On the House: For better home data, stay local

Posted: March 25, 2013

Here's a bulletin from the National Association of Home Builders:

Price and proximity to work are key concerns for first-time buyers, according to a survey on the characteristics of home buyers.

Doesn't seem to be a revolutionary idea, right?

Rather than poke this one with a pointy stick, I deferred to my real estate sources to provide well-supported observation of past and present trends in our own housing market.

Susan Yannessa, of Weichert Realtors' Blue Bell office, says she scanned her list of first-time buyers over the last five years, and "those factors have been consistent."

"I will also add that proximity to public transportation, specifically access to the train, frequently factors in," Yannessa says.

Gloria Carpenter, of Keller Williams in Lansdowne, says that has always been the case, but more so recently.

In citing examples, she also says, "We have had so many out-of-the-area buyers zero in on Lansdowne because of Internet shopping . . . showing proximity, so graphically, to the airport, Center City via the train, and I-95."

My recent visits to Doylestown and Fox Chase, to name just two locales, for the "Town by Town" articles in Sunday Business emphasized the importance of trains to buyers, and riding those trains offered clear proof.

The trouble with national surveys is that they are too broad to be of any use to anyone, very much like a Weather Channel forecast or home-price data for this region compiled in California. Yet day after day, week after week, I get pitches for the latest survey, rarely having anything to do with our area.

In addition, much of the national data that flow my way have little to do with us, especially the S&P/ Case Shiller Home Price Index, which leaves us out of its monthly reports because we don't have enough transactions to warrant inclusion.

Karl Case and Robert Shiller periodically get on the radio with caveats about taking to the bank all the money the data say you made on your house.

Fortunately, we have specific local sources of information who provide a clearer picture of trends.

For example, economist Joel L. Naroff said in a recent Inquirer column that the region "is starting to see improvement," while noting it didn't experience the great swings in prices experienced elsewhere.

Economist Kevin Gillen, of the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute, is another reliable local source, and his fourth-quarter 2012 analysis of regional trends distinguishes between the city and its suburbs - something the national data rarely do.

Though it was not a new finding, Gillen's recent analysis shows that suburban prices since the end of the boom fell more than those in the city - 25 percent vs. 19 percent, almost the reverse of what occurred in the 1990s downturn.

"The relative loss in value which accrued to city homes during the 1987-2003 period has essentially been erased, and the average Philadelphia County home has provided a superior return over the average suburban home during the past 33 years," Gillen says.

On the House: Town by Town

In the Sunday Business section, Alan J. Heavens takes a look at real estate and life throughout the region. This week's focus: Feasterville.

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or @alheavens at Twitter.

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