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Real Estate Market Commentary - September 2013
by Peter L. Zachary, MAI, MRICS

There was good news reported on the September 25, 2013 issue of the New York Times. The first page of their “Business Day” section had an article entitled, “Housing Recovery Seems Still on Track”. It stated:

“The housing market, one of the main drivers of the economic recovery, continues to gain strength despite the drag of rising mortgage rates and other economic headwinds, but some analysts are worried that it may slow in the months ahead.

For now, though, builders are building, sellers are selling and mortgage lenders are less nervous about extending credit to buyers.

But in the face of pent-up demand and emboldened consumers, home values were still heading upward at a healthy pace, rising 12.4 percent from July 2012 to July 2013, according to the Standard & Poor’s Case/Shiller home price index, which tracks sales in 20 cities.

A separate index of mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac showed an 8.8 percent gain in prices over the same time period.

Two national homebuilders, Lennar and KB Home, reported significant revenue growth and profits in the third quarter. Lennar said its third quarter earnings rose 39 percent over the third quarter of last year, and KB said its profit had increased sevenfold.

“We still have a lot of young people that are going to start moving out and forming households and we’re going to have to find housing for them”, said Patrick Newport, the chief United States economist for IHS Global Insight. “There are shortages of homes just about everywhere.”

Higher home prices help the economy not just by strengthening the construction and real estate industries, but by making homeowners feel wealthier and more likely to spend.

While the number of Americans who lost the equity in their homes in the housing crash set records, rebounding prices have helped nudge more and more households back above water. According to CoreLogic, 2.5 million households regained equity in their homes in the second quarter.

Mr. Newport said the full effects of higher mortgage rates had probably not shown up in the numbers yet.

Rising rates may not torpedo the housing market recovery, but they have made refinancing much less appealing.

Analysts offered a cornucopia of reasons for the continuing strength of the housing market: people rushing to buy before prices and interest rates increased further, a gradual relaxation of lending standards, an uptick in inventory, a smaller share of foreclosures in the sales stream and large-scale buying by investors looking to put houses on the rental market.

Still, some analysts questions whether fundamental factors like job and wage growth would sustain the market and restore first-time buyers to the market. Others warned of a lurking shadow inventory.

Year-over-year prices were up in all 20 cities tracked by Case/Shiller, but the gains varied widely, from 3.5 percent in New York and 3.9 percent in Cleveland on the low end to a frothy 24.8 percent in San Francisco and 27.5 percent in Las Vegas.

The month-to-month increase in the Case/Shiller index slowed to 0.6 percent, after gains of 1.7 percent in April, 0.9 percent in May and 0.9 percent in June.

Asked if the slowdown in growth was alarming, Robert Shiller, the Yale economist who helped develop the home price index, said no. “I’m not worried. I think that would be a good thing,” he said.

“I’m worrying more about a bubble – in some cities, it’s looking bubbly now.” Still, Mr. Shiller said, even the bubbliest markets were still well below their peak.

Other analysts raised the same point. Prices in San Francisco are still only at 2004 levels, cautioned Steve Blitz, chief economist for ITG Investment Research. “For those who bought and still hold homes in 2005, ’06 and ’07, they may still be in a negative equity position, depending on the terms of their mortgage,” Mr. Blitz wrote. “Don’t let those double-digit year-over-year percentage gains bias opinion to believe all is all right.”

More to come next month. Read previous Real Estate & Housing Market News.


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