Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Are we there yet? Don't bet on it.

So it seems we have a variety of opinions regarding the proverbial bottom of the market: folks with vested interests in a thriving real estate market, like and commercial real estate mogul Sam Zell, claim that there are signs the market will improve in the next few months. Well, actually, Zillow did an opinion poll of users and reported that a majority of respondents think the market has hit bottom...wishful thinking, perhaps?

Meanwhile, economists familiar with the details of the actual economy - you know, employment, consumer purchases, home sales, default rates - have a sobering, and ultimately more accurate assessment.

Here's why we're nowhere near the bottom of the foreclosure-driven real estate market:

1. Unemployment continues to rise. Unemployment is near 9% nationally, and over 11% here in California. The rate is expected to top 10% nationally by the end of the year, and may top 12% in California. What's more, unemployment has a ripple effect on salaries and household incomes, because the few available jobs generally offer lower salaries and fewer benefits than jobs in a healthier economy. Because housing values (in a stable, realistic market - please ignore the 2002 through 2006 fiasco) are inextricably linked to household incomes, the "real" (read: the part of the market other than foreclosure investors and bargain hunters) housing market cannot recover until household incomes stabilize.

2. The foreclosure rate of prime loans is increasing. I hope that Congress is paying attention to this figure. According to data released by First American CoreLogic , the number of prime loans at some stage of serious delinquency (90+ days late) or foreclosure is more than 1.5 million - nearly equal to the number of subprime loans in serious delinquency or foreclosure. What this means is that we can no longer pretend that the foreclosure crisis is limited to "irresponsible people who bought more than they could afford" - the problems in the housing market are hitting literally millions of people who fall outside that stereotype. Some economists estimate that more than half of the defaults this year will be caused by unemployment.

3. The shadow inventory. We have a large number of homes that are not currently on the market, but will be soon, as REOs. Banks have been dragging their heels on foreclosures, mainly due to political pressure and their requests for taxpayer handouts. But now, with foreclosure activity ramping up again, banks will end up owning a lot more real estate. This is in addition to the real estate they already own but have kept off the market. Rising inventories of REOs will have to be liquidated sooner or later. This inventory is estimated to be hundreds of thousands of homes, and as we're on track to see close to 3 million foreclosures this year, those numbers are sure to rise. Banks keen on ridding their balance sheets of non-performing real estate assets will dump their REOs at rock-bottom prices, which will keep values depressed.

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