and it all fell apart. Certain locations were even more prone to McMansions with plenty of open space (exurbs) and questionable/adventurous architecture (Las Vegas). This even left half-completed McMansions and vacant neighborhoods, scary situations lending themselves to use in thrillers and horror films.

But, here is my question: just how much were McMansions responsible for the burst housing bubble? What about the construction of luxury housing in many major cities in the United States? What about the mortgage industry extending loans for all sorts of housing? McMansions are an easy target with this narrative: too many Americans bought ugly large homes that they couldn’t afford. The solution is to stop the construction and purchases of McMansions, for builders and buyers to make more rational decisions.

I’m not sure this fits the data. Housing construction is still down but as noted in the first McMansion traits post on size, more large homes are being constructed than ever. McMansions haven’t disappeared nor are they ruining the housing market now. My take is that it is that it is convenient to blame McMansions but there is a complex story of how the housing bubble built and burst that includes McMansions but not as a primary cause.

A second area in which the McMansion is used as a symbol has to do with referring to the sort of people who purchase or support McMansions. This is usually done in a negative manner. Who are these people who keep buying McMansions? They are people like Brock Turner. They are conservatives living away from cities. The culture wars may even include McMansions.

And yet, people keep building and purchasing such homes. The critique of McMansions, like that of suburbs, seems a bit elitist as the aim is not just at the houses but rather at the uneducated rubes that desire them. Some think that shaming McMansion proponents is the answer; make fun of their homes and priorities and they will change their ways. I would guess this is not a very effective strategy and other options might work better. Admittedly, some of these other options would take some time, such as educating Americans about architecture or working to enact local regulations that allows certain developments and home styles or promoting denser forms of urbanism that trade the private goods of McMansions for vibrant social contexts.

One danger of using an object as a symbol for other concepts is that the connection doesn’t always apply even if there is a grain of truth. McMansions were indeed part of the housing boom of recent decades but did they cause the economic crisis? Are all people who buy McMansions – homes that offer a lot of space as well as an eye-catching facade – conservatives with backward ideas and no interest in the common good?

Coming soon: a wrap-up to this four part series of McMansion traits.

Investing in foreclosed homes goes public

Here is a new business model: buy a lot of foreclosed homes after a housing bubble bursts, plan to rent out many of the properties, and watch the money flow in.

Though Blackstone is unlikely to sell much or even any of its stake in an IPO, the stock market debut will test investors’ interest in the idea that the rental-home business can be institutionalized as apartments, shopping centers and office towers were before.

Blackstone and others investors believed that the housing collapse presented a rare opportunity to acquire homes for less than it cost to build them. Millions of foreclosures created a market large enough to justify investing in large systems to manage and maintain sprawling portfolios of rental homes…

To generate the revenue growth that shareholders will demand, they must pace rent hikes to avoid spooking tenants into becoming home buyers themselves. And now that foreclosure rates have returned to normal levels and prices have rebounded, they could find it difficult to add new houses at attractive prices.

They also must convince investors that huge home-rental companies are viable long-term businesses, not just massive portfolios of properties that need to be sold off.

I imagine there will be some particular parties (not just investors) interested in how this works out:

  1. Nearby residents. What happens if this leads to significantly more renters of homes in certain places? Americans tend to view renters more negatively than homeowners – though this might change in the future if the country shifts to fewer homeowners. How well will Blackstone do with having quality renters and following up with issues?
  2. Communities. Having renters is probably preferable to having vacant homes. But, they might have similar concerns as nearby residents as well as other interests in how Blackstone uses the properties.
  3. Advocates for affordable housing. There was some concern a few years ago that having large firms like this purchase cheap homes could limit lower priced housing. The lower end of the housing market could use more stock but investors may need to pursue higher rents in order to generate profits.
  4. Renters and homebuyers. What kind of rents will Blackstone charge? Will they eventually sell these properties and at what price? What kind of landlords will they be.

Additionally, I wonder what would happen if this does not prove to be a viable business plan. Are there others who would be interested in purchasing these properties? What if foreclosure proceedings begin with an institutional investor?

Prediction that the 2017 housing market in the Chicago region will be country’s worst

Realtor.com just released a prediction that the Chicago housing market will not do very well next year compared to the country’s other largest markets:

Both prices and sales will increase, but at a stunted rate compared with other areas, according to a forecast by Realtor.com, a website for the National Association of Realtors. The prices of homes throughout the Chicago metropolitan area are expected to climb just 1.95 percent, and sales of new and existing homes are expected to increase 2.27 percent…

Chicago’s problem is a combination of slow growth in both population and jobs, said Jonathan Smoke, an economist at Realtor.com. The area’s population is expected to increase only 1 percent next year.

Given the size of Chicago, the city should be among the nation’s top three markets for job creation, Smoke said. Instead, Chicago is ranked eighth, with job growth much stronger in areas such as Dallas and Phoenix…

Nationally, Chicago has been among the slowest areas to recover from the housing market crash. According to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Index released this week, Chicago’s home prices on average remain about 20 percent below July 2007 levels. Meanwhile, the average price for the largest 20 metropolitan areas is now above pre-crash levels.

Not good news for a region that is still the third largest in the country but suffers from a number of problems: its central city is losing residents, the state government is a mess with no long-term budget deals in sight, it doesn’t seem to have enough innovative companies or industries, and there are negative perceptions about violence. Add a slow housing recovery and both the people living there as well as those who might consider moving there may not see much to celebrate.

Actually, this is an interesting question to consider: what positives would Chicago region residents note compared to other regions? What would attract those who have the ability to choose where they want to live? Chicago may be an important global city but it doesn’t want to slowly slip into being a center solely for the Midwest.

One important trait of the Chicago region isn’t going away anytime soon: even in the world of the Internet and jet travel, it has a prime location in the middle of the United States and is a key piece of many transportation and freight networks.

Older Americans with growing amounts of mortgage debt

One impediment to retirement for many Americans will be what they owe on their home:

The proportion of homeowners over 55 with housing debt has climbed, the Boston College group recently reported. Dr. Sanzenbacher provided the numbers: 50 percent still had mortgages, home equity loans or lines of credit in 2013, compared with 38 percent in 1998.

An Urban Institute study published this month, based on data from the national Health and Retirement Study, found a similar pattern among homeowners over 65. The proportion with housing debt rose to 35 percent in 2012 from 23.9 percent in 1998.

Moreover, the median amount they owed nearly doubled, to $82,000 from $44,000…

Her work has shown that older people with mortgage debt tend to stay in the labor force longer, and to delay receiving Social Security benefits.

In other words, the consequences of the burst housing bubble are still working their way out. If older Americans owe more money on their homes, they are likely to work longer and stay in their homes longer, making it more difficult for younger Americans to move into the work force and purchase a starter home. And if both older and younger Americans are still struggling in the housing market, who is actually coming out ahead? The truly wealthy who aren’t as hampered by mortgages.