Redfin – and America – selling an unattainable American Dream of homeownership?

The CEO of Redfin recounts how he has viewed who can and should be able to purchase homes:

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

Rampant speculation and skyrocketing property values have left Kelman feeling almost nostalgic for those years leading up to 2008, which, in retrospect, were the last time the working poor could reasonably aspire to home ownership in America. “I used to read stories about strawberry pickers buying McMansions in central California, and everybody viewed that as just the absolute apex of insanity,” Kelman told me. “But reading Piketty five years later, is it so bad that the strawberry picker had a nice house?”

Conceding that the picker probably could not afford his McMansion, and that the loans that put him in it were untenable, Kelman nevertheless liked this gaudy permutation of the American Dream. More than that, he disliked the level of “elitist judgment” surrounding these types of homes, which he views as nothing more sinister than the market’s attempt to grapple with problems politicians are content to ignore. In Kelman’s view, the left is eager to help the poor rent homes but not own them, while the right tends to ignore their plight altogether. Meanwhile, rampant NIMBYism prevents the kind of building that might help bring home prices back down to earth.

It had put him in a mood to reflect somewhat darkly on the future of housing in America. “The original premise of my stint at Redfin was that we’re selling the American Dream and the idea that everyone can afford a house sooner or later if they work hard and play by the rules,” he said. “Recently, I’ve had this feeling that there are so many people who are never going to become Redfin customers — that maybe the product we’ve been selling just isn’t a middle-class product anymore but an affluent product.” In February, anticipating a future in which homeownership is out of reach for more and more people, Redfin spent $608 million to acquire RentPath and its portfolio of apartment-leasing sites.

The story as written suggests that Kelman originally subscribed to the idea that Americans who work hard and follow the rules would be able to purchase a home. This has been at least an implicit idea for decades, particularly in the postwar era. He did not like commentary that suggested some were less deserving to own homes or political positions that limited homeownership. But, after the housing bubble burst in the late 2000s, he realized homeownership was not available to all.

If this is correct, the Redfin pivot to apartment-leasing is an interesting choice. This could be a good business decision as rental housing is needed in many communities. At the same time, this does not necessarily line what up with what Kelman expressed. Apartments can provide housing but they do not provide the same kinds of opportunities as housing – such as building wealth – nor are apartment dwellers viewed the same way as homeowners. Americans continue to say that they would prefer to own a home.

Redfin and similar sites could play important roles in what homeownership looks like in the future. Exactly what influence they will have is less clear.

Bill Gates could buy every home in Boston and still have $1 billion left

Redfin suggests Bill Gates could purchase all the homes in Boston but not Seattle :

If Bill Gates took every dollar of his net worth (most of which comes from Cascade Investment, his investment firm, as well as Microsoft), he could afford to buy every home in Boston — and still be worth more than a billion dollars, according to a new report from the online real estate site Redfin.

For the report, Redfin calculated the combined cost of every single-family home, condo and townhouse in a city by looking at home sales between April 1, 2013, and April 1, 2014. These sales were used as a representative sample of all homes in a city. The combined costs were then lined up next to the net worth of billionaires on this Forbes list. (You can find more about the methodology here.)

So for Seattle, Redfin calculated that 241,450 homes in the city are worth a combined $111.5 billion dollars. Bill Gates could afford each of the 114,212 homes they included in the Boston calculation (total cost: $76.6 billion), but he couldn’t buy every home in Seattle. The Walton family that founded Wal-Mart could afford every home in Seattle, but only if they teamed up. They could also afford every home in a lot of other cities, including Miami, Dallas and Washington.

Using the combined home prices on this list, some billionaires could settle for purchasing a few smaller cities rather than picking up one of the pricier options. Mark Zuckerberg, who reportedly spend more than $30 million last year buying up homes near his Palo Alto house, could take his Facebook money ($28.2 billion) and buy every home in nearby Berkeley ($25.9 billion, according to Redfin). Or he could decide to buy up a few Zucker-bergs (sorry) across the country, purchasing Corvallis, Ore. ($9 billion), Punta Gorda, Fla. ($10.1 billion) and Oak Park, Ill. ($7.6 billion) with $1.5 billion left over.

See the full list of billionaires and cities they could buy here. The primary purpose Redfin gives for putting this together?

Given that the average American struggles to afford a home, we wanted to illustrate just how many homes the wealthiest among us could buy.

Certainly a stark comparison between the buying power of the typical American versus the wealthiest. So is Redfin pushing hard here to criticize the .01%? It doesn’t appear that way. There is no indication how the differences between Gates, the Waltons, and others might be evened out to provide homeownership opportunities for more Americans. Or, is this more about page-clicks and driving traffic to their website? This is a relatively easy way to leverage their data capabilities and capitalize on recent talk about inequality.

Good school districts give homes up to a $50 per square foot boost in value

Redfin suggests a home located in a high-performing school district can command a higher price:

How much more do they have to pay for a home that feeds into a top-ranked elementary school as opposed to an average-ranked school? Nationally, try an extra $50 per square foot, on average, according to the data crunchers at Redfin.

In the Chicago area, the median price of a home near top-tier schools was $257,500, 58.5 percent higher than the median price of $162,500 for a home near an average-ranked school.

The findings are a jolt of reality for almost 1,000 consumers who plan to buy a home in the next two years and completed a Realtor.com survey in July. More than half of those potential buyers said they’d be willing to pay as much as 20 percent above their budget to buy a home within certain school boundaries. Apparently, that’s not enough to get into the best schools.

To do its calculations, Redfin compared median sale prices of similar homes in the same neighborhood but which fell within the boundaries of different elementary schools. The transactions studied were those that closed between May 1 and Aug. 31 — a time when home prices were showing recovery in most parts of the country — and were listed on local multiple listing services. Then Redfin boiled those numbers down into median sales prices per square foot.

An interesting experimental design – houses matched by neighborhood but in different school districts – and an interesting finding.

This reminds me of hearing Annette Lareau speak at the American Sociological Association meetings this past August in New York City. When she and her fellow researchers looked at how middle and upper-class families took schools into account when searching for where to live, they found that they were able to quickly eliminate most school districts as not being good enough. In contrast to the lengthy research these parents did regarding other areas of life, through word of mouth, they were able quickly learn what neighborhoods they would buy in.

Putting this all together, if there are only so many homes in the top school districts, buyers can ask for more and expect some competition among people who want to be part of the better school district.