Separating McMansions from luxury homes

What is the difference between a McMansion and a luxury home? Here is one viewpoint:

Photo by Frans Van Heerden on Pexels.com

So, what exactly is a luxury home, Michael, you ask? Some people classify it by the style of the house, or perhaps by its finishes, or by the product brands in the home. So, how do we define a luxury home from a price standpoint? I know different brokerages and different real estate firms define luxury real estate differently. Many define a “luxury home” as a property that is priced at $1,000,000 or higher.  For the purposes of this article, we’re going to define a luxury home as a home that is listed for sale at at least three times the average sales price for that market. (There are four primary price points in most markets: starter-/entry-level, average, high-end and luxury pricing. I define high-end homes as homes that are two times the average sales price for that given area.)

Luxury is relative to that specific market. Most markets have luxury homes based on our definition; it’s all relative, however, because when people think of luxury, they often think of McMansions or estate homes, and that’s not always the case. To take action, you need to develop graphs and other visuals that can articulate the data for luxury and high-end real estate for/in your marketplace: Are you in a buyer’s market or a seller’s market? High-end and luxury homes start at what price point for your market?

I am interested in the ways the dimensions of a luxury home are different than those of McMansions. This is based on my four traits of McMansions.

  1. The absolute square feet of the home is not mentioned above. Presumably, both McMansions and luxury homes are large.
  2. The relative square footage is also not mentioned above. Perhaps luxury homes are generally larger than McMansions?
  3. The architecture and design is mentioned as luxury homes may have particular features and/or finishes. While McMansions are often criticized for mass produced features and/or poor architectural choices, luxury homes stand apart from this.
  4. The luxury home is more expensive, whether over $1,000,000 in price or some multiplier above the market or in a tier above others. McMansions are more expensive than small homes or starter homes but they are not as pricey as luxury homes. The luxury home is then a true luxury good available only to a few while McMansions are meant to appeal to a broader audience.

If the description above is correct, luxury homes are mostly different because of their price at the top end of the market. McMansions are not that; they may aspire to be luxury homes but they are for a different price point and have different features that have less to do with square feet and more to do with design elements or features.

(The next step might then be to provide advice for real estate agents and others who want to appeal to McMansion buyers and owners. How to stay away from luxury home territory and above more typical homes?)

Historic preservation, the ways cities and suburbs resist development projects, and property values

In a discussion of how historic preservation aligned with particular political interests in cities, a scholar describes how suburbanites resist development compared to those in cities:

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

The peculiar yet profound way in which historic preservation bound together issues of aesthetics, finance, and urban change is key to understanding why its popularity grew so rapidly in the middle of the 20th century. It also explains why a culture of historic preservation took root in some places more than others. Most suburbs—like the one on Long Island where Geller I once stood—relied on a different set of tools to stop development, such as open-space requirements and zoning codes that limited the number of new homes. To this day, historic preservation remains a less potent force in such places, largely because these other rules ensure that homes like Geller I are unlikely to be replaced by anything but McMansions. In cities with significant numbers of old buildings, however, preservation became an essential part of the process by which communities fended off urban-redevelopment projects.

While historic preservation does take place in the suburbs (and will come for McMansions at some point), it does not occur at the same level as in cities. As noted above, suburbs are not likely to approve significant changes to local zoning or buildings. Neighbors and residents will complain about changes to traffic, noise, lighting, and the character of a neighborhood in a way that tends to limit what a redeveloped property will be.

Cities also have zoning regulations and NIMBY responses to new structures but the presence of more buildings and uses in denser areas can make this all more complicated. Particularly in areas where redevelopment is hot, a new building might be very different than what has stood there for a long time.

But, as the article notes, historic preservation can be a tool used in a lot of places to halt plans:

Historic preservation not only gave this process of hyper-gentrification an imprimatur of political and legal legitimacy it might otherwise have lacked, but also continues to enable it in the present day. The LPC’s own website still notes that one of the purposes of New York’s landmarks law is to “stabilize and improve property values.” While the commission’s press releases paint an image of a body focused on protecting a diverse new array of buildings, the historic districts that already exist are, right now, a significant intervention in the city’s real-estate markets, whose main beneficiaries are the people who own land within them. Nor is this dynamic unique to New York. In California, wealthy cities like Pasadena and Palo Alto have recently tried to expand their landmarking powers in order to circumvent a new state law encouraging the construction of sorely needed housing. Simsbury, Connecticut, which is 87 percent white, just finalized a sale of nearly 300 acres to a land trust—killing an affordable-housing project in the process—on the premise that the site is historically significant because Martin Luther King Jr. once worked there. In Washington, preservationists have long tried to block the redevelopment of a water-filtration plant that hasn’t been used in 35 years on the basis that it is historically significant.

And perhaps this gets at the heart of the matter: whether using zoning or historic preservation, one of the goals of American residents is to enhance property values. Sonia Hirt argues that protecting single-family homes and their values is a primary goal of zoning in the United States. In a system that prizes the growth of home values, perhaps historic preservation plays a similar role.

Purchase your home to live in it…and consider its long-term investment potential

In a story about how to buy a home amid a hot housing market, one expert offers this advice:

Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com

Herbert recommended a different way of thinking about the timing of buying a house, one that I found much more comforting. “You ought to be making this as a housing decision and not an investment decision,” he said. If you’re buying a house, he advised, it should be because you want to live in it for at least five years, and ideally many more – which also will mean that even if prices fluctuate, you have a better chance of your investment appreciating over time. “The longer you stay in the house, the [less] your timing in this particular house-price cycle [will] matter,” he said.

This quote interested me for two reasons. First, Herbert says this is about buying a house and staying long term. Sure, the housing market might be crazy right now but a buyer should be thinking about living in the space for a while. But, then the advice pivots a bit to noting how this long-term view can pay off financially. The particular financial circumstances at purchase will fade away if the price of the home increases.

That financial considerations matter as people consider home purchases is certainly true. At the same time, the shift from seeing a home as a place for long-term living to primarily a financial investment is on display here. There are features about homeownership that Americans tend to like – you own the property, there is often some outdoor space, it is more private, it is a marker of success, and so on – that transcend financial conditions. Houses are more than just the dollar signs attached to them…right?

Perhaps it would take an extended period of a cooler housing market and other positive economic stability for houses to not just be financial investments. Or, the costs of homeownership in many places are already at a point where homes can only be viewed as financial objects.

For five years running and the highest priced real estate by close to $2 million: America’s most expensive zip code

One way to consider the geographic concentration of wealth in the United States is to look at the most expensive zip codes. The leader is both persistent and has housing costs significantly above others on the list:

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

“Reaching a new record median sale price at $7,475,000, Atherton’s 94027 remains the #1 most expensive zip code in the U.S. for the fifth consecutive year — nearly $2 million ahead of the runner-up,” the real estate property firm said in a news release. “Not only that, but the billionaire favorite also saw its median rise 7% year-to-year, suggesting that this exclusive enclave may continue to retain its leading position in the future.”…

The list of the ten most expensive zip codes includes several locations in the Bay Area, one in the Boston area, one outside New York City, one in Miami, several in southern California, and one outside Seattle. These are not surprising given the money in such locales plus the high real estate values in these markets.

At the same time, the Atherton zip code stands out. The housing is almost $2 million higher than other desirable locations. This does not necessarily it has the most expensive properties in the United States but it does speak to the uniformity across the zip code. And this has been the most expensive zip code for five years running. There is consistency which could be related to development activity (or a lack thereof), demand for housing in that particular place, and local regulations and zoning.

Even as numerous scholars have studied the concentration of poverty in certain locations or gentrification and changes in particular locations, I have not read as much on the concentration of wealth. How often does top-end wealth change locations? I would guess at least some of the zip codes in the top ten have been significantly wealthy for a long time. However, locations can change, new industries arise, and capital can move and real estate fortunes change. How different would a similar list be several decades ago or a century ago in the United States?

Rising real estate values in affordable markets make it harder to enter that market

Whether reading about rising real estate values in Elkhart, Indiana or Chicago area locations, this has an effect on who can enter the market as homeowners:

Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com

But after prices soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, even the lower-priced homes became out of reach for many low-income households, according to a recent report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University…

In June 2020, a home slightly below the median price was comfortably in that range, selling for $196,450, Hanifa found.

But one year later, a home that was 80% of the median price would sell for $220,562, meaning even lower-priced homes were no longer affordable for low-income buyers.

The loss of affordability was not limited to Chicago. Hanifa found low-income families could afford a home in just 20 of the country’s 100 largest metro areas in 2021, down from 39 the year before…

The hot housing market has had a trickle-down effect on neighborhoods such as Garfield Park, Humboldt Park and Belmont Cragin, he said. As buyers have been priced out of more expensive neighborhoods, they begin looking at a lower or middle-income neighborhoods where they can make offers over asking. Then residents of those neighborhoods can’t afford the homes for sale.

Rising home values are often viewed very positively. Those who own homes can benefit from the increase in prices without much work of their own. Over time, homeowners hope prices go up and they can get a strong return of investment at a sale.

But, this data is a reminder of the flip side of those same rising prices. If prices go up faster than other factors including accessing mortgages and rising incomes, those who want to enter the housing market – and reap the benefits of increasing real estate values – have a harder time doing so.

This dynamic is recognized in particularly expensive real estate markets. When people discuss Manhattan, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and a few other locations, people know there is a limited or nonexistent cheaper market for homeownership. This does not come up as often in cheaper markets, often in the Midwest or South, where prices are not as high and there are more options. If prices increase there as well to beyond what lower-income residents could afford, then what happens?

My quick takeaway: the need for affordable housing is great all over the place. If Americans continue to think that homeownership is a laudable goal, there is a lot to do to help make that possible for all.

A denser suburbia in California and the rest of the United States

The single-family home is the most important feature of American suburbs. What happens when conditions change and pressures lead to more multifamily housing units and denser housing in suburbia? From California:

Photo by Skylar Kang on Pexels.com

In June, as Ms. Coats told me about the house and the neighborhood from the doorstep of her bungalow, she gazed toward a fresh foundation that had entombed the back half of Lot 118 in concrete. Over the next few weeks, a construction crew erected a two-story building that filled in a green rectangle from the Clairemont Villas brochure. A few feet away, the original four-bedroom house was loudly gut-renovated into a pair of apartments.

When the workers head to their next job this month, they will leave what amounts to a triplex rental complex on the type of lot that in the seven decades since Ms. Coats’s family moved in had been reserved for single-family houses. It’s part of a push across California and the nation to encourage density in suburban neighborhoods by allowing people to subdivide single-family houses and build new units in their backyards…

In the vast zone between those poles lie existing single-family neighborhoods like Clairemont, which account for most of the urban landscape yet remain conspicuously untouched. The omission is the product of a political bargain that says sprawl can sprawl and downtowns can rise but single-family neighborhoods are sealed off from growth by the cudgel of zoning rules that dictate what can be built where. The deal is almost never stated so plainly, but it is the foundation of local politics in virtually every U.S. city and cuts to the core of the country’s deepest class and racial conflicts…

“It doesn’t fit.” “It’s adding people.” “We don’t want that here.” “There’s other places for that.” “We just want to keep our neighborhood like it is.” “They want to push us out and tear our houses down.” “Parking.” “Parking.” “Parking.”

Several quick thoughts on these changes in many suburban communities:

  1. Where exactly this density will happen will be fascinating to watch. Will it happen in wealthier suburban communities or will they be able to keep it at bay? Inner-ring suburbs are often already more familiar with such density but this is less common in suburbs further from the big city.
  2. The housing pressure is acute in California but is not so clear or as well publicized in many other locations. If this works in California, where else does it show up?
  3. The NIMBY concerns cited above will be vocally shared again and again. The appeal for many single-family home owners is the space between neighbors, relatively lots of room for parking, and not feeling like the neighborhood is crowded.
  4. How much are #1-3 above linked to another long-term pattern in suburbia: race and exclusion? Homeowners will say it is about protecting their properties – particularly their property values, which single-family home zoning is intended to do – but it is also about who is able to live in the neighborhood and community.
  5. The addition of units and people to existing single-family home neighborhoods is a different approach to denser suburbia than creating larger-scale “surban” projects that some would find desirable near suburban downtowns or in large-scale redevelopment.

Housing appraisals reflect existing racial inequalities in housing

A new published sociology study connects housing appraisals and race:

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

For decades, research has shown that houses in predominantly Black neighborhoods have been generally appraised at lower values than houses in majority-white neighborhoods. This is true even when comparing housing stocks that have the same characteristics (age, square footage, number of rooms, etc.) and neighborhoods of equal socioeconomic status.

The new study finds that the racial composition of a neighborhood was an even “stronger determinant” of a home’s appraised value in 2015 than it was in 1980, to Black homeowners’ increasing disadvantage. Analyzing reported home values, Howell and Korver-Glenn found that the race appraisal gap has doubled since 1980: The difference in average home appraisals between neighborhoods that are majority-white and those that are predominantly Black and Latina was $164,000 in 2015, up from about $86,000 in 1980.

Rather than explaining the racial inequity as a vestige of historic segregation, the study finds more culpability in a method used to calculate appraisals today, the “sales comparison approach,” which determines a home’s appraised value by looking at the prices of other similar homes that were recently sold from the same neighborhood. The real estate industry sees this as a race-neutral way of appraising homes so that it doesn’t run afoul of fair housing laws, and it is one of the key criteria used for determining property values. But what makes this method problematic, according to the study, is that it basically grandfathers in racist home pricing that existed before fair housing legislation.

In other words, if an appraiser is calculating  the value of a home in a Black neighborhood by comparing it to houses recently sold around it, then chances are she is comparing it to other Black-owned houses that, because of the legacy of segregation, have handicapped values in the market compared to similar homes in white communities appraised at higher prices. The unfairly valued prices of homes in Black neighborhoods before the 1970s thus serves as the baseline for how homes are appraised and priced today. While the Fair Housing Act and Community Reinvestment Act forbade practices like redlining and denying mortgage loans based on race, they did nothing to readjust housing prices in segregated neighborhoods after they were passed.

In other words, past decisions and actions valued homes in white neighborhoods more than homes in black neighborhoods because of racism. Today, appraisals that typically compare homes in like neighborhoods perpetuate those different homes values. The system carries on these inequities even if no appraiser is intentionally racist; the way things are done continues the patterns set decades before.

There is another question here as well: what exactly are appraisals and housing values based on if they contingent on factors like race and not just on the characteristics of the home? Is there inherent value in a particular configuration of home traits – say a three bedroom, two bedroom home with a two car garage – or is the value completely dependent on what society says it is? I know the market is involved and the head of an international appraisal association is quoted later in the article cited above talking about supply and demand. But, if supply and demand says some homes are worth more because of the people who own them and the people in the neighborhood, this does not exactly sound like a desirable “free market.”

Flipping houses stats – up then Great Recession then up then down again – and questions

How many houses have been flipped in the United States in the last fifteen years? Here are some of the stats:

person holding pencil

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

In the first three months of 2020, 7.5% of homes sold in the United States were flipped, according to a June report from real estate research firm ATTOM Data Solutions. That’s the highest rate since 2006 and a jump from 6.3% at the end of 2019.

Home flipping rates had dropped drastically in 2007 and began to gradually recover in 2010. The number of flipped homes sold in a quarter peaked around 100,000 in 2005, and while it was on the rise in recent years, a decline began in the second quarter of 2019. In the first quarter of 2020, 53,705 single-family homes and condos were flipped, according to the report.

Profit margins have also dropped since 2019, hitting the lowest return-on-investment since 2011. After plummeting with the national economy between 2006 and 2008, profit margins on flipped homes grew at a steady rate until 2017. But since then, return-on-investment has been on a decline.

Still, it’s too soon to fully grasp how the coronavirus pandemic will impact the house flipping market through 2020 and beyond, ATTOM chief product officer Todd Teta said in a statement.

Flipping homes is by now a well-known process due to TV shows and personalities plus its spread throughout the United States. Yet, alongside other phenomena featured on HGTV and among certain groups (such as tiny houses), it can be hard to know how widespread a phenomena is.

Not surprisingly, these stats suggest flipping homes is connected to broader economic conditions: flipping increases when property values are high and repairs to a home can pay off in a sale. When times are tough and property values stagnate or even drop, there is less money to be made in flipping homes.

In the data above, it would be helpful to see how the national trends compare to patterns in particular places. Does flipping work in the hottest markets where prices are already high (limiting who can flip)? What about Rust Belt communities in good and bad times? Suburbs? Urban neighborhoods? I would guess there is a lot of variation across communities.

It is also worth considering what happens to the housing stock in places where flipping does or does not take place. If flipping happens, older housing stock gains new life. If it does not, do these homes simply keep sliding into disrepair?

Finally, this article starts with an example of a family involved in a flipping business but says very little about the role of small flipping businesses or more corporate operations. Even if flipping activity declines during tougher economic times, does it present opportunities for some to buy up properties to flip later? How do the profit margins differ across different kinds of flippers? Are smaller firms or family-owned flippers viewed more favorably by communities than corporate entities?

Housing prices up during COVID-19

During COVID-19, few people are looking for homes – and even fewer are selling:

The median home price rose 8% year-over-year to $280,600 in March, according to the National Association of Realtors. While buyer demand has softened and sales fell 8.5% that month from the prior month, the supply of homes on the market is contracting even faster, recent preliminary data shows…

What’s more, many sellers have been reluctant to cut prices. Only about 4% of sellers cut their prices in the week ended April 25, down from 5.7% during the same week last year, according to Realtor.com. ( News Corp, parent of The Wall Street Journal, operates Realtor.com.)…

Total listings of homes for sale, meanwhile, have hit a five-year low, while the median listing price was up 1% from last year at $308,000, Redfin said.

The housing market has been undersupplied for years. During the pandemic it may get worse. There were 1.5 million units for sale at the end of March, NAR said, down 10.2% from a year earlier. Homeowners are waiting to list their houses, real-estate agents say, because they have decided not to move or they are worried about letting buyers into their homes during a pandemic.

It will be interesting to see how long this holds up given the rapid spike in unemployment. How many people will be in a position to buy or sell in the coming months? And how long will it take for housing markets to return back to pre-Covid levels of activity?

Beyond prices, which matter to many homeowners who want to do everything they can to keep property values going up, there are additional big issues at play. One is noted above: a lack of housing supply long-term, particularly in certain markets and in certain segments. Another is the possible effects on the mortgage industry. A third is what this does to the idea of housing when there have been two  major shocks to housing in the last fifteen years. A fourth is whether people decide they want to live in certain locations more because of health risks. Like other sectors of society, COVID-19 may expose or hasten problems with existing issues.

In other words, stay tuned.

Property massively misvalued by accident, consequences to come

Correctly entering property values into tax databases is an important task. When it goes wrong, lots of people might have to pay:

The 1,570-square-foot house built in 1978 on 2 acres in an unincorporated area of the county was recorded in 2019 tax rolls with a market rate value of more than $987 million and an overestimate of about $543 million in taxable value. In reality, the property should have only had a 2019 taxable value of $302,000, according to county property records.

That error — which the Wasatch County assessor explained possibly occurred when a staff member may have dropped their phone on their keyboard — has resulted in a countywide overvaluation of more than $6 million and revenue shortfalls in five different Wasatch County taxing entities.

The biggest impact was on the Wasatch County School District, unable to collect nearly $4.4 million already budgeted.

Wasatch County officials say they “deeply regret” the error and are reviewing policies and procedures to ensure it never happens again. But they’re also warning Wasatch County taxpayers they will likely see an increased tax rate over perhaps the next three years to make up for the lower amount collected in 2019.

Communities rely on correct property assessments to lead to paid taxes which then generate monies for local governments and services. If something goes wrong in that pipeline – here it was a wrong value which was not caught for months – then essential services may not be provided. This all happens in the background, making it essential infrastructure that like other public works do not often get recognized unless it goes really wrong.

One thought: could the software or databases have a built-in checker that would flag significant year-to-year changes? In this case, a significantly higher assessment one year could trigger a warning to check the numbers again.

A second thought: do we know anything about the correctness of entries in such databases? Are they 99% accurate, 99.9% accurate, 99.99% correct? Even at these high rates of accuracy, a few incorrect values could make a difference.