Every real estate agent I know is thankful that 2010 is nearly over. When the year began there was a lot of hope that the housing market would begin to recover by year’s end, and the Federal Homebuyer Tax Credit was stirring people to buy — boosting that hope.
But when that credit expired, hopes for the recovery began to expire as well. One of the hottest summers in memory kept people inside, and the economic news kept us all sweating. Late summer and early autumn sales numbers retreated back to levels that were equal to the worst of the housing slump.
Never mind that housing prices continued to fall and started to look like good values again, or that mortgage interest rates had fallen to levels that hadn’t been seen since our grandparents had been buying homes. No amount of good news could convince the buying public that it was time to make a purchase.
One of the most important trends of 2010 is only now beginning to become plain: the huge number of properties in distress — either 90+ days late on the mortgage, listed as a short sale, in pre-foreclosure, or actually foreclosed upon and bank-owned — was creating a large “shadow inventory” of homes that lenders were not listing for sale because buyers were not absorbing the distressed properties that already were on the market.
There are a couple of sources for this information. In late November, CoreLogic released a report on the large increase in the “shadow inventory” in 2010. As of August, there were 2.1 million units of housing classified as being in that shadowy group, up more than 10% from the previous year. When added to the 4.2 million “visible” units currently for sale, that constitutes a distressed property glut that isn’t moving. According to CoreLogic’s report, Maryland has a two-year supply of such distressed properties; the figure for Baltimore-Towson is only slightly better, with an 18-month supply.
While the sharp and rapid rise in the number of properties included in this category is alarming, at the same time overall sales figures were falling, and the proportion of distressed homes within the number being sold also fell. According to the National Association of Realtors’ 2010 Homebuyer Survey, only four percent of buyers purchased a home that would be categorized as “distressed.” Nearly 40% of those buyers did not even consider a distressed property among their home choices. Of the remaining 60% who at least considered such a home, one-third decided against it because the process of dealing with the lender as seller was too difficult or complex. One-fourth decided against it because the house was in poor condition; the remaining buyers just couldn’t find a distressed property that they liked.
What does this mean? Different professionals will come to different conclusions about this data, all of which was just released at the end of November, but here are two things that I believe are clear:
1. Buyers are learning that purchasing a distressed property, especially a short sale, is not easy and the vast majority of them are opting not to do so. Since half of all homebuyers in 2010 were first-time homebuyers, it might be that the uncertainty of how long it will take to settle such properties makes them impractical. While these first-time buyers don’t have a home to sell, they do have a landlord who requires a set amount of notice to get out of their lease — give notice too soon, they might become homeless; give notice too late, and they might be required to pay extra rent. If lenders want to make these distressed properties more attractive to these buyers they have to standardize the short sale process and get it done in a predictable amount of time.
2. Lenders may have to hold back millions of dollars worth of ‘shadow inventory’ well into the future. That means maintaining these properties in liveable condition for an extended period of time. Most lenders are NOT good at this. While they want to get their money back on these properties, they cannot flood the market with them all at once. Not only will that drive down the price on the properties for sale, it will also drive down the values on the neighboring properties, putting more homeowners “under water” and destabilizing the neighborhood. Since that lender may also hold the mortgages on a significant number of properties in the vicinity, flooding the market with bank-owned properties just drives down the values of the rest of their investment portfolio. So, while they won’t like the idea of holding on to these properties, self-interest will demand that they do.
There are many indicators that actually give hope for a much better 2011. I’ll cover those in January’s post.
I hope all of my readers have a peaceful holiday season, and best wishes for a prosperous new year!