Over the last seven years, home prices in California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington have surged. Unfortunately, these price surges are the result of speculative activity and not based on consumers' ability to afford homes over the long run. You can read my first round of analysis from earlier this month here on the United States and Canadian real estate markets.
Rents Are Falling, But Prices Are Surging
Sam Dogen at the Financial Samurai recently showed that rent prices have held steady and even fallen in hot markets such as San Francisco and Seattle over the last year or two. Prices have risen further, while rents have not. This isn't a good sign.
San Francisco Rents
The question I would pose to readers is this: If the housing market is so unstoppable, why are rents not going up anymore? Maybe, more of the surge in housing prices is due to speculation and less due to consumers' ability to afford the homes. Falling rents should be a flashing red signal for informed buyers. In spite of this, the housing market has continued to charge higher because of loose standards in the jumbo market. I believe the culprit is a new crop of lenders who are outside of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac regulations on FICO scores and DTI. For example, San Francisco lender Social Finance (SoFi) is offering up to 3 million dollar loans with 10 percent down and "flexible DTI."
Firms like SoFi are the engine driving the madness in the California housing market. SoFi was founded in 2011, right at the start of the new housing boom, and by 2014, they started making jumbo mortgage loans for only 10 percent down. Here's what Michael Tannenbaum, former Vice President of SoFi, had to say about their loans in 2016, “Sixty-five percent of the business we do is first-time home buyers; it’s a big deal we’re opening up to the jumbo first-time market.” A year later, he was gone. Other gems from the San Francisco Chronicle article – SoFi's average loan at the time was $800,000 and two-thirds were in California. I shudder to think what their average loan size and DTI is now. Also, in addition to not being big fans of debt to income ratios, SoFi isn't big on using other traditional measures like FICO scores to evaluate borrowers. In 2016, they declared their company a "FICO Free Zone" in a press release. Said a former business development associate, “The volume of applications coming in was crazy." Other sources reported on the wild sex culture at the firm. As for their underwriting practices? As long as housing prices went up, they were more or less irrelevant. But, if prices go down, SoFi and their backers stand to lose a lot of money.
The housing market is typically strongest in the summer. So why are all these negative headlines piling up?
Savvy real estate investors and home buyers know the best time to sell residential property is from late spring through summer, and the best time to buy is during the period from Thanksgiving through the end of January – the dead of winter. There is some interesting psychology to this. The average days on market for properties are much higher in the winter than during the summer, so you have more motivated sellers and fewer buyers. Also, sellers, including banks, are more likely to accept offers further below asking price during this period. It might be that buyers don't see the potential of properties in snow-covered cities like Chicago and Minneapolis. But you also see the same effect occur in places with milder winters, like Dallas-Fort Worth and San Francisco. Conversely, the best time to sell a property is during the summer. Most buyers with school-age children won't even consider moving them during the school year, and homes and yards look their best during the summer.
Portland is seeing properties start to pile up at higher price points. Seattle is reporting a "slight slowdown." Listings are piling up in Orange County, California, and foreclosures are up. The Wall Street Journal put out an article two days ago titled, "Housing Market Stumbles at Beginning of Summer." Pending home sales just hit a 4-month low, and the National Association of Realtors justifies it by blaming it on "low inventory," rather than a lack of buyers willing and able to pay asking prices.
You can deny that the media is accurately reporting on this, but you can't deny that the headlines are changing. In the last couple of years, instead we would be seeing headlines like "6 Ways to Win a Bidding War," or "Good Luck Buying a Home in This Hot Housing Market." All these new and negative articles are from markets that I predicted would see the most trouble and have the greatest discrepancies between prices and incomes. Here's the map I showed in the first article again. Note that all these article headlines that are specific to a metro area are coming from relatively unaffordable markets. My theory is that the West Coast markets that have appreciated so much have done so not because they are great places to live, but because there are jumbo lenders with lax standards and buyers for the loans in the mortgage-backed securities market. The markets with a higher percentage under Fannie and Freddie's conforming loan limits have risen more in line with median incomes, influenced by stricter underwriting guidelines that ensure that home buyers can actually afford the homes they are buying.
U.S. Home Prices, 2012-2017. Core Logic
The general mood is that the market is softening right now, especially at the high end. As interest rates continue to rise beyond buyers' ability to qualify for mortgages, listings will pile up further and prices will fall. Also, the effects of last year's tax bill will start to be noticed among consumers, many of whom have yet to figure out that they won't be able to deduct the majority of their state and local income/property taxes. SALT is now limited to $10,000. Consumers have noticed their paychecks are bigger, but if I know the American consumer like I think I do, that money is being spent and not socked away to pay their higher after-tax deduction property bill.
I'm not predicting the end of the world. For property prices to go down an inflation-adjusted 15-20 percent from peak to trough is a perfectly normal market cycle. It does sting, though, if you put 10 percent down on a two million-dollar home and have to turn around pay money at closing when selling 3 years later.
The first domino that would cause housing prices to fall 15-20 percent in real terms is for mortgage rates to normalize. However, Donald Trump has expressed concern that the Federal Reserve is hiking rates too quickly and is putting pressure on the Fed to top short-term rates out at 2.5 percent. Trump obviously understands how rate hikes affect the real estate market. He has a good point. If the Fed only hikes rates by 50 basis points from here and mortgage rates follow suit, then housing prices will stay higher than they would be if the Fed hiked aggressively. Instead, if they hike 150-200 basis points, then I estimate that housing prices will fall more than 15-20 percent. With over 75 percent of California buyers financing their purchases and DTI ratios already stretched, mortgage rates are of paramount importance to buyers. The risk with the first approach is that inflation runs higher and negatively effects the economy. But, keeping interest rates low and letting inflation run a little higher will serve to give home buyers more equity in their homes and hide the drop in home prices relative to incomes. If the Federal Reserve takes this course, the decline in home prices will not be as severe. However, all bets are off if the Fed decides to aggressively hike rates. Homebuilders, mortgage companies, and small to mid-size banks with concentrated West Coast exposure are still best avoided, as the market does not seem to be adequately accounting for the risks of rising rates, or just how bad their business practices have been.
Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.