On the House: The state of real estate misery

Posted: July 29, 2012

Is your glass half-empty or half-full today?

I think mine is half-empty. I'm looking at a statistic from the search engine Redfin that says one in four real estate listings comes under contract after less than 14 days on the market.

Which prompts two responses from me: First, how long does it take to move the three other houses? Second, how many of those contracts collapse under the weight of appraisals?

As of May, according to Prudential Fox & Roach's HomExpert Market Report, properties were spending an average 98 days on the market, four fewer than the same month in 2011.

In May 2010, the average was 80 days, and that was at the end of the government's $8,000 tax-credit program for qualified buyers.

The National Association of Realtors reported in April that one in three of its members was reporting a contract cancellation. I have neither heard nor seen anything that would suggest that the situation has changed.

Before one can make blanket statements about the market, one needs to consider that houses won't sell quickly if they are in places where no one wants to live. They also won't sell quickly if they are overpriced.

Therefore, the one in four that reaches agreement in less than 14 days is likely to be in the right location and also properly priced.

There are some indications that the housing market is, indeed, improving. Yet Trulia, another real estate search engine, maintains that in the hardest-hit foreclosure states, housing will be an issue that could determine which presidential candidate gets the most votes.

Trulia has developed a "housing misery" index to determine how and where the candidates will focus on the issue.

These are the criteria it uses for the index: •The percentage change in home prices from each state's own peak during the last decade's real estate bubble until today, based on information from the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Big price drops lead to more underwater borrowers and less household wealth, which hurt the housing market and hold back economic recovery. •The percentage of mortgages either severely delinquent or in foreclosure, based on data from CoreLogic, the real estate information service.

Defaults and foreclosures damage consumer confidence in the housing recovery. Foreclosures hurt not only the people who lose their homes, but their neighbors, as well.

Four states stand out: Nevada, Florida, Arizona, and California. In those states, home prices are 40 percent or more below their bubble-era peak — almost 60 percent in Nevada. Florida also has the highest share of home loans on which borrowers are either delinquent or in foreclosure.

Things are looking up here. In all but Nevada, this misery index has fallen several points in the last year.

But housing misery has been spread out across other regions of the country, too. The index is 30 or above in Michigan and Illinois in the Midwest; Georgia in the South; Maryland and New Jersey in the Mid-Atlantic, and Idaho, Washington and Oregon in the Northwest.

At the other extreme, Texas escaped housing misery altogether. Prices are no lower today than they were during the bubble, and relatively few home loans are delinquent or in foreclosure.

How will housing play out in the presidential campaign? Trulia chief economist Jed Kolko says voters in key swing states will surely want to hear what the candidates have to say.

"And what will they say?' Kolko asks. “As the incumbent, Obama needs to point to some clear housing-policy successes; as the challenger, Romney needs to point to some fresh new ideas about housing."

"They've both got their work cut out for them," Kolko says.

"On the House" appears Sundays. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or @alheavens at Twitter.

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