Housing bubble fallout: lost jobs in land subdivision

The long-lasting consequences of the housing crisis of the late 2000s continues: an analysis of the American industries losing the most jobs by percentage includes the land subdivision sector.

9. Land subdivision

• Employment change 2008-17: -49.3%
• Employment total: 40,207
• Wage growth 2008-17: +35.5%
• Avg. annual wage: $71,744

The U.S. housing market is beginning to return to normal following the Great Recession and housing market crash. Housing starts in 2017 were similar to 2007 levels, before the crash. The land subdivision industry, which divides land into parcels for housing and other purposes, suffered as a result of the market’s struggles. As of 2017, industry employment is just about half of what it was a decade before.

This was never a large sector but a drop in jobs of nearly 50% is substantial.

Since I know little about what land subdivision requires on a daily basis, I wonder if this decrease is primarily because of a slowdown in housing starts or are there other significant changes in the industry such as new efficiencies and approaches?

If “Ninety percent or so of renters still want to become homeowners,” what could this lead to?

Financial pressures might have pushed more Americans toward renting and lower rates of homeownership but that does not mean attitudes have shifted away from homeownership. From an overview of housing ten years after the burst housing bubble:

“There’s a remarkably high preference for homeownership that shows up in every survey of renters,” says Chris Herbert, managing director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. “Ninety percent or so of renters still want to become homeowners. Certainly, young people are moving into homeownership more slowly, but that’s because of a host of reasons such as marrying and having children later, a reduced ability to save since the recession and that it’s harder to get a loan. It’s not because of a fundamental change in attitude.”

Let’s assume this desire for owning a home continues for at least a few years – and this is a consistent desire across multiple decades already. What might this lead to? Two different paths:

  1. The economy improves to the point where those who want to buy a home are able to. This may be difficult to imagine given the availability of high-paying jobs plus the return of housing prices to 2000s levels. Yet, homeownership has been higher in the past and might be again in the future as this is what Americans want. Historically, the federal government has helped Americans reach this goal.
  2. A changing economy plus high housing prices mean relatively few of those who want to own a home will be able to. Younger adults become frustrated by their inability to purchase a home, particularly compared to previous generations. They take out that frustration in various ways, perhaps including higher levels of stress or taking it to the polls (though I argue it will be difficult to have a national conversation about housing and proposals to address housing are often unpopular).

The homeownership rate will be very interesting to watch in the next ten to twenty years. While Americans promoted homeownership for over a century now, there is no guarantee it has to continue into the future if conditions make it very difficult for average residents to buy a house.

Multiple factors behind why younger Americans may fewer homes in their lifetime

A report on the real estate market in the Chicago region hints at a possible trend to watch: Americans will buy fewer homes in their lifetime.

Many first-time buyers share the Joshis’ perspective that it’s smarter to find the right house to grow into than to get a toehold in the market with a starter house, only to see much of that early equity sapped by transaction costs a few years later when moving up to a larger house.

“When we started looking, I had in mind a starter house, but it was so exhausting to look that we thought, no, one and done,” says Vrushank Joshi.

There are numerous societal changes that contribute to this:

  1. People are getting married later and going to school longer. This means they are not buying a home in early adulthood as often and are waiting longer to purchase their first place.
  2. With more education, increasing student loans means it takes longer for potential owners to save money for a down payment.
  3. Fewer starter homes have been constructed in recent years.
  4. Mobility is down in recent years as Americans seem interested in staying in places for longer.
  5. The specter of the late 2000s housing bubble haunts possible buyers.

A system that used to rely on people starting with a smaller product and then working their way up over a lifetime may have to make some major adjustments if Americans buy fewer and different homes compared to before.

American homeowners with $5.8 billion of tappable equity

A new statistic hints at the shift of homeownership from having a piece of private property to the home as an investment: Americans have nearly $6 billion in home equity.

Homeowners now have a collective $5.8 trillion in tappable equity, the highest volume ever recorded and 16 percent above the last home price peak in 2006. The average homeowner with a mortgage gained $14,700 in tappable equity over the past year and has $113,900 available to draw. This is the amount over and above 20 percent of the value of the average home…

More borrowers are doing cash-out refinances, even at a higher interest rate, because they are leery of the variable rates on HELOCs. But overall, just 1.17 percent of available equity was tapped in the first quarter of this year, the lowest amount in four years. Why? They may not know just how rich they are.

What good is an investment if the owner is not cashing in on it? Seriously though, suggesting that Americans are sitting on a pot of gold – their own homes – is an odd proposition. Should they all sell at once? Already, some have wondered what happens when large numbers of Baby Boomers want to be out of their homes. All get home equity lines or credit or cash out refinances? This could drum up more business for lenders but may not necessarily be good for the homeowners. Or, the as the article hints at, what if housing values drop after large numbers of people tap into their equity? We have seen what can happen there by looking back at the late 2000s with many foreclosures and underwater homes.

All together, all that equity may actually be fairly hard for everyone to benefit from.

A smaller housing bubble: prices up, easier credit but homeownership down, fewer involved

Discussion of a looming housing bubble hints at similar factors to the problems of the 2000s:

The number of FHA-insured borrowers who are behind on mortgage payments has jumped, Wade wrote in her testimony. The use of down payment assistance is up. The frequency of FHA borrowers who are spending more than 50 percent of their income on debt payments has increased, too. And the number of borrowers refinancing their homes to take cash out for other uses has swelled…

After years of tight credit in the aftermath of the Great Recession, both conventional mortgage lenders and the FHA have been easing credit standards — allowing for low down payments, for example, or higher levels of borrower debt — to lure first-time and low- to moderate-income buyers back to the housing market, industry observers say. By making it easier for these groups to obtain mortgages, the observers argue, it is only natural to see a modest uptick in missed payments — especially by FHA borrowers — after almost seven years of steadily dropping delinquency rates.

Not all market observers are convinced that these changes are OK. As federally sponsored mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as the FHA, have introduced these easier credit requirements to promote more homeownership, some critics worry that the mortgage industry could be headed toward dangerous  territory if it continues to become easier to get a mortgage — especially amid what Edward Pinto, a fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, currently calls the “Housing Boom 2.0.” By allowing borrowers to take on more debt or put less money down on a house in today’s super-charged real estate market, observers such as Pinto argue, lenders could be setting themselves up for higher rates of borrower default in the event of a recession — something that Pinto believes is not too far off…

To be sure, observers such as Nothaft add, the current easing of today’s requirements is nowhere near where it was a decade ago. Leading up to the recession, lenders were allowing borrowers to provide no documentation of their finances and granting loans with no money down.

Given the fallout and long recovery time after the burst housing bubble of the late 2000s, few policymakers or lenders would want a repeat. Yet, there are some significant differences in the housing market right now:

  1. Prices may be up and demand may be high but fewer people are participating in buying and selling homes.
  2. Home construction is not at the same level as it was through the 1990s and early 2000s.
  3. Lenders are not quite providing mortgages with the same terms they had in the 2000s (as noted above).
  4. Homeownership in the United States is at relatively low levels: 64.2% in the first quarter of 2018 after even lower figures in previous years.

All together, this suggests that the scale of a new housing bubble would be smaller than the last one. Perhaps significantly smaller. Fewer buyers, sellers, and lenders got caught up in the rising housing values (and low interest rates) of recent years.

This does not mean that there would not be pain if housing prices and lending collapsed a bit. But, the consequences would simply exacerbate some of the issues various interested parties have discussed:

  1. If prices decrease, even fewer people might be willing to sell their homes. This drives supply even lower.
  2. How much lower could interest rates really go? How much profit could lenders generate?
  3. This could decrease motivation for builders and developers, particularly at the lower ends of the market where there is already significant demand.

The conditions and consequences of a housing bubble today or the next year or two could be very different than the economic crisis we now think we have some handle on from the late 2000s.

Subprime mortgages still around

Although they do not appear to be anywhere near the common product as they were in the 2000s, subprime mortgages are still available:

Financial Times reports that subprime mortgage bond issuance doubled in the first quarter of 2018 compared to a year ago, going from $666 million to $1.3 billion. Furthermore, it quotes a financial analyst predicting that issuance for the year will hit $10 billion, which is more than double the $4.1 billion issued last year. For context, the value of American subprime mortgages was estimated at $1.3 trillion in March 2007.

Since the financial crisis, mortgage-backed securities have been almost entirely issued by government-sponsored mortgage facilitators Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and Ginny Mae. And since the financial collapse, those organizations have refused to insure subprime mortgages. The Dodd-Frank regulation passed after the collapse put tight rules around subprime lending that for awhile effectively killed the practice.

But over the last couple years, specialty firms have jumped back into the subprime market, rebranding it as “noprime.” Investors hungry for bonds with higher yields have generated enough demand for those loans to be secularized, just as they were in the run-up to the financial collapse. The result is a rapidly expanding subprime mortgage market.

That subprime mortgages would seep back into the market right now is curious, given the current state of housing. The slow pace of new home construction and few existing homes for sale has led to an inventory shortage that has pushed home prices well out of reach for many low- and middle-income prospective homebuyers.

Subprime mortgages could be lucrative for some, even if it is now widely recognized that they are not a good idea in general for potential homeowners or the broader market and society.

I think the bigger question is whether subprime loans could once again become a mainstream product. What if the housing market continues to be sluggish or potential buyers have a difficult time securing conventional loans or the market suddenly heats up and lots of people want mortgages? Even with the fallout and the long recovery after the burst housing bubble of the 2000s, someone within the next decade will make a public plea for loosening regulations on subprime mortgages or will suggest subprimes are a necessity for serving certain portions of the market.

Thriving construction industry in 2018 will primarily build for wealthier firms/residents?

The recovery from the housing bubble and Great Recession of the late 2000s continues in the construction industry:

For all of 2017, construction added 210,000 jobs, a 35 percent increase over 2016.

Construction spending is also soaring, rising more than expected in November to a record $1.257 trillion, according to the Commerce Department. That was up 2.4 percent annually. Spending increased across all sectors of real estate, commercial and residential, with particular strength in private construction projects. The only weakness was in government construction spending.

Construction firms are clearly looking to hire more workers. Three-quarters of them said they plan to increase payrolls in 2018, according to a new survey from the Associated General Contractors of America. Industry optimism for all types of construction, measured by the ratio of those who expected the market to expand versus those who expected it to contract, hit a record high…

Contractors are most optimistic about construction in the office market, which has seen little action since the recession. Transportation, retail, warehouse and lodging were also strong in the survey. Respondents were less encouraged by the multifamily apartment sector, which is just coming off a building boom.

Although this article does not say much about this topic, it would not surprise me if most of the gains in new structures in 2018 tend to go to (1) wealthier areas and (2) wealthier occupants (whether companies/organizations or residents). A thriving construction sector could theoretically float all boats but it sounds like the bifurcated housing market (and perhaps office and commercial as well) will continue.

It is interesting to see that the office market could see some significant construction. How much of that new office space comes at the expense of older structures that are less desirable because of less popular locations or because rehab costs would be too high?