Property Grunt

Thursday, December 08, 2005

One more article then I'll call it a day.

A reader sent me this article from the Wall Street Journal

Investors Retreat
From Housing Market

Inventories Rise as Speculative Buying Slows
In Once-Hot Markets Like Phoenix and San Diego
December 7, 2005; Page D1

Individuals are pulling back from buying homes and condos as an investment, in a move that could accelerate the cooling of the housing market.

In markets such as Las Vegas, Miami, Phoenix, San Diego and Washington, D.C., where investor activity had been heated, fewer people are competing to buy properties as an investment, real-estate brokers and housing analysts say. Some investor-owned properties are returning to the market for sale. With the pace of price appreciation slowing, some investors who were betting on quick profits are instead being squeezed.

The apparent pullback by investors is recent and is just beginning to show up in national data. Evidence of the development can also be seen in a number of markets that had until recently been a hotbed of investor activity. As speculators withdraw from the market in San Diego, for instance, the number of investors buying property has fallen by nearly half, estimates Russ Valone, president of MarketPointe Realty Advisors, which tracks the San Diego housing market.

In the Phoenix area, as many as 30% of properties for sale are currently owned by investors, says Jay Butler, director of the Arizona Real Estate Center at Arizona State University. Six months ago, most investors were buying rather than selling, he says. The shift has helped to drive up inventories of homes for sale in the Phoenix area, which climbed to 22,340 in October from 8,600 in April, according to data from the Arizona Regional Multiple Listing Service.

In the latest sign that the housing market is cooling, the National Association of Realtors said yesterday that its index of pending home sales dropped 3.2% in October. The reading is the lowest since March.

It's too early to tell just how a pullback by investors will affect the broader housing market, but their impact on the housing boom has been considerable. Investors accounted for 9.6% of mortgages used to purchase homes in the first nine months of this year, the most recent data available, up from 6.7% in 2002, according to LoanPerformance, a unit of First American Corp. But the investor share began to drop in the third quarter, the firm says. The figures don't include second homes that may also provide rental income and serve as an investment.

A softening in investor demand is likely to accentuate any slowdown in home sales, says David Berson, chief economist at mortgage giant Fannie Mae. He estimates that home sales will fall 10.4% over the next two years, largely because of a decline in investor and second-home purchases. Mr. Berson also figures that without the recent surge in these purchases, home sales would have been 7.3% lower in each of the past two years. That estimate assumes that investment properties and second homes account for 10% of total sales.

Another concern is that investors will be quicker to sell if prices soften, accentuating any downturn, particularly in areas where speculation has been most prevalent. Some of the most vulnerable markets include Daytona, Fla., Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fresno and Bakersfield, Calif., according to Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Dennis McGill.

Even if investors don't all rush for the exits at once, more investor-owned properties are likely to return to the market over the next few years. In part, that's because many investors have bought preconstruction properties that won't be ready for occupancy for another year or two.

To be sure, investor demand remains strong in some parts of the country as investors take their profits in markets that have seen double-digit gains and move into areas such as Dallas, where price gains haven't been so steep. And while it's getting tougher for speculators to make a quick buck, brokers say that opportunities remain for investors who plan to hold their properties for several years.

Earlier this year, Sandra Geary, a broker in California's Sonoma County, was running seminars that drew as many as 200 would-be investors. She's also taken California investors on out-of-state home-buying expeditions to Arizona, Idaho, Nevada and Oregon and bought more than 30 rental properties for her own portfolio. But in recent months, her investor sales have fallen more than 75%. "Now that the market is slowing down, it's scaring investors away," she says.

Some brokers are advising speculators to put away their checkbooks. "I'm telling people who want to buy new construction to flip it that the gig is up," says Frank Borges LLosa, a real-estate agent in Arlington, Va.

Last year, Mike Morgan, a real-estate broker in Stuart, Fla., set up a Web site designed to attract investors scouring the Internet for preconstruction properties. But with the market softening, Mr. Morgan has cut back on promoting his site. Now, he works only with investors seeking "buy and hold" properties. "I haven't sold an investor a property to flip since June," he says.

Some investors also are backing out of preconstruction properties they bought. In San Diego, cancellation rates for new condominium units climbed 47% in the third quarter over the second, in part because a growing number of investors are getting cold feet, according to the Building Industry Association of San Diego County.

Cancellation rates for condo units are also rising in many other markets, including Florida and metropolitan Washington, according to the National Association of Home Builders. "It's largely because of investors" pulling back, says NAHB staff vice president for research Gopal Ahluwalia. "A whole lot of condo units are sitting empty." Whether a buyer can easily get out of a deal can depend on a number of factors, including the builder's policies and the terms of the buyer's contract.

With price appreciation slowing, it's getting tougher for investors looking to quickly flip a property to earn a return that's high enough to cover brokerage commissions, mortgage costs and other expenses. Prices for existing homes are expected to rise 12.4% this year, according to the National Association of Realtors, well above the 5.3% average annual gain since 1990.

Some investors are already getting pinched. Barry Fiske, an account manager, teamed up with a friend to buy a bungalow in the oceanside town of Hingham, Mass. The pair tore down the house and put up a three-story Victorian home that went on the market in October, priced at $889,000. After three price cuts, the asking price is now $799,000 and the opportunities to profit are "marginal," Mr. Fiske says. "We probably spent more than we originally intended to," he adds.

Robert Cayouette, a computer programmer, has put down deposits on 10 homes under construction in Florida, figuring he'd quickly flip them and make a profit of about $30,000 apiece. The first of those purchases, a three-bedroom home in Port St. Lucie, is expected to close this month. But Mr. Cayouette has learned he'll be lucky if the house fetches $285,000, or $10,000 less than his original purchase price. "I wouldn't be able to flip it if I wanted to," says Mr. Cayouette.

With home prices growing faster than rental rates, investors who decide to rent out their properties rather than sell them often can't make enough to cover mortgage payments, taxes and other costs. Arash Yazdi, an information technology consultant, decided to rent out his $465,000 townhouse in Merrifield, Va., this fall after a deal to sell the home fell through. He figures he's losing about $1,000 a month.

Write to Ruth Simon at ruth.simon@wsj.com1

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It's on folks. With the withdrawal of investors there will definitely be a drop in prices. But how far will the drop go? And will the serious buyers be more apt to wait it out longer to see home much momentum the price drops will gather?