A strange housing market: limited supply, less construction, rent prices diverging from home prices…

According to experts, the housing market right now is a strange one with COVID-19 and other factors coming together in odd ways:

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

Today, if you’re looking for one, you’re likely to see only about half as many homes for sale as were available last winter, according to data from Altos Research, a firm that tracks the market nationwide. That’s a record-shattering decline in inventory, following years of steady erosion…

There are lots of steps along the “property ladder,” as Professor Keys put it, that are hard to imagine people taking mid-pandemic: Who would move into an assisted living facility or nursing home right now (freeing up a longtime family home)? Who would commit to a “forever home” (freeing up their starter house) when it’s unclear what remote work will look like in six months?…

For more than a decade, less housing has been built relative to historical averages. The housing crash decimated the home building industry and pushed many construction workers into other jobs. Local building restrictions and neighbor objections have slowed new construction. President Trump’s strict immigration policies further restricted the labor supply in the industry, and his tariffs pushed up the price of building materials…

Right now, in a number of metro areas, home prices and rents aren’t just drifting apart; they’re moving in opposite directions. Prices are rising while rents are falling.

The article ends on a note of uncertainty: where might the housing market go from here? But, I wonder if it is worth digging more into the past to think about how we got here. Several things come to mind:

  1. COVID-19 is a very unique situation. As the article notes, this seems to have affected rental and home prices in different ways as suddenly people were interested in homes in particular areas and not so interested in rental properties in other areas. Figuring out the long-term effects of this will take time; will people return back to work in big offices, whether in the city or suburban office parks? Is this a significant change or will markets return back to earlier patterns with more time removed from COVID-19?
  2. Are we really removed from the housing bubble and crash of the late 2000s? This affected the market in profound ways – are we still feeling the consequences? For example, are builders and developers more committed than ever toward building more profitable homes rather than affordable or starting-level properties?
  3. How #1 and #2 fit with longer-term patterns in American life – such as a preference for single-family suburban homes and government support for homeownership – is interesting to consider. How do recent market shifts fit with long-term cultural and social preferences and practices? Does a shift to homes as investments fundamentally shake up this dynamic and alter future patterns?

In other words, keep watching the broader housing markets through the next few years.

“NYC isn’t dead”…for the wealthiest

A look at the ten most expensive properties sold in the United States in 2020 highlights the presence of New York City properties on the list:

Google Street View image of 220 Central Park South (September 2020)

By the end of September, the volume of Manhattan co-op and condo sales was down 43% year over year, according to a report by Douglas Elliman, as sellers held back from listing their apartments and buyers increasingly gravitated toward the suburbs

Of the top 10 national sales compiled by Jonathan Miller, president and chief executive officer of Miller Samuel appraisers, five were in 220 Central Park South, a new luxury tower on Central Park designed by architects at Robert A.M. Stern

Another trend from this year, namely rich people “fleeing” New York for Florida, didn’t manage to trickle up to the highest tier. Only two of this year’s top 10 sales were in Palm Beach; last year there were three…

Even the three Los Angeles entries diverge slightly from conventional 2020 narratives. Yes, the L.A. market is one of the few urban bright lights this year, with sales soaring and inventory hard to come by. But numbers at the very top are down from last year, when it notched four entries in the top 10, totaling $463 million. This year there were three, totaling $293 million.

The actions of the wealthiest homeowners matters not only because people often have an interest in what those who have lots of money do with all that money; it matters because these are people with clout and influence. If they are continuing to purchase in New York City – it is less clear how much time the owners would necessarily spend in the city – it is a sign of the importance of the city and the prospects for future development.

The optics of 2020 might not be favorable to the list above but the project and the trends were underway far ahead of COVID-19. In a very expensive land and housing market, purchasing a residence in one of the newest buildings and in such a location within Manhattan is an object of desire for some who have the resources to purchase such places. While a figure later in the article notes that the total price for the properties on this list is lower than the price for the properties the year before, this may only allow the wealthiest to get into hot markets even more.

It may (or may not) be worth noting that five of the ten properties are in a tower in New York City while the other five properties are large homes on some land. On the whole, Americans as a whole tend to prefer or idealize single-family homes but the wealthiest in the United States and elsewhere may be more inclined to purchase large units in multi-unit buildings.

So you want to live in an affordable big city – that is a suburb

Looking to live a big suburb that is affordable? Zillow and Yelp have you covered:

https://www.zillow.com/research/zillow-yelp-suburbs-cities-2020-28058/

Increased opportunities to work remotely are pushing more Americans to rethink how and where they want to live. But even if there’s less of a need to live as close to urban job centers, traditional urban amenities — think restaurants, nightlife, museums and sports venues — remain a big draw and demand for city living remains high. As a result, many buyers may seek places that balance the space and affordability of the suburbs, while still maintaining that big-city feel.

A new “Cityness Index” created by Zillow and Yelp Inc. helps identify the U.S. suburbs that best strike that balance. Key metrics include housing affordability compared to the nearest big cities and to the country at large, housing availability, the mix and diversity of businesses — including restaurants, nightlife and the arts — and consumer reviews and check-ins…

There were four individual Yelp indicators evaluated for each suburb to determine its cityness.

1. A mix of businesses similar to major cities

2. A diversity of restaurant and nightlife businesses

3. A diversity of arts businesses

4. A high level of consumer activity

This is an interesting suburban niche to highlight: communities for those who do not want to live in a big city but want more affordable housing and want to have some urban amenities. Of course, people could find this in less affordable suburbs or suburbs near the big city or other suburbs that have these more urban amenities. Is there something inherently more appealing in being in one of these big suburbs?

The reason I ask is that many Americans equate suburbs with small town life. The appeal of suburbs for Americans involves features often associated with smaller communities including lots of single-family homes (as opposed to denser concentrations of residences) and local control. Big suburbs often have a lot of jobs and can be significant jobs centers within a region. Furthermore, they could offer a mix of more dense housing as well as single-family homes. But, these big suburbs are also close in size to legitimate small big cities including Providence, Rhode Island, Chattanooga, Tennessee, or Akron, Ohio.

Perhaps if you live in a large metropolitan area, it matters less if you live in a particular suburb and more if you live near your work and desirable amenities within a certain budget. If this is the case, perhaps living in a suburb of over 150,000 people does not matter much. It is still more suburban than the big city but you are not at the edges of sprawl and the price is right.

Trying to define the “average American home”

One writer/realtor describes the features of today’s typical American home:

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

Homebuyers now realize that although space is important, it’s not necessarily the most important feature to have. To have enough space to be comfortable, today’s average American home measures about 2,400 square feet. This is definitely up from the 1973 average of about 1,500 square feet for a single-family home, but it’s down quite a bit from the 4,000-plus-square-foot McMansion…

People like finished basements, a home office, a large master bedroom, a big (we’re talking the size of a child’s bedroom), customized walk-in closet with organizer features, and a tricked-out ensuite master bathroom — think of one with spa-like amenities, such as a linen closet, a separate shower stall and tub, a double vanity, and a private toilet room…

Even when you adjust for inflation, you’ll find today’s median home price has increased 900% from 1973, but incomes have increased only 600%. Americans have become used to spending more of their paychecks to get the American dream of homeownership…

“Live, work, play” became the motto of the day as people grew weary of being car-dependent. Being able to walk to shops, restaurants, bars, and entertainment has become just as important as the home itself to many homebuyers.

This description appears to draw off two sources of data: Census data that regularly provides numbers on square footage, numbers of bedrooms and bathrooms, and prices (among other things) as well as real estate knowledge of recent trends.

Whether this gets us to what “the average American home of 2020 looks like” is a tricky question. At first glance, several things seem to be missing from the description. What does this typical home look like? It is somewhere between more traditional pre-World War II styles, postwar styles like ranches and split-levels, and more recent options like McMansions? How old is this typical home? While newer homes and features receive a lot of attention, many homes are at least a few decades old. And while the factor of the neighborhood is mentioned, where are people buying homes and then what is happening to these homes in terms of renovations and alterations?

Much of this also depends on local context. Given regional architecture plus the variation in housing markets as well as communities, finding the modal American house might just be near impossible. Perhaps there could be a set of typical American homes that could encompass some of the common variation.

More on the wealthy leaving cities, San Francisco edition

The flight of some out of New York City amid COVID-19 has attracted attention. This may also be happening in San Francisco:

city skyline during golden hour

Photo by Kehn Hermano on Pexels.com

Amid the depths of a global pandemic and financial downturn, the demand for real estate is unexpectedly rocketing in wealthy regions outside San Francisco, reports Bloomberg. Agents say that demand is soaring in affluent areas around the Bay Area such as Napa, Marin and further afield in Carmel, as people who have the means look to get away from the city. Meanwhile, the market in San Francisco and Alameda County is still well below where it was last year.

Elsewhere, Lake Tahoe has also seen a surge in real estate interest. The prospect of living out of the city on an alpine lake while maintaining a career is appealing for a new generation of young buyers, as many tech companies have signaled that remote work may be the new norm for a long time…

Meanwhile, the rental market in San Francisco has dropped significantly, with rates for one-bedroom apartments in the city dropping by 9.2% since June 2019, and hitting a three-year low.

However, buying a new home in an isolated haven in a nearby bucolic county is not an option for lower-income San Francisco residents, and some believe the trend is only exacerbating the wealth divide.

And, as noted in the final paragraph of the story, it is hard to know whether this is a long-term trend. But, this is one of the advantage of wealth and resources: residential options during times when many others are limited in where they can live. And this is not just limited to where they can live; it includes being able to travel back and forth easily, owning or renting multiple properties at the same time, and having all the resources for working from home.

More broadly, the evidence cited above is interesting in that people moving out of the city are not said to be moving very far. They are still within a drive of San Francisco/the Bay Area/Silicon Valley. Are people in the Bay Area more willing to stay close by or do they have to due to work (a need for at least some in the tech industry to be at meetings, see people and products, etc.)? Does this differ from New York City where many of those moving ended up in the suburbs while others left the metro region all together? Staying in driving distance changes the moving experience.

I am also imagining the possibility of a more significant migration than some wealthy people heading for the suburbs or other cool metro areas. What if Facebook said they want to get out of the petri dish of Silicon Valley, be a different kind of tech company that really wants to connect people, and picks up for Omaha or St. Louis or another smaller big city in the middle of the country? Clusters of organizations have particular synergies and efficiencies but if more workers are going to be at home, is there still the same need to locate near everyone else?

Related earlier post: the evidence for this happening in Washington D.C. may not be as strong.

Housing as the ultimate marker of poorly functioning (free) markets

Alexis Madrigal considers generational access to housing and the high real estate prices in some markets:

There are obviously many reasons that coastal housing markets have gone so bonkers. But it is an ironic twist that residential property, which once served as the bedrock for American capitalism, has become the most obvious sign for young people that something is deeply wrong with the markets.

What exactly has gone “deeply wrong” with these housing markets? Madrigal lays out a number of factors. But, I wonder if we could extend the analysis a bit further from “housing markets” to “economic markets” more broadly. Here is what two opposing sides might say:

One side: these housing markets with high prices have never truly been free. For decades, federal policy has privileged single-family homes. Local policies have made particular choices, often toward protecting property values and limiting density. Open up these markets to true competition. If affordable housing is needed, limit regulations and let all the money of potential buyers drive new development.

The other side: housing markets have not been regulated enough. The federal and local policies have tended to privilege certain actors – like the white middle-class and connected developers – over the needs of many working-class and poor residents as well as non-white residents. Policies aimed at providing more housing for all need more teeth and the ability to compel protected wealthier residents to accept development near their own homes.

As a sociologist who has studied this for over a decade, I tend to side with the latter argument: (1) markets are rarely ever completely and free and (2) the scales have been tipped toward whiter and wealthier residents for a long time. Perhaps the true lesson of these high-priced housing markets is that calls for regulation and oversight only go so far when property values and who neighbors are is truly at stake.

When your friends laugh at your new McMansion

A Reddit thread starts with the experience of a user who bought a new home for his family:

Hi! Long time lurker.

My wife and I are buying our first home for our small but growing family. We are moving to Laredo, Texas so our price range gets us quite a house.

we found one we really liked, and decided to put an offer on it. We think it’s beautiful, although I will admit a bit ostentatious.

I showed a friend, and they laughed and called it a “McMansion” and I googled what that meant and have to say I’m a bit embarrassed and find it kind of insulting.

I previously lived in SF, where I paid the same price for a 700sq ft studio, so I am struggling to see what was so much better about that, and my friend still lives in a studio there.

I guess my point is: are large newer homes all considered “McMansions?” Should I care what others think of it? I’m just concerned as perhaps this is just a bad investment as well.

Example: http://imgur.com/a/0zDiF

Three quick thoughts:

  1. The difference between the San Francisco and Laredo, Texas housing markets are substantial. What is common in one – and at what price point – is unlikely to match the other.
  2. The Internet is probably not going to provide much positive validation for buying such a home. Most comment boards I have seen regarding McMansions have ridiculed them, usually picking on their architecture as well as the type of people who buy them. There are a few defenders of McMansions in this thread. But, they are hard to find overall on the Internet.
  3. The pictures of the home provided through the link would probably put this into the McMansion category for many people. It appears to be a large house, the front facade is out of whack in terms of proportions, and the features are meant to impress (front columns, big entryway, shiny surfaces).

Can McMansions count as affordable housing in some markets?

A New Jersey fair housing group highlights a recent report that argued thousands of homes $300,000 and up counted as affordable housing.

On the face of it, this seems absurd: expensive large suburban homes might count as being within the reach of many Americans? Yet, there is the matter of the particular housing market that may affect such calculations. The priciest markets tend to be on the coast and whether one is examining the median sales price or the average list price (and this does matter – the median suggests half the homes sell for above and below that price and all 15 on this list are around $300k or higher), a $300,000 home might be difficult to find.

Now, whether such a home is within the reach of many in the region is another matter and it is likely not. Even with higher incomes in these metropolitan regions, there are still plenty of workers and residents who don’t see as much of a relative bump in their salaries. McMansions might be some of the cheaper homes available in pricier markets but that does not mean they are attainable.

Do any of these more expensive regions have interest in suggested plans to alter McMansions (see here and here) to make more cheaper housing? This would likely face opposition from nearby owners who would fight tooth and nail against any efforts to introduce multi-family housing.

Zillow off a median of 8% on home prices; is this a big problem?

Zillow’s CEO recently discussed the error rate of his company’s estimates for home values:

Back to the question posed by O’Donnell: Are Zestimates accurate? And if they’re off the mark, how far off? Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff answered that they’re “a good starting point” but that nationwide Zestimates have a “median error rate” of about 8%.

Whoa. That sounds high. On a $500,000 house, that would be a $40,000 disparity — a lot of money on the table — and could create problems. But here’s something Rascoff was not asked about: Localized median error rates on Zestimates sometimes far exceed the national median, which raises the odds that sellers and buyers will have conflicts over pricing. Though it’s not prominently featured on the website, at the bottom of Zillow’s home page in small type is the word “Zestimates.” This section provides helpful background information along with valuation error rates by state and county — some of which are stunners.

For example, in New York County — Manhattan — the median valuation error rate is 19.9%. In Brooklyn, it’s 12.9%. In Somerset County, Md., the rate is an astounding 42%. In some rural counties in California, error rates range as high as 26%. In San Francisco it’s 11.6%. With a median home value of $1,000,800 in San Francisco, according to Zillow estimates as of December, a median error rate at this level translates into a price disparity of $116,093.

Thinking from a probabilistic perspective, 8% does not sound bad at all. Consider that the typical scientific study works with a 5% error rate. An eight percent error rate suggests the estimate is right 92% of the time. As the article notes, this error rates differs across regions but each of those have different conditions including more or less sales and different kinds of housing. Thus, in dynamic real estate markets with lots of moving parts including comparables as well as the actions of homeowners and homebuyers, 8% sounds good.

Perhaps the bigger issue is what people do with estimates; they are not 100% guarantees:

So what do you do now that you’ve got the scoop on Zestimate accuracy? Most important, take Rascoff’s advice: Look at them as no more than starting points in pricing discussions with the real authorities on local real estate values — experienced agents and appraisers. Zestimates are hardly gospel — often far from it.

Zillow can be a useful tool but it is based on algorithms using available data.

Purchasing a home in 25 different American cities

Here is a quick look at the estimated incomes it would take to buy a home across American cities:

HSH Associates, a New Jersey-based publisher of mortgage industry data, took a stab at what it would take, incomewise, for buyers in 25 metro areas to be able to purchase a median-priced home, based on the demands of principal and interest payments.

Coming out on top (or on the bottom, depending on how you look at it): Cleveland, with an income of just $22,348 needed to put a set of house keys into your palm…

In calculating its ranking, HSH took the National Association of Realtors’ third-quarter median home price data, as well as its own figures on average interest rates for 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages, to estimate what homebuyers in 25 major metros would need to earn to purchase the median-priced home, he said…

At the top of the expense range was San Francisco, with an income of $125,072. Skipping around the middle of the list, HSH pegged the base line salary for Chicago at $37,078 (11th place); Minneapolis, at $37,115 (12th); Baltimore, at $46,623 (16th); Seattle, at $63,145 (19th); and New York, at $71,255 (22nd place). The full list is at hsh.com.

Quite a difference across cities. There are a lot of factors involved here including the availability of housing, the quality of housing, jobs available in the metropolitan regions, and incomes. Even then, there are huge differences within specific regions.

While these figures aren’t surprising, it is also a reminder of the difficulty of making cost-of-living calculations for the entire United States. On one hand, it might seem obvious to adjust for region or city because of the big differences in housing costs, which typically comprise a sizable amount of expenses. On the other hand, people do have some ability to move so they aren’t necessarily locked in to certain expenses. Yet, the ones who can best weather these cost-of-living differences are already wealthier and have more options.