I have always lived within roughly 15 minutes of a major highway: easy access, no noise

In the homes in which I have lived, I have always had relatively easy access to highways. A short ten to fifteen minute drive is all it would take to get to a major highway and, barring traffic, an additional thirty minutes could take us to a major airport, downtown, or out of the metropolitan area.

On one hand, this is a major convenience. Metropolitan regions have areas that are closer or further away to transportation options. In the Chicago region which features a hub and spoke model of transportation (particularly the railroads but also the highways past I-355), living further out from the city means residents could be located further away from major roads. Trips get longer when it takes more time to get on the faster roads.

Additionally, we get the benefit of living near the highway without the negative externalities of being too close. We do not hear the highway. We do not live near the businesses that tend to collect at a highway exist (gas stations, fast food restaurants, etc.). The lights along the highways and exits are beyond our sight.

One way to see these advantages at play is in real estate listings. In the Chicago region, locations near major highways (and rail lines), tend to have this listed in the property description. Of course, some properties may be too close and this can detract from the home and property. These properties can still sell – they may still be in desirable locations and be nice residences – but that road noise can detract from the private experience many suburbanites desire. In our last housing search, we saw a number of homes within hearing distance of highways and this is not something we wanted.

Watching TV to see people use Zillow

In watching a recent episode of House Hunters on HGTV, I was treated to brief scenes of the couple using Zillow:

HGTVZillow

Caveats:

-I know this is how people shop for houses today. I have done it myself.

-I would guess this means HGTV and Zillow are working together on the show in some capacity. (See a similar clip on ispotTV.)

-House Hunters tries (!) to show what looking at houses might look like.

Commentary:

Even though the scene was brief, I found it odd. It either seemed like obvious product placement (use Zillow rather than Redfin or MLS or other options!), uninteresting storytelling (watch people look at a screen!), or signaled some major change. As the couple then moved to driving around by themselves and looking at houses, I thought for a short moment that they would not even need a realtor: they had found listings online, arranged their own details, and would tour on their own. (Alas, the realtor just met them at the first house tour.)

While there is a lot of potential for HGTV and other similar programming to incorporate devices and screens (mainly smartphones and tablets) into their portrayals of finding property, there is a bigger issue at play for television and film: how can you interestingly portray handheld screens that so many of us are buried in on a daily basis within a story that has to move at a rapid pace? This is not easy.

Considering the Wall Street Journal’s “mansion porn”

The Wall Street Journal sends a special supplement each week to readers looking at the houses of the wealthy:

Mansion, The Wall Street Journal’s real-estate supplement, arrives each Friday slipped into the middle of my newsprint edition, the way pornography (so I’m told!) used to come in unmarked envelopes back before the internet placed it at everyone’s fingertips. I’m satisfied with my weekly print version, but you may prefer reading Mansion on the web, where the photographs are more numerous, detailed, lurid, and explicit…

The comparison to porn is apt. It’s also unoriginal and incomplete. A little more than a decade ago, when the century was young and right before their real-estate holdings drove millions of people into bankruptcy, New York magazine ran a regular feature about how fabulous it was to own real estate. And not just to own it, but to fantasize about it, drool over it, caress the photos and the sales price as though they were objects of sensual desire. The feature was called “Real Estate Porn,” in keeping with the salacious content.

Mansion invokes the same feelings of naughtiness: You’re watching people do something that, in a fairer and more just world, you’d be doing yourself. I think of Vivian Dixon and John Chapple, a married couple that Mansion introduced us to not long ago, as the exemplars of the Mansion character. They are voluptuaries of real estate. They grab houses the way the rest of us scoop mints from the little bowl as we leave a restaurant. At the time of the article’s publication, in May, they owned six residences, though by the time the piece ends you suspect their trigger finger is getting itchy again…

This willingness to take the wealthy on their own terms is a rarity in American business journalism. Reporters are usually more leery in their treatment of such subjects, when not nakedly hostile. Few people in the world despise the winners of the capitalist lotto more than the sorry drudges who are called to write about them. You’ll find a higher percentage of committed socialists in the newsroom of the Financial Times than at a lakefront party at Bernie Sanders’s dacha.

I have not seen this section but I wonder if tackles several darker essentials of American culture from the beginning:

  1. The presence of really wealthy people in the midst of an egalitarian/middle-class public discourse.
  2. The importance of real estate in American life. Sure, citizens can vote and a few people can move from the bottom to the top in unique ways but the real answer to getting ahead is real estate (from moving the frontier for 150+ years to gobbling up expensive properties in  global cities).
  3. The work that goes into homeownership in both maintaining and improving properties.
  4. The interest in seeing what the rich are up to and uncertainty about whether to critique their excess or celebrate their success.

It would be interesting to know how many Americans exist at this elite level of real estate. This is not the typical homeowner hoping to make money on their single-family home or the small market house flipper or the “dream hoarders” in the top quintile of earners; these are people buying and selling with large amounts of capital (perhaps some even thinking like the current president).

Beware of buying a 1×100 plot of land between villas at a real estate auction

One man was surprised to find out what he actually purchased in a Florida real estate auction:

Kerville Holness thought he’d done a great job snapping up a $177,000 Tamarac villa for only $9,100.

He got a 1-foot-wide, 100-foot-long strip of land on Northwest 100th Way — valued at $50.

It starts at the curb where two mailboxes have been installed, goes under the wall separating the garages of two adjoining Spring Lake villas, then extends out to the back of the lot…

The message from county officials and real estate experts is that auction participants need to do their homework and make sure they’ve checked for all possible problems a property might have…

Real estate is a hot investment option these days. Add the interest people across the United and world may have in property in southern Florida plus the ability to purchase online and you could get more situations like this. How many people would be willing to purchase a property without ever seeing it?

Perhaps the answer going forward is that a lot of people would be willing to do this. If you can buy a car without driving it first, then more and more properties and units could go this way. In hot markets where properties go fast and the competition is fierce, it probably already happens at higher rates.

I wonder if at some point there could be a local backlash about Internet property sales. Just the idea that someone from anywhere could purchase land or buildings might make some nervous. Takes places like Vancouver or southern California where outsiders are making a lot of purchases. Or, perhaps the backlash from angry buyers who did not get what they thought they would (such as in the story above) could change Internet property sales. What format or what details are needed to truly make physical property a salable commodity to Internet buyers all over?

Reporting on the return of investment for house flippers

Selling flipped homes is up while the average return on investment for flipping a home is down:

Homes that were resold within 12 months after being purchased made up 7.2 per cent of all transactions in the first quarter, the biggest share since the start of 2010, Attom Data Solutions reported Thursday. Meanwhile, the average return on investment, not including renovations and other expenses, dropped to 39 per cent, an almost eight-year low…

“Investors may be getting out while the getting is good,” Todd Teta, chief product officer at Attom Data Solutions, said in the report. “If investors are seeing profit margins drop, they may be acting now and selling before price increases drop even more.”

Three quick thoughts:

  1. The return on investment for flipping a home is down. Changes in the real estate market mean there are fewer homes with large return potential. I wonder how much of the lack of such homes is due to fewer homes on the market versus sellers getting better at pricing their homes versus multiple kinds of investors driving up prices at the lower price points.
  2. The return of investment of 39% sounds high…until you factor in “renovations and other expenses” which are not part of the figure. So what is the actual average return on investment once factoring in everything? 5%? 15%? This initial figure then helps make sense of the need of flippers to reduce expenses and make cost-effect renovations because those decisions directly connect to profits.
  3. Thinking of the money in house flipping, I have seen little about the accuracy of HGTV shows and other shows that often provide a purchase price, expenses summary, and then give a profit at the end. Are those figures normal? Do they represent unusual housing markets and/or unusual advantages to being part of a TV crew doing house flipping?

Argument: Trump “is acting like a real estate developer”

Want to understand the behavior of President Donald Trump? Megan McArdle suggests he is simply doing what a real estate development might do:

Because what you see on TV shows about house-flippers is, writ large, the nature of the whole business: To compete in a highly capital-intensive industry, almost everyone takes on a lot of debt. Like most real estate people, Trump loves debt — “There’s nothing like doing things with other people’s money,” he told a rally in 2016. “Because it takes the risk, you get a good chunk of it and it takes the risk.”…

That’s why the real estate business rewards a certain willingness to put everything you have on a long shot; if you can’t cheerfully take risks with horrific potential downsides, you need a different job. The best argument for this approach is that some problems can’t be solved any other way — if developers demanded steady, predictable incomes like the rest of us, most of America would still be farmland.

In its best form, the developer’s way of thinking can achieve the impossible — or at least what the more staid and methodical folks said was impossible. I opposed moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and was at best ambivalent about sticking with Kavanaugh, but I have to admit that the apocalyptic doom predicted by Trump’s opponents has so far failed to materialize, while the political gains were immediate, and large.

Then again, there’s a reason most of us don’t live like real estate developers, or want to. Bankruptcy is a sadly normal fact of life in the real estate business, which is why Trump can tout his extensive experience negotiating with creditors. The cost of gaining wins with big bets is that you never know when you might lose everything.

Analyzing behavior and motives from afar is a difficult task. Yet, this argument raises some interesting questions:

  1. Could an average American describe how a real estate developer operates? A few might be known to a broad number of people but I’m guessing many operate behind the scenes. And these developers can significantly effect communities.
  2. It would be interesting to know how the president polls among real estate developers. Would they proudly call him one of their own? Would they recognize the approach?
  3. Are there examples of other real estate developers who became political leaders? If so, did they act in similar ways?
  4. Is there a way to quantify or easily explain the amount of influence real estate developers have had in cities or places? Donald Trump was a big name developer: widely recognized, some degree of wealth, and a number of large buildings with his name on it. Yet, how much did he influence New York City or other locations?

 

Coldwell Banker’s map of Chicago area locations missing parts of Chicago

A Coldwell Banker insert in the Chicago Tribune included a map and listing of all their Chicago area locations (zoomed in portion below):

ColdwellBankerChicagoMap060219.jpg

It is easy to see all of the suburban locations, particularly in the north and west suburbs. In contrast, check out the city map. From my count, there are seven Chicago Coldwell Banker agencies. Five of these are on the north side. Two are not: one in the West Loop and one in Hyde Park.

But, the Chicago map does not just show disparate locations. It is not an accurate map. The city is oddly shaped. Let me count the ways:

  1. It has an oddly drawn western edge that happens to make the south side much smaller.
  2. The west and south sides do not exist in their full form compared to the north side which looks like it has the biggest area.
  3. The West Loop location should be roughly in the center of the city – it is not. The size of the south side is diminished.
  4. The locations in Chicago have a weird relation to each other. Why are the West Loop and Hyde Park locations so close to each other? According to Google Maps, they are an over 8 mile drive away from each other. Yet, Google Maps suggests the West Loop and Lincoln Park locations are roughly 3 miles apart.

Perhaps this is a function of making a map with labels (the text all has to fit). Or, this may be about marketing: Coldwell Banker has particular clients and they want to highlight their proximity to those potential customers.

Yet, the map severely distorts Chicago. As noted above, the west and south sides do not fully exist. Recent Chicago maps aimed at particular audiences have done this before. This map also hints at the relationship between real estate practices and decades-long discrepancies in where people in the region live. Real estate professionals are not passive bystanders in residential segregation; they were active participants working alongside lenders and governments. Homeownership today is still not completely a free market and is more available to some Americans than others. Coldwell Banker does not have locations in certain places and this likely has ties to race, ethnicity, and class as well as practices and patterns developed over decades.

I am not asking that Coldwell Banker open locations in certain places. I am asking for an accurate map that clearly shows where Coldwell Banker is and where it is not.

(And for those who think I am reading too much into this, my starting position is this: I assume race is a causal factor in American social life until shown otherwise, not vice versa.)