Same as it ever was…

We’ve been here before, and here we go again.

The question I get asked the most is “Are we in a housing bubble?”  Quite simply, the answer is “No.” Just because homes are selling for more than they have before doesn’t mean we’re in a bubble.  A bubble is a fundamental flaw in the market. I like to say it’s like an aneurysm. An aneurysm is a bulge or “ballooning” in an artery.  It is an anomaly and if it continues to expand, it will burst. When a market has a fundamental flaw and is bulging or ballooning, it will burst.  But before that happens, there has to be a fundamental flaw. In 2006, the flaw was terrible lending practices. Borrowers didn’t even have to fog a mirror to get a loan.  A great book about that period of time is Kirsten Grind’s The Lost Bank. It’s about the failure of Wamu, formerly known as Washington Mutual. The lending practices of Wamu, the second largest bank in the country were sketchy at best and fraudulent in many instances.  It wasn’t much better at the largest bank in the country or any of the other ones for that matter. Bad lending practices caused a bubble.

Stated loans, also known as Liar loans became the standard.  Selling everyone an Alt A product (less than stellar credit, larger payment to the loan officer) became the norm, even when the client was A paper (top credit scores, most likely to repay).  They were not governed by the SEC who has my favorite Rule 405. Rule 405 essentially says to put your client in the investment vehicle that is right for their goals and risk tolerance, every time.  Ergo, a retiree should never be in a teaser rate loan, always 30 year fixed rate as they may not have the ability to withstand a shot up in the interest rates. World Savings sold a Pick-A-Pay loan that ended up on 60 Minutes for all of it’s problems.  Borrower could pick their payment. They weren’t educated on why they shouldn’t choose the lowest payment, so many negatively amortized their home having no idea what that meant.

Finally, Realtors had a lot of culpability in what happened in the housing bubble.  Never trust anyone who says a market will always go up. The real estate market, just like the stock market goes up and down.   It expands and contracts. It is cyclical. It doesn’t “always” do anything. The difference is that real estate exists, it is a finite asset.  It does not disappear in bankruptcy or failure. Even if the value is greatly reduced, there is value. That is why, over time real estate is still the most reliable asset.  For instance, if for some reason the market blew apart today and everyone lost 20% of their value and someone had to sell right now, whatever their next real estate move may be, it would cost them less because the market has contracted.  

Everybody has an angle

Today’s has a picture of my house on it and an offer to pay

  • No commissions
  • We pay the closing costs
  • No repairs
  • Moving assistance if needed
  • Fast, Fair Cash Offer

Interestingly enough, today’s missive came from a real estate office, although it was not identified as such.

Nonetheless, I see two things going on here.

First, there are people out there ready to separate you from your home. There is no way an investor is going to readily give you a fair cash offer. None. They may start with one, many investors do, but by the time their contractor is done writing up their bid, you’ll have expensive bids for repairs you never knew you needed being deducted from the purchase price. Why? Because they need to make money and they’re going to make it by squeezing you. Think you’re a great negotiator? Unless you are negotiating every day in your business, the answer is probably not. The experience is just not there for you and you’re going to get your pocket picked. End of story.

I am a decent negotiator. Even I think I leave something on the table from time to time. My current favorite negotiation story involves a home that needed some repairs that were not disclosed. My client wanted $9000 in credits. That was it. Ultimately, I never actually asked for the $9000, because the seller’s agent, a few minutes into our conversation offered me a $30,000 price reduction. I positioned the $9000 so well that she gave me $30,000 without me asking for anything. Most people are not good negotiators, was there another $5000 in there to be had? Possibly but my buyers were happy.

Knowing that you would think that I would negotiate the purchase of my new car, right? Nope. I’m not used to playing in that sandbox and while I think I could have done quite well, I used a concierge who got me everything I wanted and saved me $50 a month.

The second thing going on is that these guys are giving us insight on where they think the market is going. They are doing mass mailings into neighborhoods looking for houses to buy. If they thought we were in a bubble they’d be holding cash, but they’re looking to spend their cash. These investors are bullish on the real estate market right now.

Right now there are entire neighborhoods out there where every single house is in an equity position. Every one. That is not what a bursting housing bubble looks like. Remember, a bubble is caused by a fundamental flaw in the market, something akin to an aneurysm. With every home in an equity position, that’s a healthy neighborhood. That’s not to say that something happening in another market sector can’t create the flaw in the market, just that currently none exists.

Finally what does that mean to the Bay Area housing market? For the time being, it means our market will remain vibrant. If you’ve been on a freeway in the last six months, our full employment is evident by the traffic. There is plenty of talk of a housing crisis and there is a problem with affordable housing. Some cities are making it easier for builders to add more affordable housing, or even more housing. It’s a supply and demand problem solved by more supply. Some cities are loading the builders up with fees and nonsense. They are understandably choosing the build elsewhere and that does not help the situation. I believe if we allow them to build more units regardless of the price of those units, the supply will catch up with the demand and that will be what finally puts some downward pressure on prices of homes and rents. If they want to build $1.5 million homes, fine. Eventually there will be too many of them and the homes that should be selling for $750,000 but aren’t due to demand will go back to $750,000 where they belong.

Wild card: Interest rates. Today’s buyers are spoiled rotten by 11 years of artificially low interest rates. Traditionally a great interest rate was about 6%. These buyers have shown their disdain for interest rate upticks and in response to their disdain, rates softened a bit at the end of the year. The stock market has ceased its rapid ascent but as of this writing seems to be capitulating within an expected margin showing signs of stabilization.

Wild card: Tariffs. The market reacted predictively poorly to the tariffs. They are currently on hold. It is my hope that they are never revisited. I thought they were going to be a problem and they were. The minute they were stalled the markets are responded positively and in my mind predictively.

Wild card: Government shutdown. Day 32 and it trudges on. If this starts turning into something like the Air Traffic Controller strike, we’re going to have a problem. Some key players who are working but aren’t getting paid: Coast Guard, TSA, FBI, and Border Patrol. A lot of these folks own homes and may not have the savings to hold on. If this gets past a second month, all bets are off. I have clients who are USCG, TSA and FBI. I can’t imagine the stress they are going through right now. For everyone’s sake and the sake of our economy, I hope this ends soon.

A penny for my thoughts, oh no I’ll sell them for a dollar

They’re worth so much more after I’m a goner
And maybe then you’ll hear the words I been singin’
Funny when you’re dead how people start listenin’

~The Band Perry

Last week the real estate community lost an icon.  Carole Rodoni was an economist, a real estate guru and the toughest sub five foot woman you will have ever met.  I know real estate and I’m smart, I bowed to her insight.  She was the President of Fox and Carskadon, COO of Cornish and Carey and the President of Alain Pinel Realtors.  Most Realtors were not qualified to have a conversation with this little fireball.  Whenever I asked her a question I was always mindful to not sound like this guy.

Isn’t it true….and I would be the worm.

She gave out some of the best real estate advice I’ve ever received.  She understood how the bay area worked and how the world worked.  She would start with a view of the world’s economic situation and chunk it down to the United States and then chunk it down to California and ultimately to the bay area and Contra Costa County.

I would have liked to have heard her thoughts on the tariffs.  I am deeply concerned that they are the canary in our collective coal mines.  Most go into effect starting October 1, 2018.  I’ve had business owners tell me that their cost of goods will be going up.  Spun Bicycles in Cincinnati has received notice from several providers that various bicycles are parts will be going up in cost by 25%.  I spoke to the owner of Chase Customs who told me that a roll bar that used to cost around $350 was now costing him $700.  Steel parts were already doubled in price in some situations.

Our economy is not strong enough to withstand this kind of rise in COG and I am doubtful that it can continue to grow under that pressure.

We are used to Presidents who negotiate in a certain manner.  I believe this President is a brash, bare knuckles type of negotiator and that’s what is happening right now.  He is blustering to get the Chinese to the table and the tariffs will not ultimately be in effect long, if at all.  If I am wrong, we could be in for a long cold winter.  I wish I could give Carole a penny for her thoughts on tariffs.  She will be missed.