The Housing Picture Is Not Brightening – Part I
A house should be earned – It is not a right
The future of the housing market is a topic that has been subject to a great deal of debate and can be somewhat confusing. The intention of this post is to dispel some of the myths that have been generated and add some clarity to the discussion. One of the charts below clearly shows that new construction is still far below levels prior to 2008. It should also be noted that much of the new construction is in apartments and not single family dwellings. In much of the country, housing units are being built using cheap money flowing from the Fed and Wall Street under the idea that if it is built “they will come.” While many people claim the formation of new households and pent-up demand drives this construction I beg to differ. I contend it is a combination of too much money looking for a place to hide and buyers looking for a safe place to put their money.
As I wrote this post I tried to do a bit of additional research to supplement what I know as a contractor and Apartment owner but what I found was more like a pack of lies and half-truths spun to fit an agenda. In America, the government, coupled with a slew of builder and Realtor associations control the housing narrative. Huge discrepancies exist in the cost of housing in the various markets across America and while price variations are not uncommon they should be seen as a red flag and reason for caution. Many of the messages being promoted as common knowledge do not pass serious scrutiny. Those of us in the trenches and with our boots on the ground often see things from a different perspective than the economist in their ivory towers, Washington politicians, Wall Street elite, or the media. Home ownership in America is in decline and demographics are not supportive of higher prices. If prices rise it most likely it will be a result of inflation.
Note the amount of traffic, or calls an apartment complex receives may have little to do with the strength of the market. A well qualified potential tenant only has to apply at one complex while those who are rejected continue time after time. Government subsidized housing through programs such as section 8 have cannibalized the market often taking the “best of the worse” and leaving those landlords who choose not to participate with a rather unsavory pool of potential tenants from which to choose. This often includes those denied government housing, nearly bankrupt, or chronically unemployed. The city where I live ranks 23rd in the nation for having the most “zombie foreclosures” however, markets in other parts of the nation are often not as strong as the media claims. A relative of mine who sold a home with an extra lot that was on a golf course north of Houston several years ago took a severe beating. Weak pricing in a market that was touted as very solid is more proof that what many claim is a “boom” is far from spectacular.
A Bloomberg article years ago titled “Wall Street Unlocks Profits From Distress With Rental Revolution” looked behind the curtain and pointed out that a great deal of this housing recovery that has driven the average home price up 30% since 2012 has been the result of Wall Street hedge funds buying in bulk foreclosed houses in order to turn them into rentals. Like many people, I find it totally objectionable these deals were “bundled” and offered in such a way that allowed big business to crowd the average American out of the housing market. In parts of the country, cash fleeing China and other troubled countries has flowed into the market pumping up prices. These type of situations create a questionable base for higher home prices when we consider the low end of the market is driven by Fannie, Freddie, and the FHA all insuring 3.5% down payments from borrowers that lack substantial collateral. History has shown that such special financing simply encourages people to rush out and buy homes they cannot afford. It is important to remember that low-interest rates do not necessarily bring about quality growth or prosperity, decades of slow growth in Japan has proven this.
One of the sad accomplishments of current Fed policy is that low-interest rates often do not create all that much new demand but simply moves what does exist forward. To make the situation worse the FHA is busy issuing and guaranteeing risky mortgages written by thinly capitalized non-banks. In 2012 the large Wall Street banks represented over 65% of FHA backed loans, today that number has cratered. Even they have realized loaning money to people that won’t pay it back is a recipe for disaster. America is preparing for a replay of the 2008 housing crisis. Our politically motivated government has insured subprime mortgages with down payments of as little as 3.5% while using weak underwriting standards. We are even seeing restrictions raised on borrowers with past foreclosures in a housing market that may drop 20% when this Fed Wall Street bubble pops. Years ago Lee Iacocca who brought Chrysler back from the brink and made the company viable said something to the effect of when you special out all your cars on Monday you have no sales for the rest of the week. In the current situation, low-interest rates are only one of the factors distorting and skewing America’s housing markets, others will be discussed in part two.
Housing In America – Part II
When it comes to real estate, low-interest rates at some point becomes a double edge sword, that affects both its value by making it easier to purchase thus driving up prices, and at the same time allowing more building to take place and increasing the supply. Often we reach or exceed demand, this eventually has a dampening effect on rents and people stop buying it as an “investment”. Rents from real estate and the prices it brings when sold must appreciate more than the natural depreciation from the wear and tear from age or the main driver for owning it as an investment quickly vanishes. Oversupply is the bane of real estate and crushes the value of this hard and expensive to maintain commodity. History has generally shown homes that are paid for and un-leveraged to be a better than average place to store wealth when purchased for a good price, as to whether now is a good time to buy that is difficult to say.
How does the reality of a half-empty apartment complex and a slew of empty houses gel with what we hear about soaring rents, the demand for more housing, and more affordable housing? Those declaring housing has fully recovered must admit housing prices vary greatly across the nation and this is a problem that can be difficult to get your head around. Only politicians in Washington would be silly enough to think that landlords who have to compete against subsidized housing would be eager to remain in the game or that someone working for a living enjoys paying more for an older apartment than someone on the dole who moves into a brand new unit for a fraction of the cost. By not rewarding those who do the right thing our current policies have a corrosive effect on both housing and society.
America has built a lot of housing units over the years, now we must face the fact that they need to be maintained. Instead of focusing and creating policies to rebuild our cities by encouraging homeowners to invest more in upgrading windows, adding insulation and improving the existing housing stock, Washington has doled out low-interest money to Wall Street and home builders in an effort to kick-start the economy by building new housing to generate the illusion of growth and rising prices. Currently, we are in uncharted waters and where this market is headed is anyone’s guess but one thing is certain it is not straight up. Speculating on housing is dangerous and should not be encouraged through bad policy. When people leave older neighborhoods and move to a new house in the suburbs enticed by current artificially low-interest rates they in effect hollow out our cities.
Old houses need to be maintained
Adding to our housing problems is low down payments and other policies often put people in older houses that they have no interest or knowledge in how to maintain. This can cause even more people to flee the area and brings about further decay. When offered the choice many people find moving easier than repairing and maintaining their homes or neighborhoods and low-interest rates power this trend forward. Policies should be geared toward creating jobs that maintain these units instead of making them prematurely obsolete. This is a flashing red light warning of danger ahead. By choosing the easy answers America has not faced its housing problems with long-term solutions and encouraging this bodes poorly for the future.
Get your financing in order and get the project started before the market dries up has been how developers everywhere have operated for decades. I have owned an apartment complex in the Midwest for many years and many houses in my area are empty or under leased. In 2005 and 2006 prior to the housing collapse, many people were looking at second homes, today not only have they shed the extra home many have doubled up with family or friends reducing the need for housing. This has left me busy trying to sort out and make sense of the current economy. This is no easy task, it seems we are pushing on a string and calling it demand when someone who can barely pay the rent is encouraged by the government to buy a house they can neither afford or maintain. Currently, we have a shortage of “qualified” buyers and renters.
A close look of permits and starts shows many of the future housing starts are multi-family units, these are being built with cheap “Wall Street” money for the markets of tomorrow with little regard for the realities of today. A new report by Yardi Systems Inc indicates apartment construction is far outpacing demand in many markets, this overbuilding of multi-family will have ramifications on the cost of living and the resale value of homes going forward. It is a fact that single-family housing starts have languished as the percentage of multi-unit buildings under construction has risen. Some of these may be slated as condos but another name for an unsold condo that is being leased is “apartment.” Let us call a spade a spade, much of what we see today is not a housing market, it is a place where too much money has gone to hide under the impression and hope it will pay off when inflation awakes and comes out roaring from its quiet slumber.