An ADU as an investment opportunity on HGTV’s Flip or Flop

Last night’s new episode of Flip or Flop, Season 9 Episode 7, featured a home with an ADU (accessory dwelling unit). And this unique feature of the home offers a chance to make more money:

After Tarek and Christina realize the garage in the backyard is now a living space, Tarek lays out the argument: this is not just a studio space or a he/she-shed. It is possibly a rentable unit. This may make this property even more enticing.

This got me thinking. ADUs are supposed to help provide more housing units in more expensive markets like Portland and Los Angeles. Instead of building denser, taller housing in single-family home neighborhoods, ADUs take advantage of existing yard space, garages, or other buildings on residential properties.

But, while the ADUs might provide more housing, they may not necessarily provide housing that is that much cheaper. Take the example from Flip or Flop: with a home valued at over $1 million in North Hollywood, they estimated they could rent the studio ADU with a full bathroom and kitchen for $2,000 a month. How many people could afford this?

Further, such units could become a tool for residents and developers to generate more revenue. In such competitive markets, adding any kind of residential unit presents an opportunity. The ADU could enable a homeowner to generate money from their property. An investor interested in a single home or one with multiple homes could generate even more money with ADUs.

To truly provide housing that is more plentiful and at a reasonable price, it seems like a lot of ADUs are needed. They cannot provide as many units as large multifamily developments might. Yes, they do not disturb the existing character of a neighborhood much. But, if the ultimate goal is to broadly expand housing options, the occasional ADU in an expensive area might not be enough.

Changes in housing costs in metropolitan regions are more easily navigated by some

Rents may be down in parts of San Francisco but some people moving within the region or outside of it have encountered higher housing prices:

While rents in San Jose have fallen 6 percent since January, tech havens in Santa Clara County — including Mountain View, Sunnyvale and the city of Santa Clara — have seen rents fall by at least 11 percent during the covid pandemic, according to a new study by Apartment List. Rents also declined in the East Bay.

The exodus of now working-from-home techies from the Bay Area has left openings and rent discounts at complexes near the tech giants. The uncertainty of the pandemic has driven renters back home, to spacey outer-suburbs or to remote towns and resort communities such as Lake Tahoe…

The demand for more living space and the shortage of homes for sale has driven up single family home prices in Silicon Valley, with suburban buyers pushing median prices to $1.33 million in Santa Clara County and $1.63 million in San Mateo County in September, according to CoreLogic data…

Popov said rent declines have generally decreased the farther away you get from San Francisco. Outer markets in Salinas and Sacramento, for example, have seen rents climb.

The effects of COVID-19 illustrate how housing prices within a region or within contiguous regions do not necessarily all follow the same patterns. Even as one area might experience less demand in one part of the market – rental units in particular neighborhoods communities, other portions of the market – such as single-family homes – may be more expensive.

In a market like this, those who can move around have some advantages. First, those with resources and particular occupations can move away from areas with more cases of COVID-19. This could have a direct effect on health. Some of these workers might return when COVID-19 is no longer a concern but for now they can be in less dense areas and work from home.

Second, some people are more able to move than others. Even if prices are going up in desirable locations, they can pay more. They have particular occupations that allow them to work from home, an option that is less possible certain job sectors. Perhaps their social networks and connections to local institutions are more fluid and accessible remotely.

This discussion occasionally comes up when people look at available jobs throughout the United States. The question will arise: how come more people do not move to go where the jobs are and take advantage of the economic opportunities? Moving is not a simple task. It involves more than just having a good job or not.

The same can be true of housing costs. The price of renting or buying a home can vary dramatically from place to place. Yet, a large number of people may not move one way or the other for a variety of reasons. And since jobs and housing prices are linked for many, it can be hard for many to simply leave the expensive Bay Area or move within the region to take advantage of lower rents or costs in some areas.

What it means if a 20% rent price drop in Manhattan may be enough to reverse the market

With rents in Manhattan and San Francisco declining, how much will prices drop before demand increases? Perhaps 20% in Manhattan:

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A big drop in rental prices appears to be luring new, younger renters back to the city, even as office workers and wealthy New Yorkers remain in the suburbs and more rural resort towns. New leases in Manhattan increased 33% in October, making it the best October in 12 years, according to a report from Douglas Elliman and Miller Samuel.

The typical rent paid for apartments including discounts, or the median net effective rent, fell 19% from a year ago to $2,868 — a record decline. Smaller apartments, which cater to younger renters, fell the most. The price of studio apartments was down 21%, and one-bedroom apartment prices dropped 19%.

“I think we’re at a tipping point where the consumer starts coming back to the city,” said Jonathan Miller, CEO of Miller Samuel. “Sellers are slowly recalibrating what the values are, and the lower pricing is beginning to bring more people in.”…

And with the average rental price for a one-bedroom apartment still over $3,200 — more than twice the national average — Manhattan is still far from affordable for many young renters. Still, experts say the October increases could begin a long, slow recovery for the nation’s largest real estate market.

Manhattan is an important real estate market. It is part of the leading city in the United States and one of the most important global cities in the world. Housing is desirable there for multiple reasons.

But, Manhattan’s prices are unusual. There is a limited amount of land. Few other places in the United States have a similar local economy and cultural scene. Prices will remain high because they have been high for a while. There is a lot of capital tied up in buildings and land.

Thus, it is hard to know what to do with an article like this in regards to housing. The suggestion is a 20% price drop may be enough to attract new renters who are interested in Manhattan and have the resources to move in. Most people, and perhaps even most residents of the New York City region, do not have the interest or the resources. At the least, this is a reminder that real estate is a very local affair.

But, at the same time, housing is a city-wide, region-wide, and a national concern. The Manhattan market has unique traits but many people face housing challenges, particularly during COVID-19. Manhattan may be a bellwether or it could be more of a curiosity of how a small slice of people think about housing. The bigger question from a story like this could be: have housing costs dropped elsewhere in the United States? Since few markets are like Manhattan, perhaps not. How does this affect people? What are the long-term housing price prospects across different kinds of markets and for more typical residents?

Hints of growing art scene in English suburbs, towns

COVID-19 and housing prices have pushed more artists out of English big cities:

Photo by Anthony Shkraba on Pexels.com

Now, the pandemic is prompting a wider exodus from the British capital, pushing up real estate values in outlying regions. Months of remote working have made city dwellers reassess their housing priorities. And like many office workers, contemporary artists such as Mr. Allan — who makes art under the moniker “Dominic from Luton” — are also finding that they no longer need to be in a big city…

Hastings, with its scrappy mix of stately but unkempt 19th-century houses, 1970s seafront amusements, poor transportation links and limited employment opportunities, was recently ranked as the most deprived town in southern England by Britain’s housing ministry. But its distinctness and affordability have long been valued by artists…

Supported by a new [Croydon] City Hall-funded initiative called Conditions, 27 such spaces are being offered for £138 to £230 a month in a repurposed bicycle factory and office building. Katie Sheppard, one of the artists based in the complex, makes digitally embroidered portraits based on selfies; another, Felix Riemann, makes sound sculptures for performances…

This vision of an accessible, locally grounded art scene is very different from the elitist flying circus of blockbuster exhibitions, auctions, fairs and biennials in destination cities that has dominated the art world in recent years.

On one hand, as is noted in the story, the Internet and the smartphone make art possible from anywhere.

On the other hand, art is more than just a single genius creating while sitting quietly somewhere. Local conditions, such as housing costs, matter. Having a set of like-minded arts around who provide support and spur creativity may be essential. Funding, local resources, and neighborly or community goodwill help.

One of the biggest barriers to art in these communities may just be the decades of suburban and small town critiques that suggest they are dull and backward locales. Can art only work there when conditions in big cities are too difficult for artists?

More broadly, this speaks to the concept of art worlds in which artists and numerous other actors operate. The creation of art is a social activity involving multiple pieces and social forces. Art can indeed flourish in many locations, including suburbs and small towns, if the conditions are right.

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.

The double-edged sword of record home prices in many American metro areas

The housing bubble of the late 2000s may be long gone as housing prices continue to rise:

Prices for single-family homes, which climbed 5.3 percent from a year earlier nationally, reached a peak in 64 percent of metropolitan areas measured, the National Association of Realtors said Tuesday. Of the 177 regions in the group’s survey, 15 percent had double-digit price growth, up from 11 percent in the third quarter.

Home values have grown steadily as the improving job market drives demand for a scarcity of properties on the market. While prices jumped 48 percent since 2011, incomes have climbed only 15 percent, putting purchases out of reach for many would-be buyers.

The consistent price gains “have certainly been great news for homeowners, and especially for those who were at one time in a negative equity situation,” Lawrence Yun, the Realtors group’s chief economist, said in a statement. “However, the shortage of new homes being built over the past decade is really burdening local markets and making homebuying less affordable.”

Having read a number of stories like this, I wonder if there is a better way to distinguish between economic indicators that are good all around versus one like this that may appear good – home values are going up! – but really mask significant issues – the values may be going up because many buyers cannot afford more costly homes. The news story includes this information but I suspect many will just see the headline and assume things are good. Another example that has been in a lot of partisan commentaries in recent years (with supporters of both sides suggesting this when their party was not president): the unemployment rate is down but it does not account for the people who have stopped looking for work.

In the long run, we need (1) better measures that can encompass more dimensions of particular issues, (2) better reporting on economic indicators, and (3) a better understanding among the general populace about what these statistics are and what they mean.

High housing prices drive more people to live in vans

When housing prices are high, residents adapt in a variety of ways:

He’s not alone. Last year, 4,600 cars and RVs were used as homes, according to The Los Angeles Times…

“The main expenses are insurance for the van, which is like $60 a month,” said Hutchins. “Then, I have a storage unit for like $60.”

That puts his monthly rent at $120. The van cost him just $125 at an auction…

Hutchins works part-time at a Taco Bell to help pay the bills, and he says living in a van has slashed his cost of living by $800 a month.

He showers at the gym, cooks on a portable stove on a sidewalk (he stores his butane at his friends’ place nearby) and uses wifi at nearby coffeeshops.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. I assume this is more attractive for younger adults who are starting their careers. Even with all the buzz about tiny houses and having smaller and more sustainable settings, I can’t imagine too many people with more established careers choosing this.
  2. Traditionally, Americans like cars. This seems like a clever adaptation for people who can make it work (see #1): you have some people and it is mobile.
  3. How do municipalities view this? The article mentions that this is not against the law in Los Angeles though there may be issues with parking in different places. At the same time, how many communities would want to have significant numbers of people living in vehicles?
  4. It would be helpful to get more data on this: is this a viable option only when housing prices are really high or is this a choice made for additional reasons as well? Does the weather in LA make this easier?

A significant minority of Chicago area residents can’t find affordable housing

A new report suggests many Chicago area residents – poor and wealthier – have difficulty finding affording housing:

To identify “distressed homeowners and renters,” researchers used a housing rule of thumb that requires affordable housing to cost no more than 30 percent of a household’s gross income. In Chicago, 48 percent of people said they were devoting more than 30 percent of their income to rent or a mortgage. In the suburbs, 40 percent were stretching beyond the manageable 30 percent limit.

According to the research, 11 percent of households in Chicago had cut back on healthy food, and 12 percent had made cuts in health care to afford housing. Another 11 percent moved to less safe areas.

While the problem of finding affordable housing is most acute among people ages 18 to 34, African-Americans and households with incomes under $40,000, 49 percent of those in households with incomes over $75,000 said “it’s challenging to find affordable housing in my area.” Sixty-six percent of people with incomes under $40,000 noted the challenge…

In the Chicago area, 87 percent of adults said having stable housing that is affordable is a very important part of having a secure middle-class lifestyle, while 67 percent said it’s harder to afford stable housing than for previous generations.

Housing is crucial for many other areas in life as it influences daily well-being (do you feel safe?), schools that kids go to, amenities (local municipalities, recreation, retail, etc.) available nearby, what kind of neighbors you will interact with, commuting times, and more. So, if you don’t have the resources to live in a nicer community or have to stretch yourself, that will have consequences.

Is it time to reconsider the 30% rule? Of course, if you spend more than 30% on housing then you have to cut back elsewhere. But, given the housing bubble of the last decade and perhaps a new normal of higher rents and less new cheaper housing, perhaps Americans may have to devote more to housing in the future?

“Eager to Move to the City, but Stranded in the Suburbs”

The New York Times recently profiled a number of suburbanites who would prefer to live in the big city but can’t because of high housing prices:

Like many others in her sociological cohort these days — men and women whose children are grown and who want to trade those unused rooms in Tudor- and Victorian-style houses, as well as the steep suburban property taxes, for the city’s excitement and convenience — Ms. Fomerand finds herself stranded in the suburbs.

These empty-nesters have reaped the benefits of the suburbs: They sent their children to excellent public schools and raised them in safety and comfort, in backyards, playrooms and cul-de-sacs. And their houses have increased nicely in value. Now they would like to find apartments with doormen and elevators so they don’t have to climb stairs, shovel snow and schlep packages. They want a place where they can “age in place,” as the phrase goes. But they are finding that in the past 15 years, prices for such apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn have risen far more than the values of their suburban homes, so much that they may never make it back to living in the city they always thought they would return to. Instead, they end up staying in their houses, or downsizing to smaller suburban homes or apartments.

To be sure, this is a problem largely felt by the comfortable: New Yorkers who have had the luck and income to live where they choose, who have had the luxury of planning and expecting a certain lifestyle when they grow older. These people could live less expensively in other cities, but often their family, friends and work are here, and they don’t want to leave the area.

“This is one of the most commonly discussed issues,” said Mark A. Nadler, director of Westchester sales for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices. “People will say, ‘Yes, I’m moving to the city,’ but unless they’re wealthy, they end up resigning themselves to staying in the suburbs.”

Two quick thoughts in reaction to this piece.

  1. Those profiled in this story generally want to move to Manhattan or Brooklyn. Why don’t they consider moving to other parts of New York City? Underlying this could be continued ideas about what areas of New York City are desirable, safe, and more white. It is not really whether they can move to the city at all; it is more about whether they can move to the trendy neighborhoods in which they would prefer to live.
  2. There is only brief mention of affordable housing in a piece that is largely about housing prices. At the same time, this is kind of an odd note to hit; New York City prices are too high because a number of older suburbanites cannot find affordable housing in the city. If you want to talk about housing prices and affordable housing, why not highlight the less wealthy in the region who could truly benefit from such a move to the city (as opposed to doing so as a lifestyle choice)? Too often, stories about affordable housing highlight empty-nesters and downsizers (often alongside young professionals) – probably the sorts of people cities would love to have – rather than consistently examining the lives of lower-class residents.

Why are Chicago families fleeing for cheaper homes in the suburbs?

The Chicago Tribune leads with the story of a Chicago family who left the city for a townhouse in River Forest:

Megan Keskitalo and her husband, Glenn Eckstein, were enthusiastic city dwellers until the suburbs began calling. First it was Chicago’s crime, then it was worry about school districts, and in the end, it was money that pushed them past the city’s edge.

After a long search, the parents of two young daughters packed up their $1,300-a-month three-bedroom Lincoln Square apartment and in September paid $286,000 for a three-bedroom town house in River Forest.

“We were looking (in the city), but we couldn’t find anything in our price range, which was under $350,000,” Keskitalo said.

But, just how many Chicago families are doing this? The story sticks to general trends without any numbers:

They aren’t the only ones. While experts say Chicago’s housing market is sizzling — home sales were up about 8.1 percent in Chicago through November of this year, says the Illinois Association of Realtors — not everyone can afford to buy in the city. That’s because home prices are up too…

It’s not unusual for millennials and Generation Xers with children to flee to what real estate experts call “surbans” — walkable, amenity-rich suburbs — once they get married, have kids and are looking for less party and more quiet.

The implication of this article is that families like this are being priced out of Chicago: they might stay if they could find housing in their price range in attractive neighborhoods. Yet, there is a lot more going on here:

  1. The article also says real estate prices are on the rise in Chicago. This is generally seen as a good thing – unless it pushes desirable people, like young white families (or recent college graduates or older long-time city residents) out.
  2. There are real issues of affordable housing in Chicago and the whole region. However, there is often disagreement about who such housing should serve. Should it help keep wealthier residents in a community or serve those with much lower levels of income? Chicago is building plenty of high-end condos but there is not much action on the lower end of the market with affordable units in decent neighborhoods.
  3. This family had particular conditions for where they were willing to live: less crime, good schools, cheaper housing. Overall, they wanted a particular quality of life. They could have found cheaper housing in Chicago but without being willing to compromise on these particular issues, they left for the suburbs.
  4. How much of this is tied to the ongoing process of white flight? This family left a trendy Chicago neighborhood for an established wealthy and white suburb: River Forest is roughly 85% white and the median household income is over $113,000. Again, they could have found cheaper housing in the city (#3 above) if they were willing to live in more places that might not have been as white.