Helping readers see patterns and the bigger picture in new housing price data

The headline reads:

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Home prices fell for the first time in 3 years last month – and it was the biggest decline since 2011

This quickly relays information about recent trends – prices went down for the first time in a while – as well as longer patterns – biggest drop in over a decade.

Next are some figures on housing affordability:

Now, housing affordability is at its lowest level in 30 years. It requires 32.7% of the median household income to purchase the average home using a 20% down payment on a 30-year mortgage, according to Black Knight. That is about 13 percentage points more than it did entering the pandemic and significantly more than both the years before and after the Great Recession. The 25-year average is 23.5%.

The housing affordability statistic is put into terms accessible to a broad audience: nearly 33% of the median household income is needed to buy the average house with common mortgage terms. Additionally, this percentage is higher than recent years and a longer 25 year stretch.

Some housing markets are seeing bigger price declines than others:

Some local markets are seeing even steeper declines over the last few months. San Jose, California, saw the largest, with home prices now down 10% in recent months, followed by Seattle (-7.7%), San Francisco (-7.4%), San Diego (-5.6%), Los Angeles (-4.3%) and Denver (-4.2%).

It could be noted that these are expensive and hot real estate markets. Yes, they had larger drops but they had been pushed higher in recent years than many other markets.

And the article ends with information on mortgage rates:

The average rate on the popular 30-year fixed mortgage began this year right around 3%, according to Mortgage News Daily. It climbed slowly month to month, pulling back slightly in May but then shot more dramatically to just over 6% in June. It is now hovering around 5.75%.

This highlights the rise in mortgage rates this year. Some broader context might be helpful; what was the average rate before COVID-19 or over the last 10 years?

This article provides numerous statistics and often puts the figures in context. Yet, it does lead one lingering question: what is the state of housing prices overall? One answer might be change after a period of trends during COVID-19. Another might be to focus on different actors involved: how does this affect the housing industry or what about the difficulty of some to get into the housing market or it could be a story about higher housing values for many homeowners.

Statistics are not just facts thrown into a void; they require interpretation and are often applied to particular concerns or issues.

Higher housing prices mean suburbs are less affordable, Houston edition

New data suggests residents in the Houston region have fewer cheaper housing options in the suburbs:

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The Kinder Institute and Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies released Tuesday morning their annual reports on the state of housing in the Houston area and the nation. Together, they painted a picture of a deepening divide between the prospects of current homeowners, whose equity has been buoyed by record-breaking home price appreciation, and renters, who have seen the monthly costs of buying a home rise far more quickly than wages.

The median-priced home in the suburbs of Clear Lake and Jersey Village, for example, were priced between $162,000 and $175,000 in 2011, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. They now go for $300,000 to $317,000.

“You have to go farther and farther out until you find a home that’s affordable,” explained Stephen Sherman, a researcher at the Kinder Institute. “The whole saying is drive until you qualify. We’re finding that people will have to drive even more” — a development which will have rippling implications on traffic and the way floodwaters drain…

“Suburban Houston — and new homes in suburban Houston — used to be extremely affordable,” said Lawrence Dean, the Houston regional director for Zonda, which does market research related to new home construction. Since then, the costs of land, materials and labor have all shot up. These days, it’s near impossible to build a home for less than $200,000, he explained.

This gets at three long-standing questions about suburban life:

  1. How far will people be willing to drive from the big city or other population centers in order to get a cheaper, bigger home? In some metro areas, this extends past 40 miles and multiple ring highways. If more people can work from home, more suburbanites might be willing to be further out.
  2. Even as suburbanites protect and celebrate rising housing prices, this also limits what others can purchase. Suburbanites have a long history of moving in and pulling up the gates behind them. But, even as suburban homeowners watch their personal wealth grow, others will not necessarily get the same opportunities.
  3. Is the primary plan for affordable housing in American metro regions to just keep the sprawl going? At some point, this may not be possible due to conditions – see the price jumps in construction cited above – or changing ideologies about where to live.

It would be interesting to compare this to other metropolitan areas across regions and price points.

Numbers on the reduced inventory of starter homes in the United States

I have noted the decline of starter homes in multiple posts (examples here and here). Here is recent data from the National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of Realtors about this decline:

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Homes ranging in price from $100,000 to $250,000, the typical cost for an entry-level home, have seen nearly a 28% decrease in inventory from a year ago, says the National Association of Realtors.

And smaller homes are also in short supply. In 1999, 37% of newly-built single-family homes were smaller than 1,800 square feet. By 2020, that share had fallen to 25%, Dietz said.

In comparison, in 1999, 66% of newly-built single-family homes were smaller than 2,400 square feet while in 2020, that share had fallen to 57%.

These are two very important factors for getting into purchasing a home. A lower price means a smaller down payment and mortgage is needed. Smaller homes are cheaper because they have fewer square feet and cost less to construct.

And without this ability to enter the housing market, it will take potential homebuyers longer to enter, if they can enter at all. This precludes them from building housing equity and stepping up to larger or more expensive residences in the future. It limits the ability of people to pursue homeownership, a goal many Americans have.

Tackling both price and housing size will be difficult in many markets where developers, builders, and those in the real estate industry can get more. Yet, here is an opportunity to appeal to an important sector of potential homeowners if solutions can be put into practice.

The implications of unevenness in rapid housing value appreciation

A new analysis suggests housing prices did not increase as much in recent years in some wealthier areas:

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House prices were up less than 1% last quarter from a year earlier in Westchester, New York, for example — and not much more than that in Montgomery County, Maryland, a favorite of wealthy commuters to the capital.

The trend isn’t limited to the east coast, with Chicago’s Cook County posting an increase of 2%. By comparison, almost two-thirds of the counties surveyed saw prices rise more than 10%…

“Demand today tends to be stronger at the entry and mid-priced tiers of the market than at the higher end,” said Rick Sharga, Attom’s executive vice president of market intelligence. “Price appreciation tends to rise more quickly in counties with a higher percentage of lower-priced homes available.”…

In more than three-quarters of the 586 counties analyzed by Attom, housing was less affordable than in the past relative to incomes.

Interpreting this report about the data and trends, it sounds like housing prices increased faster than incomes in many places but not all places. Additionally, housing did not appreciate at the same rate; places with more cheaper housing appreciated more.

Two quick thoughts in response:

  1. There is a need to both see housing as a national issue and a need to understand local variation in housing. While so much about housing can be local, there is also a tendency to make sweeping claims about housing across the country as a whole. Better addressing both levels of analysis requires better reporting of data and different kinds of analysis. (And this is why national housing policy is so difficult.)
  2. There is an idea that people who need cheaper housing can move to places or markets with cheaper housing. What if enough people move to those cheaper housing areas so that there is no longer cheaper housing? I’m thinking of the rapid housing value increases in Austin. In the first place, not everyone can simply move to take advantage of that cheaper housing, but, even if they did, this would defeat the purposes of moving as housing prices would increase.

Both wanting to be and limit the effects of being the next popular city

The case of Spokane, Washington highlights how communities want to grow and be popular but they do not necessarily want what comes with the growth:

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Whether it’s Boise, Idaho, or Reno, Nevada, or Portland, Oregon, or Austin, Texas, the American housing market is caught in a vicious cycle of broken expectations that operates like a food chain: The sharks flee New York and Los Angeles and gobble up the housing in Austin and Portland, whose priced-out homebuyers swim to the cheaper feeding grounds of places like Spokane. The cycle brings bitterness and “Don’t Move Here” bumper stickers — and in Spokane it has been supercharged during the pandemic and companies’ shift to remote work.

No matter how many times it happens, no matter how many cities and states try to blunt it with recommendations to build more housing and provide subsidies for those who can’t afford the new stuff, no matter how many zoning battles are fought or homeless camps lamented, no next city, as of yet, seems better prepared than the last one was…

All of this happened fairly recently. In the years after the Great Recession, when homebuilders were in bankruptcy or hibernation, migration to the Spokane area plunged. That pattern shifted in 2014 when, as if a switch had been flipped, waves of migrants started arriving as already high-cost cities like Seattle and San Francisco saw their housing markets go into a tech-fueled frenzy…

Five years ago, a little over half the homes in the Spokane area sold for less than $200,000, and about 70% of its employed population could afford to buy a home, according to a recent report commissioned by the Spokane Association of Realtors. Now fewer than 5% of homes — a few dozen a month — sell for less than $200,000, and less than 15% of the area’s employed population can afford a home. A recent survey by Redfin, the real estate brokerage, showed that homebuyers moving to Spokane in 2021 had a budget 23% higher than what locals had…

Last year, Woodward declared a housing emergency, and her administration has put in place initiatives that mirror those of housing-troubled cities on the West Coast. The city has built new shelters, is encouraging developers to repurpose commercial buildings into apartments, is making it easier for residents to build backyard units, and is rezoning the city to allow duplexes and other multiunit buildings in single-family neighborhoods.

The primary focus here is on housing and the increase in prices. From what is described above, a good number of long-time residents now struggle to find decent housing. This is indeed a problem to consider.

I would guess there are other changes as well: increased business activity, more traffic, newcomers operating in local civic organizations and institutions. Many of these changes are assumed to be good in most communities: growth means status, activity, and increased tax revenues. Sure, there are some externalities – sprawl and what comes with it, changes to how things have been – but these are often viewed as growing pains. Growth is good.

The implication in this story is that this could happen to any community: people from the outside discover an undiscovered location and their moves drive up housing costs. Yet, I wonder how true this is. Will people in overheated housing markets really go anywhere or only to certain locations? Spokane is within a particular region plus has its own features and its own history. Would people from the coasts end up in Youngstown, Ohio or Fargo, North Dakota, Jackson, Mississippi, or Detroit, Michigan where there is plenty of cheaper housing and distinct local character? The housing game may not just be an endless one where those with resources are always searching out the next cheaper market; there are limits to where people go and invest their resources.

Targeted incentive programs – described here – might help with this issue as communities seek out particular kinds of residents they would like. If those programs turned into floods of people, how many would really want to turn that down?

Median home values in Austin more than double in one decade

In the last decade, housing values have jumped a lot in Austin, Texas:

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A decade ago, Austin, the capital of Texas often deemed a liberal oasis in a staunchly conservative state, was among the most affordable places to live. Now, according to a forecast prepared by Zillow, a real estate company that tracks affordability, the Austin metropolitan area is on track to become by year’s end the least affordable major metro region for homebuyers outside of California. It has already surpassed hot markets in Boston, Miami and New York City…

Home sale prices in the city of Austin skyrocketed to a record median of $536,000 in October, up from about $441,250 a year ago. And they have more than doubled since 2011, when the median sales price was $216,000, according to the Austin Board of REALTORS, a trade group. Rentals, too, have surged, with the average cost of an 864-square-foot apartment now $1,600.

Much of this article addresses the effects on the city and residents. The rapidly rising costs have consequences for many.

Thinking beyond this particular city, I wonder at the convergence of people, business, and real estate in the last decade in one city and region. Particular communities, including cities and suburbs, have experienced this before during boom times. Is Austin’s case unique or is it simply the latest American community to go through such growth? Austin has a unique mix of tech industry, cool culture, it is the capital of an important state and home to the flagship university in the state system, and once had cheaper housing.

At some point, the pace will slow down in Austin. This could happen because of the rising real estate values or other factors. What community and region is next? Based on what made Austin successful, I could venture some guesses. The first places that come to mind are on Richard Florida’s lists of creative class havens in The Rise of the Creative Class. Or, perhaps the tech industry gathers in a new yet unlikely location that offers similar advantages.

When new residents to an area bring a lot more money to spend on housing

A piece in the New York Times highlights what happens when residents from one part of the United States move to another. One aspect of this: the new residents can bring a lot of money with which to purchase a home.

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According to a recent study by Redfin, the national real estate brokerage, the budget for out-of-town home buyers moving to Boise is 50 percent higher than locals’ — $738,000 versus $494,000. In Nashville, out-of-towners also have a budget that is 50 percent higher than locals. In Austin it’s 32 percent, Denver 26 percent and Phoenix 23 percent.

As the commentary goes on to note, this means that prices in certain housing markets can then go up. New residents with resources compete with existing residents who may or may not be able to keep up. Several thoughts arise:

-Imagine current NIMBY practices at a national level instead of just at a local or regional level. The piece hints that people in multiple locations might want to restrict migration from California. Mass movements of people in the United States are not heard of and restrictions have been applied before.

-This presents an interesting conundrum for local officials and local planners. Growth is usually good. Until it is not the kind of growth local residents want or it is growth driven by outside forces. If communities want to grow and attract wealthier residents, are they also willing to accept the changes that might come?

-Just as some communities have requirements that developers of big projects pay fees or provide affordable housing, is there some way for a community to “tax” newcomers to help provide funds to offset changes?

-Do these patterns eventually lead to from a perpetual search for the new hot, lower cost of living location? Once Boise, Austin, and Nashville are different, what places come next – Omaha, Billings, Baton Rouge? This would take quite a while to work out but I do wonder how many attractive lower cost of living places there can be at any one time.

Data from Washington, D.C. does not suggest people are fleeing for the suburbs

A new analysis from Brookings Institution suggests real estate sales are down in both Washington, D.C. and its suburbs during COVID-19:

In the Washington, D.C. metro area, there’s no sign so far that residents in the urban core are more anxious to sell their condos and rowhouses than suburbanites are to ditch their McMansions. Home sales for the entire metro area dropped in March 2020, very similar to the pattern in the District. (Washington, D.C. accounts for less than 15% of the metro area’s population and home sales.)

Breaking out the year-over-year change in home sales for each local jurisdiction in the metro area shows similar patterns in the urban core (darkest gray), inner suburbs (medium gray), and exurban jurisdictions (light gray).

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Other items of note:

  1. Prices have not dropped (similar to elsewhere).
  2. As I noted a few posts ago:

In the U.S., large cities have been hit earliest—and hardest—by the coronavirus pandemic, spawning a cottage industry of speculation over whether city-dwellers will flee to low-density suburbs.

Without seeing the data from a lot of major metropolitan areas in the United States, it is hard at this point to conclude much of anything. Perhaps New York City is an outlier where people want to go to the suburbs to escape all of its density. Are transportation patterns in Washington D.C. where a majority of residents drive daily more like Los Angeles than New York City?

Analysis from Moody Analytics suggested Washington D.C. is one of the metro areas more likely to rebound from COVID-19. Would such a recovery help the city and region move toward being the true second city in the United States?

Maybe Washington D.C. is another outlier in all of the possible data. That leads to another question that often comes up when talking about urban theory: what is the modal American city, particularly in the time of COVID-19?

Amenities, ROI on housing, and social class

A recent piece linking amenities to higher return on investment for housing left unnamed a key factor: social class.

It turns out that if Trader Joe’s is nearby, your house might be worth more than if it were close to other grocery chains. The average return on investment, or ROI, for Trader Joe’s-adjacent homes is 51 percent, 10 percentage points more than the runner-up, Whole Foods (41 percent), and almost 20 percentage points more than Aldi (34 percent)…

“When we overlay points of interest (like transit, shopping, and amenities) on top of prices, we see trends in the distance to these features,” Marshall says. “In urban areas, ClearAVM has found that access to public transit has a large correlation with higher property prices. We have found the same with access to restaurants, coffee shops and groceries in urban and suburban areas.”…

Some of the positive location amenities that can impact home values and equity include high-ranking schools, hospitals, shopping centers, green spaces and being near the waterfront (think oceans and lakes), as well as access to highways and main thoroughfares.

Negative location markers include things like high-traffic and high-noise areas, crowded commercial properties, high-tension power lines or other utility easements, a poorly maintained home or neighborhood, and not being near the appealing attractions mentioned earlier, Hunt says.

While I don’t doubt these factors do influence housing values, there is a common factor that helps join them all together: the social class of residents. Grocery stores, like many other businesses, figure out where to locate at least in part on looking at the residents who live nearby. Whole Food’s is generally not going to move to a community where residents do not have the resources to pay their prices. Aldi, in contrast, appeals to a different market. Going further, think of the differences in locations between Walmart and Target, McDonald’s and Chipotle, Dollar Stores versus chain drug stores, and more.

A number of the items on the list of “positive location amenities” are also closely connected to social class. High-ranking schools tend to be in wealthier communities. The same is true of shopping centers and higher property values mean only certain kinds of residents can afford homes on the waterfront.

This does not mean that there is not more affordable housing in these areas with positive amenities. There may be. But, I would guess the zip codes connected to the higher-class grocery stores tend to be wealthier and more educated zip codes overall. The habitus of social class extends even to what grocery stores people prefer, the desired appearance of nearby homes, and close amenities that help reinforce their social class, practices, and tastes.

McMansion values still slow to recover in one wealthy Chicago suburb

The values of McMansions may be proportionally down and evidence from one well-off Chicago suburb suggests they are selling at similar prices to 15 years ago:

In South Barrington, home to swathes of McMansions, the market has been slow to recover. There, large single family homes regularly hit the market at the same prices they sold for in the ’00s, indicating an enduring lack of demand in the northwestern suburb.

Despite the risk that these homes presented leading up to the recession, it would seem they’re a more sensible investment today — so long as buyers know what they’re getting into. Pound for pound, McMansions are a ton of house for the money. But they’re not speculative equity, and they’re not a retirement account.

It would be helpful to see more data across suburbs. Without such figures, it is hard to know if:

  1. Is this an issue related to Barrington and its location and amenities? The suburb is almost all white and Asian and has a median housing value of just over $800,000. Is there less demand for housing in this particular location?
  2. Is this a problem for all McMansions in the Chicago area? If people are indeed seeking more “surban” locations or Baby Boomers are all trying to unload their McMansions at once, there might be relatively few buyers for such homes in a region of over 9 million residents.
  3. Are the particular features of these homes limiting the value? This could be due to particular features of the homes or many are now up for updates that have not been done.

The issue may not be McMansions at all: perhaps it is the mindset common among Americans that houses should be investments that increase significantly in value.