On the House | Housing slump is a hot topic all over

Posted: August 19, 2007

There's no vacation from thinking about real estate.

I know. I've tried.

Case in point: I flew to Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago to visit my older son, who gets back East only at Christmas.

We were having a very late breakfast at the Nosh, a Beverly Hills deli that bakes its bagels on the premises, when two men took the booth behind us.

The man facing me appeared to be in some sort of pain, or so his expression indicated.

"I disclosed everything about the house," he told his companion, "and now they're coming back at me with a list and are threatening to sue. I mean, I told them everything I knew, and still it wasn't enough."

The bottom line: He could lose "millions," he said.

Behind us, another man yammered away into his cell phone.

"It's still too much money," he said. "In this market, they ought to be glad to have a buyer."

On my table sat the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, their front pages trumpeting huge two-day losses on Wall Street attributable to the weakness of the national housing market.

Remember, from 2001 to late 2004, the housing industry propped up the rest of the economy. Without a strong housing market, a not-so-dynamic economy can't stand straight.

The stock market reacted badly when Countrywide Financial Corp. announced that its quarterly profit had slid 33 percent, then slashed its full-year earnings outlook because of rising loan defaults. Shares of Countrywide fell as much as 8.7 percent, to their lowest level since November 2005, and its quarterly profit decline was its third straight.

Since Countrywide is the nation's largest mortgage lender, the announcement hit pretty hard everywhere.

Though I sense a lot of panic in many places around the country - Florida, California and Las Vegas, to name the three I've been to in the last few months - the Philadelphia region exudes concern because of lower sales and longer market time, but remains calm.

Real estate is local, and the latest Beige Book report on Philadelphia from the Federal Reserve Bank confirms that.

An Associated Press story published July 26 quoted Steven Cochrane of Moody's Economy.com in West Chester as saying that this region has not been hit as hard by the housing slump because it never had the stratospheric rise in home prices that occurred in places such as Boston and parts of Florida.

That's something that Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Economy.com, has been telling me for more than two years, seconded by others.

Today, markets such as California and Florida are in terrible shape.

"Declines in sales continue, and with inventories still way out of line, unless prices fall a lot more, the housing market will not turn anytime soon," said Joel F. Naroff, chief economist of Commerce Bank.

Median prices overall have continued to climb an average 5 percent in our region over the last several quarters, but that certainly hasn't been the case everywhere. So a lot of marginal borrowers who were talked into exotic adjustable-rate mortgages based on the assumption that values would continue to rise are unable to refinance now because their houses aren't worth what they paid for them.

In addition, the regulatory epiphany about, and the reaction to, the weakness of the subprime market has forced lenders to rein in their generosity, and mortgage money just isn't there for the taking these days.

The result: Some other markets are overburdened by delinquencies and foreclosures.

"Based on the rate of foreclosure activity in the first half of 2007, we could easily surpass two million foreclosure filings by the end of the year," predicted James J. Saccacio of RealtyTrac, which monitors foreclosures nationwide.

After we were through at the Nosh, we headed back to our hotel. In the lobby was the sign of the times in L.A.:

A 90-minute seminar by expert Cleo Katz on how to buy foreclosed real estate.

"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.

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