Tag Archives: California Assn. of Realtors

‘Housing Bubble 2’ Has Bloomed Into Full Magnificence

The current housing boom has Dallas solidly in its grip. As in many cities around the US, prices are soaring, buyers are going nuts, sellers run the show, realtors are laughing all the way to the bank, and the media are having a field day. Nationwide, the median price of existing homes, at $236,400, as the National Association of Realtors sees it, is now 2.7% higher than it was even in July 2006, the insane peak of the crazy housing bubble that blew up with such spectacular results.

Housing Bubble 2 has bloomed into full magnificence: In many cities, the median price today is far higher, not just a little higher, than it was during the prior housing bubble, and excitement is once again palpable. Buy now, or miss out forever! A buying panic has set in.

And so the July edition of D Magazine – “Making Dallas Even Better,” is its motto – had this enticing cover, sent to me by David in Texas, titled, “The Great Dallas Land Rush”:

Dallas Land Rush

“Dallas Real Estate 2015: The Hottest Market Ever,” the subtitle says.

That’s true for many cities, including San Francisco. The “Boom Town,” as it’s now called, is where the housing market has gone completely out of whack, with a median condo price at $1.13 million and the median house price at $1.35 million. This entails some consequences [read… The San Francisco “Housing Crisis” Gets Ugly].

The fact that Housing Bubble 2 is now even more magnificent than the prior housing bubble, even while real incomes have stagnated or declined for all but the top earners, is another sign that the Fed, in its infinite wisdom, has succeeded elegantly in pumping up nearly all asset prices to achieve its “wealth effect.” And it continues to do so, come heck or high water. It has in this ingenious manner “healed” the housing market.

But despite the current “buying panic,” the soaring prices, and all the hoopla round them, there is a fly in the ointment: overall home ownership is plunging.

The home ownership rate dropped to 63.4% in the second quarter, not seasonally adjusted, according to a new report by the Census Bureau, down 1.3 percentage points from a year ago. The lowest since 1967!

home ownershipWolf Street

The process has been accelerating, instead of slowing down. The 1.2 percentage point plunge in 2014 was the largest annual drop in the history of the data series going back to 1965. And this year is on track to match this record: the drop over the first two quarters so far amounts to 0.6 percentage points. This accelerated drop in home ownership rates coincides with a sharp increase in home prices. Go figure.

The plunge in home ownership rates has spread across all age groups, but to differing degrees. Younger households have been hit the hardest. In the age group under 35, the home ownership rate in Q2 saw a slight uptick to 34.8%, from the dismal record low of 34.6% in the prior quarter. Either a feeble ray of hope or just one of the brief upticks, as in the past, to be succeeded by more down ticks on the way to lower lows.

This chart by the Economics and Strategy folks at National Bank Financial shows the different rates of home ownership by age group. The 35-year and under group is where the first-time buyers are concentrated; and they’re being sidelined, whether they have no interest in buying, or simply don’t make enough money to buy (represented by the sharply descending solid black line, left scale). Note how the oldest age group (dotted blue line, right scale) has recently started to cave as well:

homeownership ratesWolf Street

The bitter irony? In the same breath, the Census Bureau also reported that the rental vacancy rate dropped to 6.8%, from 7.5% a year ago, the lowest since 1985. America is turning into a country of renters.

This chart shows the dynamics between home ownership rates (black line, left scale) and rental vacancy rates (red line, right scale) over time: they essentially rise and dive together. It makes sense on an intuitive basis: as people abandon the idea of owning a home, they turn into renters, and the rental market tightens up, and vacancy rates decline.

homeownership rate v rental vacancy rateWolf Street

This too has been by design, it seems. Since 2012, private equity firms bought several hundred thousand vacant single-family homes in key markets, drove up prices in the process, and started to rent them out. Thousands of smaller investors have jumped into the fray, buying homes, driving up prices, and trying to rent them out. This explains the record median home price across the country, and the totally crazy price increases in some key markets, even as regular Americans are trying to figure out how to pay for a basic roof over their heads.

This has worked out well. By every measure, rents have jumped. According to the Census Bureau’s report, the median asking rent in the US rose 6.2% from a year ago, and 17.6% since 2011. So inflation bites. But the Fed is still desperately looking for signs of inflation and simply cannot find any.

And how much have incomes risen over these years to allow renters to meet these rising rents? OK, that was a rhetorical question. We already know what has been happening to incomes.

That’s what it always boils down to in the Fed’s salvation of the economy: people who can’t afford to pay the rising rents with their stagnant or declining incomes should borrow the money to make up the difference and then spend even more on consumer goods. After us, the deluge.

Southern California Home Sales Soar in June

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The Southern California housing market, known for its dramatic swings, is settling into a more normal, healthy pattern.

Home sales are up. All-cash and investor purchases are down. And home prices are rising at a more sustainable pace than in the last few years.

Economists said those factors put the regional housing market on a path for growth that won’t wash away in a tsunami of foreclosures and ruined credit scores.

“The healing continues,” said Stuart Gabriel, director of UCLA’s Ziman Center for Real Estate.

 

On Thursday, fresh evidence of that trend emerged in a report from CoreLogic. Home sales posted a sizable 18.1% pop in June from a year earlier, while the median price rose 5.7% from June 2014 to $442,000, the real estate data firm said.

The sales increase, the largest in nearly three years, put the number of sales just 9.6% below average, CoreLogic said. A year ago, sales were nearly 24% below average.

Notably, it appears more families are entering the market as the economy improves. Although still elevated in comparison to long-term averages, the share of absentee buyers — mostly investors — slid to 21.1%, the lowest percentage since April 2010, CoreLogic said.

“This is the real recovery,” Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of Beacon Economics, said of a market where increasingly buyers actually want to live in the houses they purchase. “The last was the investor recovery.”

Sustained job growth has given more people the confidence to buy houses, CoreLogic analyst Andrew LePage said. California added a robust 54,200 jobs in May, one of the strongest showings in the last year.

The housing market improvement extends nationally, with sales of previously owned homes up in May to the highest pace in nearly six years, partly because more first-time buyers entered the market, according to data from the National Assn. of Realtors.

One factor driving deals is an expected decision from the Federal Reserve to raise its short-term interest rate later this year, real estate agents say.

In response, families rushed to lock in historically low rates this spring, agents say. CoreLogic’s sales figures represent closed deals, meaning most went into escrow during May.

Leslie Appleton-Young, chief economist for the California Association of Realtors, cautioned that the market still has too few homes for sale and that prices have risen to a point where many can’t afford a house.

Unless that changes, sales are unlikely to reach levels in line with historical norms, she said.

“I am not saying the housing market isn’t robust,” she said.

“I think housing affordability is a big issue…The biggest problem is losing millennials to places like Denver and Austin and Seattle.”

For now, deals are on the rise and people are paying more.

Sales and prices climbed in all six south land counties: Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura. In Orange County, the median price rose 4.9% from a year earlier to $629,500.

In Los Angeles County, prices climbed 8.7% to $500,000. 

Source: Origination News

NAR Releases Mid-2015 U.S. Economic and Housing Forecast

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According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), the U.S. housing market will continue its gradual pace of recovery as more home buyers enter a tight housing market for the balance of 2015, being nudged by rising mortgage rates and improving consumer confidence.

NAR’s chef economist Lawrence Yun has released the following observations for the US economy at large, and for the U.S. housing market specifically:

The U.S. Economy

  • GDP growth was slightly negative in the first quarter but will pick up in the second half.  For the year as whole, GDP will expand at 2.1 percent.  Not bad but not great.  A slow hum.
  • Consumer spending will open up because of lower gasoline prices.  Personal consumption expenditure grew at 2.1 percent rate in the first quarter.  Look for 3 percent growth rate in the second half.
  1. Auto sales dropped a bit in the first quarter because of heavy snow, but will ramp up nicely in the second half. 
  2. Spending for household furnishing and equipment has been solid, growing 6 percent in the first quarter after clocking 6 percent in the prior.  Recovering housing sector is the big reason for the nice numbers.
  3. Spending at restaurants was flat.  That is why retail vacancy rates are not notching down.
  4. Online shopping is up solidly.  That is why industrial and warehouse vacancy rates are coming down.
  5. Spending for health care grew at 5 percent in the first quarter, marking two consecutive quarters of fast growth.  The Affordable Care Act has expanded health care demand.  The important question for the future is will the supply of new doctors and nurses expand to meet this rising demand or will it lead to medical care shortage?

 

  • Business spending was flat in the first quarter but will surely rise because of large cash holdings and high profits.
  1. Spending for business equipment rose by 3 percent in the first quarter.  Positive and good, but nothing to shout about.
  2. Spending for business structures (building of office and retail shops, for example) fell by 18 percent.  The freezing first-quarter weather halted some construction.  This just means pent-up construction activity in the second half.
  3. In the past small business start-ups spent and invested.  It was not uncommon to experience double-digit growth rates for 3 years running for business equipment.  Not happening now.  But business spending will inevitably grow because of much improved business financial conditions of lower debt and more profits and rising GDP.
  4. What has been missing is the “animal spirit” of entrepreneurship.  The number of small business start-ups remains surprisingly low at this phase of economic expansion.  

 

  • Residential construction spending increased 6 percent in the first quarter.  Housing starts are rising and therefore this component will pick up even at a faster pace in the second half.
  • Government spending fell by 1 percent.  At the federal level, non-defense spending grew by 2 percent, while national defense spending fell by 1 percent.  At the state and local level, spending fell by 1 percent. 
  1. The federal government is still running a deficit.  Even though it is spending more than what it takes in from tax revenue, the overall deficit level has been falling to a sustainable level.  It would be ideal to run a surplus, but a falling deficit nonetheless does provide the possibility of less severe sequestration.   
  2. U.S. government finances are ugly.  Interestingly though, they are less ugly than other countries.  That is why the U.S. dollar has been strengthening against most other major currencies.  It’s like finding the least dirty shirt from a laundry basket.
  • Imports have been rising while exports have been falling.  The strong dollar makes it so.   Imports grew by 7 percent while exports fell by 6 percent.  The net exports (at minus $548 billion) were the worst in seven years.  Fortunately, with the West Coast longshoremen back at work, the foreign trade situation will not worsen, which means it will help GDP growth.
  • All in all, GDP will growth by 2.5 to 3 percent in the second half.  That translates into jobs.  A total of 2.5 million net new jobs are likely to be created this year.
  1. Unemployment insurance filings have been rising in oil-producing states of Texas and North Dakota.
  2. Unemployment insurance filings for the country as a whole have been falling, which implies lower level of fresh layoffs and factory closings.  That assures continuing solid job growth in the second half of the year.
  • We have to acknowledge that not all is fine with the labor market.  The part-time jobs remain elevated and wage growth remains sluggish with only 2 percent annual growth.  There are signs of tightening labor supply and the bidding up of wages.  Wages are to rise by 3 percent by early next year.  The total income of the country and the total number of jobs are on the rise.

 
The U.S. Housing Market Mid-2015 Trends
  

  • Existing home sales in May hit the highest mark since 2009, when there had been a homebuyer tax credit … remember, buy a home and get $8,000 from Uncle Sam.  This tax credit is no longer available but the improving economy is providing the necessary incentive and financial capacity to buy.  Meanwhile new home sales hit a seven-year high and housing permits to build new homes hit an eight-year high.  Pending contracts to buy existing homes hit a nine-year high.
  • Buyers are coming back in force.  One factor for the recent surge could have been due to the rising mortgage rates.  As nearly always happens, the initial phase of rising rates nudges people to make decision now rather than wait later when the rates could be higher still.
  1. The first-time buyers are scooping up properties with 32 percent of all buyers being as such compared to only 27 percent one year ago.  A lower fee on FHA mortgages is helping.
  2. Investors are slowly stepping out.  The high home prices are making the rate of return numbers less attractive.
  • Buyers are back.  What about sellers?  Inventory remains low by historical standards in most markets.  In places like Denver and Seattle, where a very strong job growth is the norm, the inventory condition is just unreal – less than one month supply.
  • The principal reason for the inventory shortage is the cumulative impact of homebuilders not being in the market for well over five years.  Homebuilders typically put up 1.5 million new homes annually.  Here’s what they did from 2009 to 2014:
  1. 550,000
  2. 590,000
  3. 610,000
  4. 780,000
  5. 930,000
  6. 1.0 million
  7. Where is 1.5 million?  Maybe by 2017.

 

  • Building activity for apartments has largely come back to normal.  The cumulative shortage is on the ownership side.     
  • Builders will construct more homes.  By 1.1 million in 2015 and 1.4 million in 2016.  New home sales will follow this trend.  This rising trend will steadily relieve housing shortage.
  • There is no massive shadow inventory that can disrupt the market.  The number of distressed home sales has been steadily falling – now accounting for only 10 percent of all transactions. It will fall further in the upcoming months.  There is simply far fewer mortgages in  the serious delinquent stage (of not being current for 3 or more months). In fact, if one specializes in foreclosure or short sales, it is time to change the business model.
  • In the meantime, there is still a housing shortage.  The consequence is a stronger than normal home price growth.  Home price gains are beating wage-income growths by at least three or four times in most markets.  Few things in the world could be more frustrating and demoralizing than for renters to start a savings program but only to witness home prices and down payment requirements blowing past them by.        
  • Housing affordability is falling.  Home prices rising too fast is one reason.  The other reason is due to rising mortgage rates.  Cash-buys have been coming down so rates will count for more in the future.
  • The Federal Reserve will be raising short-term rates soon.  September is a maybe, but it’s more likely to be in October.  The Fed will also signal the continual raising of rates over the next two years.  This sentiment has already pushed up mortgage rates.  They are bound to rise further, particularly if inflation surprises on the upside.
  • Inflation is likely to surprise on the upside.  The influence of low gasoline prices in bringing down the overall consumer price inflation to essentially zero in recent months will be short-lasting.  By November, the influence of low gasoline prices will no longer be there because it was in November of last year when the oil prices began their plunge.  That is, by November, the year-over-year change in gasoline price will be neutral (and no longer big negative).  Other items will then make their mark on inflation.  Watch the rents.  It’s already rising at near 8-year high with a 3.5 percent growth rate.  The overall CPI inflation could cross the red line of above 3 percent by early next year.  The bond market will not like it and the yields on all long-term borrowing will rise.
  • Mortgage rates at 4.3% to 4.5% by the year end and easily surpassing 5% by the year end of 2016.
  • The rising mortgage rates initially rush buyers to decide but a sustained rise will choke off as to who can qualify for a mortgage.  Fortunately, there are few compensating factors to rising rates.
  1. Credit scores are not properly aligned with expected default rate.  New scoring methodology is being tested and will be implemented.  In short, credit scores will get boosted for many individuals after the new change.
  2. FHA mortgage premium has come down a notch thereby saving money for consumers.  By the end of the year, FHA program will show healthier finances.  That means, there could be additional reduction to premiums in 2016.  Not certain, but plausible.
  3. Fannie and Freddie are owned by the taxpayers.  And they are raking-in huge profits as mortgages have not been defaulting over the past several years.  The very high profit is partly reflecting too-tight credit with no risk taking.  There is a possibility to back a greater number of lower down payment mortgages to credit worthy borrowers without taking on much risk.  In short, mortgage approvals should modestly improve next year.     
  4. Portfolio lending and private mortgage-backed securities are slowly reviving.  Why not?  Mortgages are not defaulting and there is fat cash reserves held by financial institutions.  Less conventional mortgages will therefore be more widely available.
  • Improving credit available at a time of likely rising interest rates is highly welcome.  Many would-be first-time buyers have been more focused about getting a mortgage (even at a higher rate) than with low rates.
  • All in all, existing and new home sales will be rising.  Combined, there will be 5.8 million home sales in 2015, up 7 percent from last year.  Note the sales total will still be 25 percent below the decade ago level during the bubble year.  Home prices will be rising at 7 percent.  For the industry, the business revenue will be rising by 14 percent in 2015.  The revenue growth in 2016 will be additional 7 to 10 percent. 

California Housing Market Slows Considerably

Non-distressed sales drop for the first time since 2005

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California’s massive housing market is slowing down in almost every way imaginable, according to the latest California Real Property Report from PropertyRadar.

California single-family home and condominium sales dropped 3.5% to 36,912 in May from 38,249 in April

However, the report explained that what is unusual this month is that the decrease in sales was due to a decline in both distressed and non-distressed property sales that fell 8.6% and 2.5%, respectively.  The monthly decline in non-distressed sales is the first May decline since 2005.

On a yearly basis, sales were up slightly, gaining 2.3% from 36,096 in May 2014. 

“With the exception of a few counties, price increases have slowed considerably,” said Madeline Schnapp, director of economic research for PropertyRadar. “You cannot defy gravity.”

“The environment of rising prices on lower sales volumes was destined not to last.  Higher borrowing costs since the beginning of the year and decreased affordability was bound to impact sales sooner or later. We may also be seeing the fourth year in a row where prices jumped early in the year, only to roll-over and head lower later the rest of the year,” Schnapp continued.

Back in March, PropertyRadar’s report showed California was finally ramping up for the spring homebuying season, posting that March single-family home and condominium sales surged to 31,989, a 33.1% jump from 24,031 in February. It was the biggest March increase in three years. 

Meanwhile, May’s median price of a California home was nearly unchanged at $396,750 in May, down 1.8% from $404,000 in April. 

Within California’s 26 largest counties, most experienced slight increases in median home prices, edging higher in 21 of California’s largest 26 counties.

Year-over-year, the median price of a California home was nearly unchanged, up 0.4% from $395,000 dollars in April 2014.

While at the county level most of California’s 26 largest counties exhibited slower price increases, four counties continued to post double digit gains.

Airbnb And Other Short-Term Rentals Worsen Housing Shortage, Critics Say

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Landlords in Venice and other tourist-friendly areas are converting units into short-term rentals, worsening the area’s housing shortage, a study says.

The last time he advertised one of his apartments, longtime Los Feliz landlord Andre LaFlamme got a request he’d never seen before.

A man wanted to rent LaFlamme’s 245-square-foot bachelor unit with hardwood floors for $875 a month, then list it himself on Airbnb.

“Thanks but no thanks,” LaFlamme told the prospective tenant. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

But he understood why: More money might be made renting to tourists a few days at a time than to a local for 12 months or more.

Where are the short-term rentals?

About 12,700 rental units were listed on Airbnb in Los Angeles County on Dec. 22, 2014, but they were not spread out equally. In parts of Venice and Hollywood, Airbnb listings accounted for 4% or more of all housing units.

As short-term rental websites such as Airbnb explode in popularity in Southern California, a growing number of homeowners and landlords are caving to the economics. A study released Wednesday from Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a labor-backed advocacy group, estimates that more than 7,000 houses and apartments have been taken off the rental market in metro Los Angeles for use as short-term rentals. In parts of tourist-friendly neighborhoods such as Venice and Hollywood, Airbnb listings account for 4% or more of all housing units, according to a Times analysis of data from Airbnb’s website.

That’s worsening a housing shortage that already makes Los Angeles one of the least affordable places to rent in the country.

“In places where vacancy is already limited and rents are already squeezing people out, this is exacerbating the problem,” said Roy Samaan, a policy analyst who wrote the alliance’s report. “There aren’t 1,000 units to give in Venice or Hollywood.”

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Fast-growing Airbnb and others like it say they help cash-strapped Angelenos earn a little extra money. Airbnb estimates that 82% of its 4,500 L.A. hosts are “primary residents” of the homes they list, and that nearly half use the proceeds to help pay their rent or mortgage. And the effect on the broader housing market is so small that it’s all but irrelevant, said Tom Davidoff, a housing economist at the University of British Columbia whom Airbnb hired to study its impact.

“Over the lifetime of a lease, rents maybe go up 1.5%,” he said. “That’s peanuts relative to the increases we’ve seen in housing costs in a lot of places.”

But there are growing signs of professionalization of the short-term rental world, from property-manager middlemen like the one who e-mailed LaFlamme to Airbnb “hosts” who list dozens of properties on the site. The Los Angeles Alliance study estimates that 35% of Airbnb revenue in Southern California comes from people who list more than one unit.

“I don’t think anyone would begrudge someone renting out a spare bedroom,” Samaan said. “But there’s a whole cottage industry that’s springing up around this.”

City Council member Mike Bonin, whose coastal district includes Venice, and Council President Herb Wesson want to study how these rentals have affected the city. No regulations have been drafted, and Bonin said the council would seek extensive community input. Current rules bar short-term rentals in many residential areas of the city, but critics say they’re rarely enforced.

As city officials craft new ones, they’ll certainly be hearing from Airbnb and its allies. Last year, the company spent more than $100,000 lobbying City Hall and released a study touting its economic impact in L.A. — more than $200 million in spending by guests, supporting an estimated 2,600 jobs. A group representing short-term rental hosts has made the rounds of City Council offices as well.

This industry “needs to be regulated and regulated the right way,” said Sebastian de Kleer, co-founder of the Los Angeles Short Term Rental Alliance and owner of a Venice-based vacation rental company. “For a lot of people, this is a very new issue.”

Neighborhood groups are sure to weigh in too, especially in Venice.

https://i0.wp.com/fc09.deviantart.net/fs4/i/2004/194/c/7/canals_of_venice_california_11.jpgThe beach neighborhood has the highest concentration of Airbnb listings in all of metro Los Angeles. Data collected by Beyond Pricing, a San Francisco-based start-up that helps short-term rental hosts optimize pricing, show that in census tracts along Venice Beach and Abbott-Kinney Boulevard, Airbnb listings accounted for 6% to 7% of all housing units — about 10 times the countywide average.

A letter last fall from the Venice Neighborhood Council to city officials estimated that the number of short-term rental listings in the area had tripled in a year, citing a “Gold Rush mentality” among investors looking for a piece of the action. That’s hurting local renters, said Steve Clare, executive director of Venice Community Housing.

“Short-term rentals are really taking over a significant portion of the rental housing market in our community,” Clare said. “It’s going to further escalate rents, and take affordable housing out of Venice.”

Along the Venice boardwalk, a number of apartment buildings now advertise short-term rentals, and houses on the city’s famed “walk streets” routinely show up in searches on Airbnb. Even several blocks inland, at Lincoln Place Apartments — a 696-unit, newly renovated complex that includes a pool, gym and other tourist-friendly amenities — Roman Barrett recently counted more than 40 listings on Airbnb and other sites. Barrett, who moved out over the issue, said Airbnb effectively drives up the rent. He paid $2,700 a month for a one-bedroom; now he’s looking farther east for something he can afford.

“It’s making places like Santa Monica and Venice totally priced out. Silver Lake is impossible. I’m looking in Koreatown right now,” Barrett said. “They need to make a law about this.”

 

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A new law of some sort is the goal at City Hall. New York, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., have crafted regulations to govern taxes, zoning and length of stay in short-term rentals, and Airbnb says it’s glad to help in that process here.

“It’s time for all of us to work together on some sensible solutions that let people share the home in which they live and contribute to their community,” spokesman Christopher Nulty said in a statement Tuesday.

Will Youngblood, the man who e-mailed LaFlamme about managing his apartment in Los Feliz, says he’d also appreciate clearer rules and an easier way to pay occupancy taxes.

Youngblood runs five Airbnb apartments, mostly in Hollywood. A former celebrity assistant, he’s been doing this for two years; it’s a full-time job. Most of Youngblood’s clients own their homes but travel a lot or live elsewhere. One, he rents and lists full time. He’s been looking around for another.

“I’m honest about what I do,” he said. “Some [landlords] are like, ‘That’s insane. No way.’ Other people say, ‘We’d love that.'”

If the city decides it doesn’t like what he’s doing, Youngblood said, he’ll go do something else. But for now, he said, it’s a good way to make some cash and meet interesting people.

But he won’t meet LaFlamme. The longtime landlord concedes he “might be old-fashioned,” but he just doesn’t like the idea of strangers traipsing through his apartments. He prefers good, long-term tenants, and in L.A.’s red-hot rental market he has no problem finding them.

“I almost find it painful to rent things these days,” he said. “There’s so much demand and so many people who are qualified and nice people who I have to turn away.”

For that apartment in Los Feliz, LaFlamme said, he found a tenant in less than 24 hours.

25 Percent of all U.S. Foreclosures Are Zombie Homes

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RealtyTrac’s Q1 2015 Zombie Foreclosure Report, found that as of the end of January 2015, 142,462 homes actively in the foreclosure process had been vacated by the homeowners prior to the bank repossessing the property, representing 25 percent of all active foreclosures.

The total number of zombie foreclosures was down 6 percent from a year ago, but the 25 percent share of total foreclosures represented by zombies was up from 21 percent a year ago.

“While the number of vacated zombie foreclosures is down from a year ago, they represent an increasing share of all foreclosures because they tend to be the problem cases still stuck in the pipeline,” said Daren Blomquist vice president at RealtyTrac. “Additionally, the states where overall foreclosure activity has been increasing over the past year — counter to the national trend — tend to be states with a longer foreclosure process more susceptible to the zombie problem.”

“In states with a bloated foreclosure process, the increase in zombie foreclosures is actually a good sign that banks and courts are finally moving forward with a resolution on these properties that may have been sitting in foreclosure limbo for years,” Blomquist continued. “In many markets there is plenty of demand from buyers and investors to snatch up these distressed properties as soon as they become available to purchase.”

Florida, New Jersey, New York have most zombie foreclosures

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Despite a 35 percent decrease in zombie foreclosures compared to a year ago, Florida had the highest number of any state with 35,903 — down from 54,908 in the first quarter of 2014. Zombie foreclosures accounted for 26 percent of all foreclosures in Florida.

Zombie foreclosures increased 109 percent from a year ago in New Jersey, and the state posted the second highest total of any state with 17,983 — 23 percent of all properties in foreclosure.

New York zombie foreclosures increased 54 percent from a year ago to 16,777, the third highest state total and representing 19 percent of all residential properties in foreclosure.

Illinois had 9,358 zombie foreclosures at the end of January, down 40 percent from a year ago but still the fourth highest state total, while California had 7,370 zombie foreclosures at the end of January, up 24 percent from a year ago and the fifth highest state total. 

“We are now in the final cycle of the foreclosure crisis cleanup, in which we are witnessing a large final wave of walkaways,” said Mark Hughes, Chief Operating Officer at First Team Real Estate, covering the Southern California market. “This has created an uptick in vacated or ‘zombie’ foreclosures and the intrinsic neighborhood issues most of them create.

“A much longer recovery, a largely veiled underemployment issue, and growing examples of faster bad debt forgiveness have most likely fueled this last wave of owners who have finally just walked away from their American dream,” Hughes added.

Other states among the top 10 for most zombie foreclosures were Ohio (7,360), Indiana (5,217), Pennsylvania (4,937), Maryland (3,363) and North Carolina (3,177).

“Rising home prices in Ohio are motivating lending servicers to commence foreclosure actions more quickly and with fewer workout options offered to delinquent homeowners, creating immediate vacancies earlier in the foreclosure process,” said Michael Mahon, executive vice president at HER Realtors, covering the Ohio housing markets of Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus. “Delinquent homeowners need to understand how prices have increased in recent months, and how this increase in equity may provide positive options for them to avoid foreclosure.”

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Metros with most zombie foreclosures: New York, Miami, Chicago, Tampa and Philadelphia. The greater New York metro area had by far the highest number of zombie foreclosures of any metropolitan statistical area nationwide, with 19,177 — 17 percent of all properties in foreclosure and up 73 percent from a year ago.

Zombie foreclosures decreased from a year ago in Miami, Chicago and Tampa, but the three metros still posted the second, third and fourth highest number of zombie foreclosures among metro areas nationwide: Miami had 9,580 zombie foreclosures,19 percent of all foreclosures but down 34 percent from a year ago; Chicago had 8,384 zombie foreclosures, 21 percent of all foreclosures but down 35 percent from a year ago; and Tampa had 7,838 zombie foreclosures, 34 percent of all foreclosures but down 25 percent from a year ago.

Zombie foreclosures increased 53 percent from a year ago in the Philadelphia metro area, giving it the fifth highest number of any metro nationwide in the first quarter of 2015. There were 7,554 zombie foreclosures in the Philadelphia metro area as of the end of January, 27 percent of all foreclosures.

Other metro areas among the top 10 for most zombie foreclosures were Orlando (3,718), Jacksonville, Florida (2,368), Los Angeles (2,074), Las Vegas (1,832), and Baltimore, Maryland (1,722).

Metros with highest share of zombie foreclosures: St. Louis, Portland, Las Vegas

Among metro areas with a population of 200,000 or more and at least 500 zombie foreclosures as of the end of January, those with the highest share of zombie foreclosures as a percentage of all foreclosures were St. Louis (51 percent), Portland (40 percent) and Las Vegas (36 percent).

Metros with biggest increase in zombie foreclosures: Atlantic City, Trenton, New York

Among metro areas with a population of 200,000 or more and at least 500 zombie foreclosures as of the end of January, those with the biggest year-over-year increase in zombie foreclosures were Atlantic City, New Jersey (up 133 percent), Trenton-Ewing, New Jersey (up 110 percent), and New York (up 73 percent).

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Tenants Benefit When Rent Payment Data Are Factored Into Credit Scores

by Kenneth R. Harney | LA Times

It’s the great credit divide in American housing: If you buy a home and pay your mortgage on time regularly, your credit score typically benefits. If you rent an apartment and pay the landlord on time every month, you get no boost to your score. Since most landlords aren’t set up or approved to report rent payments to the national credit bureaus, their tenants’ credit scores often suffer as a direct result.

All this has huge implications for renters who hope one day to buy a house. To qualify for a mortgage, they’ll need good credit scores. Young, first-time buyers are especially vulnerable — they often have “thin” credit files with few accounts and would greatly benefit by having their rent histories included in credit reports and factored into their scores. Without a major positive such as rent payments in their files, a missed payment on a credit card or auto loan could have significant negative effects on their credit scores.

You probably know folks like these — sons, daughters, neighbors, friends. Or you may be one of the casualties of the system yourself, a renter with a perfect payment history that creditors will never see when they pull your credit. Think of it this way and the great divide gets intensely personal.

But here’s some good news: Growing numbers of landlords are now reporting rent payments to the bureaus with the help of high-tech intermediaries who set up electronic rent-collection systems for tenants.

One of these, RentTrack, says it already has coverage in thousands of rental buildings nationwide, with a total of 100,000-plus apartment units, and expects to be reporting rent payments for more than 1 million tenants within the year. Two others, ClearNow Inc. and PayYourRent, also report to one of the national bureaus, Experian, which includes the data in consumer credit files. RentTrack reports to Experian and TransUnion.

Why does this matter? Two new studies illustrate what can happen when on-time rent payments are factored into consumers’ credit reports and scores. RentTrack examined a sample of the tenants in its database and found that 100% of renters who previously were rated as “unscoreable” — there wasn’t enough information in their credit files to evaluate — became scoreable once they had two months to six months of rental payments reported to the credit bureaus.

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Tenants who had scores below 650 at the start of the sampling gained an average of 29 points with the inclusion of positive monthly payment data. Overall, residents in all score brackets saw an average gain of 9 points. The scores were computed using the VantageScore model, which competes with FICO scores and uses a similar 300 to 850 scoring scale, with high scores indicating low risk of nonpayment.

Experian, the first major credit bureau to begin integrating rental payment records into credit files, also completed a major study recently. Using a sample of 20,000 tenants who live in government-subsidized apartment buildings, Experian found that 100% of unscoreable tenants became scoreable, and that 97% of them had scores in the “prime” (average 688) and “non-prime” (average 649) categories. Among tenants who had scores before the start of the research, fully 75% saw increases after the addition of positive rental information, typically 11 points or higher.

Think about what these two studies are really saying: Tenants often would score higher — sometimes significantly higher — if rent payments were reported to the national credit bureaus. Many deserve higher credit scores but don’t get them.

Matt Briggs, chief executive and founder of RentTrack, says for many tenants, their steady rent payments “may be the only major positive thing in their credit report,” so including them can be crucial when lenders pull their scores.

Justin Yung, vice president of ClearNow, told me that “for most [tenants] the rent is the largest payment they make per month and yet it doesn’t appear on their credit report” unless their landlord has signed up with one of the electronic payment firms.

Is this something difficult or complicated? Not really. You, your landlord or property manager can go to one of the three companies’ websites (RentTrack.com, ClearNow.com and PayYourRent.com), check out the procedures and request coverage. Costs to tenants are either minimal or zero, and the benefits to the landlord of having tenants pay rents electronically appear to be attractive.

Everybody benefits. So why not?

kenharney@earthlink.net Distributed by Washington Post Writers Group. Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times

Dreaming Big: Americans Still Yearning for Larger Homes

by Ralph McLaughlin | Trulia

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43% of adults would prefer homes bigger than where they currently live, but attitudes differ by age. Baby boomers would prefer to upsize rather than downsize by only a small margin, while the gap among millennials is much wider, with GenXers falling in between. Would-be downsizers outnumber upsizers only among households living in the largest homes.

Last year, we found that Baby Boomers were especially unlikely to live in multi-unit housing. At the same time, we noted that the share of seniors living in multi-unit housing rather than single-family homes has been shrinking for decades. These findings got us thinking about how the generations vary in house-size preference. So we surveyed over 2000 people at the end of last year to figure out if boomers have different house-size preferences than their younger counterparts. And that led us to ask: What size homes do Americans really want?

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Most Americans are not living in the size home they want

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As a whole, Americans are living in a world of mismatch – only 40% of our respondents said they are living in the size home that’s ideal. Furthermore, over 43% answered that the size of their ideal residence is somewhat or much larger than their current digs. Only 16% told us that their ideal residence is smaller than their existing home. However, these overall figures mask what is going on within different generations.

It’s natural to think that baby boomers are the generation most likely to downsize.  After all, their nests are emptying and they may move when they retire.  As it turns out though, more boomers would prefer to live in a larger home than a smaller one: 21% said their ideal residence is smaller than their current home, while 26% wanted a larger home – a 5-percentage-point difference. Clearly, boomers don’t feel a massive yearn to downsize. On the contrary, just over half (53%) said they’re already living in their ideally sized home. Nonetheless, members of this generation are more likely to want to downsize than millennials and GenXers.

In fact, those younger generations want some elbow room. First, the millennials. They’re looking to move on up by a big margin: just over 60% told us their ideal residence is larger than where they live now – the largest proportion among the generations in our sample. By contrast, only a little over 13% of millennials said they’d rather have a smaller home than their existing one – which is also the smallest among the generations in our sample. The results are clear: millennials are much more likely to want to upsize than downsize.

The next generation up the ladder, the GenXers, are hitting their peak earning years and many in this group may be in a position to trade up. Many aren’t living in their ideally sized home. Just 38% said where they live now is dream sized. Nearly a majority (48%) said their dream home is larger, while only 14% of GenXers would rather have a smaller home.  This is the generation that bore the brunt of the foreclosure crisis. So, some of this mismatch could be because a significant number of GenXers lost homes during the housing bust and may now be living in smaller-than-desired quarters. But a much more probable reason is that many GenXers are in their peak child-rearing years. With kids bouncing off the walls, the place may be feeling a tad crowded.

Even the groups that seem ripe for downsizing don’t want smaller homes

Of course, age doesn’t tell the whole story about why people might want to downsize. It could be that certain kinds of households, – such as those without children, and living in the suburbs or in affordable areas – might be more likely to live in larger homes than they need. But our survey shows that households in these categories are about twice as likely to want a larger than a smaller home. For those with kids especially, the desire to upsize is strong: 39% preferred a larger home versus 18% who liked a smaller home.  For those living in the suburbs, the disparity is even greater – 42% to 16%. And even among those living in the most affordable zip codes, where ideally-sized homes might be within the budgets of households, 40% of our respondents preferred larger homes versus 20% who said smaller.

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Are all households more likely to upsize than downsize?

At this point you might be asking, “Are there any types of households that want to downsize?” The answer is yes. But only one kind of household falls into this category – those living in homes larger than 3,200 square feet.  Of this group, 26% wanted to downsize versus 25% that wanted to upsize – a slight difference. But, when we looked overall at survey responses based on the size of current residence, households wanting a larger home kicked up as current home size went down. We can see this clearly when we divide households into six groups based on the size of the home they’re living in now. Among households living in 2,600-3,200 square foot homes, 37% prefer a larger home versus 16% a smaller home; in 2,000–2,600 square foot homes, its 34% to 18%; 38% to 18% in 1,400–2,000 square foot homes; 55% to 13% in 800–1,400 square foot homes; and 66% to 13% in homes less than 800 square feet. This makes intuitive sense.  Those living in the biggest homes are most likely to have gotten a home larger than their ideal size. And those in the smallest homes are probably the ones feeling most squeezed.

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The responses to our survey show significantly more demand for larger homes than for smaller ones. But the reality, of course, is that households must make tradeoffs between things like accessibility, amenities, and affordability when choosing what size homes to get. The “ideal” sized home for most Americans may be larger than where they’re living now. But that spacious dream home may not be practical.  As result, the mismatch between what Americans say they want and what best suits their circumstances may persist.

Housing Industry Frets About the Next Brick to Drop

by Wolf Richter

Stephen Schwarzman, CEO and co-founder of Blackstone Group, the world’s largest private-equity firm with $290 billion in assets under management, made $690 million for 2014 via a mix of dividends, compensation, and fund payouts, according to a regulatory filing. A 50% raise from last year.

The PE firm’s subsidiary Invitation Homes, doped with nearly free money the Fed’s policies have made available to Wall Street, has become America’s number one mega-landlord in the span of three years by buying up 46,000 vacant single-family homes in 14 metro areas, initially at a rate of $100 million per week, now reduced to $35 million per week.

As of September 30, Invitation Homes had $8.7 billion worth of homes on its balance sheet, followed by American Homes 4 Rent ($5.5 billion), Colony Financial ($3.4 billion), and Waypoint ($2.6 billion). Those are the top four. Countless smaller investors also jumped into the fray. Together they scooped up several hundred thousand single-family houses.

A “bet on America,” is what Schwarzman called the splurge two years ago.

The bet was to buy vacant homes out of foreclosure, outbidding potential homeowners who’d actually live in them, but who were hobbled by their need for mortgages in cash-only auctions. The PE firms were initially focused only on a handful of cities. Each wave of these concentrated purchases ratcheted up the prices of all other homes through the multiplier effect.

Homeowners at the time loved it as the price of their home re-soared. The effect rippled across the country and added about $7 trillion to homeowners’ wealth since 2011, doubling equity to $14 trillion.

But it pulled the rug out from under first-time buyers. Now, only the ludicrously low Fed-engineered interest rates allow regular people – the lucky ones – to buy a home at all. The rest are renting, in a world where rents are ballooning and wages are stagnating.

Thanks to the ratchet effect, whereby each PE firm helped drive up prices for the others, the top four landlords booked a 23% gain on equity so far, with Invitation Homes alone showing $523 million in gains, according to RealtyTrac. The “bet on America” has been an awesome ride.

But now what? PE firms need to exit their investments. It’s their business model. With home prices in certain markets exceeding the crazy bubble prices of 2006, it’s a great time to cash out. RealtyTrac VP Daren Blomquist told American Banker that small batches of investor-owned properties have already started to show up in the listings, and some investors might be preparing for larger liquidations.

“It is a very big concern for real estate professionals,” he said. “They are asking what the impact will be if investors liquidate directly onto the market.”

But larger firms might not dump these houses on the market unless they have to. American Banker reported that Blackstone will likely cash out of Invitation Homes by spinning it off to the public, according to “bankers close to the Industry.”

After less than two years in this business, Ellington Management Group exited by selling its portfolio of 900 houses to American Homes 4 Rent for a 26% premium over cost, after giving up on its earlier idea of an IPO. In July, Beazer Pre-Owned Rental Homes had exited the business by selling its 1,300 houses to American Homes 4 Rent, at the time still flush with cash from its IPO a year earlier.

Such portfolio sales maintain the homes as rentals. But smaller firms are more likely to cash out by putting their houses on the market, Blomquist said. And they have already started the process.

Now the industry is fretting that liquidations by investors could unravel the easy Fed-engineered gains of the last few years. Sure, it would help first-time buyers and perhaps put a halt to the plunging home ownership rates in the US [The American Dream Dissipates at Record Pace].

But the industry wants prices to rise. Period.

When large landlords start putting thousands of homes up for sale, it could get messy. It would leave tenants scrambling to find alternatives, and some might get stranded. A forest of for-sale signs would re-pop up in the very neighborhoods that these landlords had targeted during the buying binge. Each wave of selling would have the reverse ratchet effect. And the industry’s dream of forever rising prices would be threatened.

“What kind of impact will these large investors have on our communities?” wondered Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, in an email to American Banker. He represents Riverside in the Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles. During the housing bust, home prices in the area plunged. But recently, they have re-soared to where Fitch now considers Riverside the third-most overvalued metropolitan area in the US. So Takano fretted that “large sell-offs by investors will weaken our housing recovery in the very same communities, like mine, that were decimated by the sub prime mortgage crisis.”

PE firms have tried to exit via IPOs – which kept these houses in the rental market.

Silver Bay Realty Trust went public in December 2012 at $18.50 a share. On Friday, shares closed at $16.16, down 12.6% from their IPO price.

American Residential Properties went public in May 2013 at $21 a share, a price not seen since. “Although people look at this as a new industry, there’s really nothing new about renting single-family homes,” CEO Stephen Schmitz told Bloomberg at the time. “What’s new is that it’s being aggregated, we’re introducing professional management and we’re raising institutional capital.” Shares closed at $17.34 on Friday, down 17.4% from their IPO price.

American Homes 4 Rent went public in August 2013 at $16 a share. On Friday, shares closed at $16.69, barely above their IPO price. These performances occurred during a euphoric stock market!

So exiting this “bet on America,” as Schwarzman had put it so eloquently, by selling overpriced shares to the public is getting complicated. No doubt, Blackstone, as omnipotent as it is, will be able to pull off the IPO of Invitation Homes, regardless of what kind of bath investors end up taking on it.

Lesser firms might not be so lucky. If they can’t find a buyer like American Homes 4 Rent that is publicly traded and doesn’t mind overpaying, they’ll have to exit by selling their houses into the market.

But there’s a difference between homeowners who live in their homes and investors: when homeowners sell, they usually buy another home to live in. Investors cash out of the market. This is what the industry dreads. Investors were quick to jump in and inflated prices. But if they liquidate their holdings at these high prices, regular folks might not materialize in large enough numbers to buy tens of thousands of perhaps run-down single-family homes. And then, getting out of the “bet on America” would turn into a real mess.

Housing Crash In China Steeper Than In Pre-Lehman America

China has long frustrated the hard-landing watchers – or any-landing watchers, for that matter – who’ve diligently put two and two together and rationally expected to be right. They see the supply glut in housing, after years of malinvestment. They see that unoccupied homes are considered a highly leveraged investment that speculators own like others own stocks, whose prices soar forever, as if by state mandate, but that regular people can’t afford to live in.

Hard-landing watchers know this can’t go on forever. Given that housing adds 15% to China’s GDP, when this housing bubble pops, the hard-landing watchers will finally be right.

Home-price inflation in China peaked 13 months ago. Since then, it has been a tough slog.

Earlier this month, the housing news from China’s National Bureau of Statistics gave observers the willies once again. New home prices in January had dropped in 69 of 70 cities by an average of 5.1% from prior year, the largest drop in the new data series going back to 2011, and beating the prior record, December’s year-over-year decline of 4.3%. It was the fifth month in a row of annual home price declines, and the ninth month in a row of monthly declines, the longest series on record.

Even in prime cities like Beijing and Shanghai, home prices dropped at an accelerating rate from December, 3.2% and 4.2% respectively.

For second-hand residential buildings, house prices fell in 67 of 70 cities over the past 12 months, topped by Mudanjiang, where they plunged nearly 14%.

True to form, the stimulus machinery has been cranked up, with the People’s Bank of China cutting reserve requirements for major banks in January, after cutting its interest rate in November. A sign that it thinks the situation is getting urgent.

So how bad is this housing bust – if this is what it turns out to be – compared to the housing bust in the US that was one of the triggers in the Global Financial Crisis?

Thomson Reuters overlaid the home price changes of the US housing bust with those of the Chinese housing bust, and found this:

The US entered recession around two years after house price inflation had peaked. After nine months of recession, Lehman Brothers collapsed. As our chart illustrates, house price inflation in China has slowed from its peak in January 2014 at least as rapidly as it did in the US.

Note the crashing orange line on the left: year-over-year home-price changes in China, out-crashing (declining at a steeper rate than) the home-price changes in the US at the time….

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The hard-landing watchers are now wondering whether the Chinese stimulus machinery can actually accomplish anything at all, given that a tsunami of global stimulus – from negative interest rates to big bouts of QE – is already sloshing through the globalized system. And look what it is accomplishing: Stocks and bonds are soaring, commodities – a demand gauge – are crashing, and real economies are languishing.

Besides, they argue, propping up the value of unoccupied and often unfinished investment properties that most Chinese can’t even afford to live in might look good on paper, but it won’t solve the problem. And building even more of these units props up GDP nicely in the short term, and therefore it’s still being done on a massive scale, but it just makes the supply glut worse.

Sooner or later, the hard-landing watchers expect to be right. They know how to add two and two together. And they’re already smelling the sweet scent of being right this time, which, alas, they have smelled many times before.

But it does make you wonder what the China housing crash might trigger when it blooms into full maturity, considering the US housing crash helped trigger of the Global Financial Crisis. It might be a hard landing for more than just China. And ironically, it might occur during, despite, or because of the greatest stimulus wave the world has ever seen.

Stocks, of course, have been oblivious to all this and have been on a tear, not only in China, but just about everywhere except Greece. But what happens to highly valued stock markets when they collide with a recession? They crash.


What to Expect When This Stock Market Meets a Recession

Last week I had a fascinating conversation with Neile Wolfe, of Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC., about high equity valuations and what happens when they collide with a recession.

Here is my monthly update that shows the average of the four valuation indicators: Robert Shiller’s cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings ratio (CAPE), Ed Easterling’s Crestmont P/E, James Tobin’s Q Ratio, and my own monthly regression analysis of the S&P 500:

Click to View

Based on the underlying data in the chart above, Neile made some cogent observations about the historical relationships between equity valuations, recessions and market prices:

  • High valuations lead to large stock market declines during recessions.
  • During secular bull markets, modest overvaluation does not produce large stock market declines.
  • During secular bear markets, modest overvaluation still produces large stock market declines.

Here is a table that highlights some of the key points. The rows are sorted by the valuation column.

Beginning with the market peak before the epic Crash of 1929, there have been fourteen recessions as defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). The table above l ists the recessions, the recession lengths, the valuation (as documented in the chart illustration above), the peak-to-trough changes in market price and GDP. The market price is based on the S&P Composite, an academic splicing of the S&P 500, which dates from 1957 and the S&P 90 for the earlier years (more on that splice here).

I’ve included a row for our current valuation, through the end of January, to assist us in making an assessment of potential risk of a near-term recession. The valuation that preceded the Tech Bubble tops the list and was associated with a 49.1% decline in the S&P 500. The largest decline, of course, was associated with the 43-month recession that began in 1929.

Note: Our current market valuation puts us between the two.

Here’s an interesting calculation not included in the table: Of the nine market declines associated with recessions that started with valuations above the mean, the average decline was -42.8%. Of the four declines that began with valuations below the mean, the average was -19.9% (and that doesn’t factor in the 1945 outlier recession associated with a market gain).

What are the Implications of Overvaluation for Portfolio Management?

Neile and I discussed his thoughts on the data in this table with respect to portfolio management. I came away with some key implications:

  • The S&P 500 is likely to decline severely during the next recession, and future index returns over the next 7 to 10 years are likely to be low.
  • Given this scenario, over the next 7 to 10 years a buy and hold strategy may not meet the return assumptions that many investors have for their portfolio.
  • Asset allocation in general and tactical asset allocation specifically are going to be THE important determinant of portfolio return during this time frame. Just buying and holding the S&P 500 is likely be disappointing.
  • Some market commentators argue that high long-term valuations (e.g., Shiller’s CAPE) no longer matter because accounting standards have changed and the stock market is still going up. However, the impact of elevated valuations — when it really matters — is expressed when the business cycle peaks and the next recession rolls around. Elevated valuations do not take a toll on portfolios so long as the economy is in expansion.

How Long Can Periods of Overvaluations Last?

Equity markets can stay at lofty valuation levels for a very long time. Consider the chart posted above. There are 1369 months in the series with only 58 months of valuations more than two Standard Deviations (STD) above the mean. They are:

  • September 1929 (i.e., only one month above 2 STDs prior to the Crash of 1929)
  • Fifty-one months during the Tech bubble (that’s over FOUR YEARS)
  • Six of the last seven months have been above 2 STDs

Stay tuned.

Affordable Housing Plan Slaps Fee on California Property Owners

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by Phil Hall

The speaker of California’s State Assembly is seeking to raise new funds for affordable housing development by adding a new $75 fee to the costs of recording real estate documents.

Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, stated that the new fee would be a permanent addition to the state’s line-up of fees and taxes and would apply to all real estate documents except those related to home sales. Atkins conspicuously avoided citing the $75 figure in a press statement issued by her office, only briefly identifying it as a “small fee” while insisting that she had broad support for the plan.

“The permanent funding source, which earned overwhelming support from California’s business community, will generate hundreds of millions annually for affordable housing and leverage billions of dollars more in federal, local, and bank investment,” Atkins said. “This plan will reap benefits for education, healthcare and public safety as well. The outcomes sought in other sectors improve when housing instability is addressed.”

Atkins added that her plan should add between $300 million to $720 million a year for the state’s affordable housing endeavors. But Atkins isn’t completely focused on collecting revenue: She is simultaneously proposing that developers offering low-income housing should receive $370 million in tax credits, up from the current level of $70 million.

This is the third time that a $75 real estate transaction fee has been proposed in the state legislature. Earlier efforts were put forward in 2012 and 2013, but failed to gained traction. Previously, opponents to the proposal argued that transactions involving multiple documents would be burdened with excess costs because the fee applies on a per-document basis and not a per-transaction basis.

One of the main opponents of Atkins’ proposal, Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the speaker was playing word games by insisting this was merely a fee and that she was penalizing property owners to finance a problem that they did not create.

“It’s clearly a tax, not a fee,” said Coupal. “There is not a nexus between the fee payer and the public need being addressed. It’s not like charging a polluter a fee for the pollution they caused. It’s a revenue that is totally divorced from the so-called need for affordable housing.”

A Raw Deal for Real-Estate Agents

Real estate can be risky for agents themselves. Fickle buyers, unforeseen structural issues, setbacks in financing can all scuttle a deal.

THE COMMITMENT-PHOBE Known for repeatedly pulling out of the purchase right before the contract is signed. Illustration: Laszlito Kovacs

By Nancy Keates | Wall Street Journal, Feb. 19, 2015

She saw a ghost. That was the excuse, anyway, for one buyer’s decision to back out at the last minute from closing on a $1.4 million house in San Francisco, losing a roughly $21,000 deposit in the process.

Her real-estate agent, Amanda Jones of Sotheby’s International Realty, estimates she spent about 250 hours over six months showing the prospective buyer about 130 houses in the Bay Area. In the end, she believes the woman just changed her mind. “It was horrible,” the agent says.

Few professions demand as much upfront time and legwork with the risk of zero return on the effort as real-estate sales. Fickle buyers, unforeseen structural issues, setbacks in financing can all scuttle a sale. Now, there’s another common deal breaker: an overheated housing market in which frenzied bidding wars lead to rash decisions—followed by buyers’ remorse.

“It’s such a fast-paced market right now. Buyers are expected to make offers after seeing a place once at a packed house, so they don’t have time to think things through,” says Kaitlin Adams, an agent with New York-based Compass.

THE NERVOUS NELLIE Spends countless hours to find the perfect home, but backs out at the last minute, saying it just doesn’t ‘feel right.

Nationally, median home prices in 2014 rose to their highest level since 2007, while housing inventory continued to drop—falling 0.5% lower than a year ago, according to the National Association of Realtors. The percentage of buyers backing out of contracts has gone up by about 8%—to 19.1% in the third quarter of 2014 from 17.76% in the third quarter of 2012, according to Evercore ISI, an investment-banking advisory firm.

The war stories come mostly at the high end in select markets, where affluent buyers are less affected by the prospect of losing thousands in earnest money or down payments. Cormac O’Herlihy of Sotheby’s International Realty in Los Angeles recently had buyers he calls “nervous nellies” back out on a $6 million house. “They enjoy an overabundance of financial ability,” Mr. O’Herlihy says.

Julie Zelman, a New York-based agent with Engel & Völkers, spent the past year searching for an apartment for a recently divorced client in his 40s who said he wanted to move from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to a building downtown—preferably one populated by celebrities. Twice the client was about to close when he changed his mind: The first time was at a building called Soho Mews—he’d read it was the home of an Oscar-nominated actress and a Grammy-winning musician. The man offered $2.8 million for a two-bedroom unit but then backed out. Another time, he walked away after offering $3.1 million on a two-bedroom unit in 1 Morton Square, where a popular TV actress once lived.

“He was wasting everyone’s time. It was humiliating for me,” says Ms. Zelman, who thinks the client wasn’t mentally ready for such a big change. The client ended up renting an apartment on the Upper East Side.

THE FAULT FINDER Cites microscopic flaws to quash the deal—and get the earnest money back.

When buyers change their minds before signing a contract, they don’t lose any money. Nataly Rothschild, a New York-based broker, says she thought she had finally closed a deal after a couple’s yearlong house hunt. Because there were five other offers pending, her clients offered $200,000 over the almost $2 million asking price on the three-bedroom, three-bathroom listed for $1.8 million on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Then Ms. Rothschild, an agent at Engel & Völkers, got a call from the couple’s attorney saying the buyer, who was nine months pregnant, had broken down in tears, saying she just couldn’t sign because it didn’t feel right. “I felt miserable for her,” says Ms. Rothschild. “But we were all shocked.”

Buyers who change their minds after signing a contract typically lose their earnest money, a deposit that shows the offer was made in good faith. That money is often held by the title company or in an escrow account and later applied to down payment and closing costs. If the deal falls through, whoever holds the deposit determines who gets the earnest money. In standard contracts, the earnest money goes to the seller. If, however, a contingency spelled out in the contract emerges—the buyer’s financing falls through, for example—the buyer usually gets the earnest money back.

Vivian Ducat, an agent with Halstead Property in New York, had a client lose $55,000 in earnest money after a change of heart on a $550,000 co-op. The woman, who was living in California, had wanted to buy a place in New York because one of her children was living there. At the last minute she balked, emailing that she “couldn’t handle the New York lifestyle.” She’d signed the contract and even filled out all the paperwork for the co-op board.

THE OVER BIDDER. Gets caught up in the frenzy of the bidding war, then realizes he didn’t mean to spend so much.

In rare instances, buyers can get their earnest money back through arbitration if they can prove a valid cause. Ms. Adams, the Compass agent, represented the sellers of a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Heights that was listed for just under $600,000. When a bidding war with five offers ensued, the unit went for $70,000 above asking price to a couple from the West Coast who wanted to use it as a part-time residence. After the contract was signed, the building’s co-op board enacted a new rule that owners had to live in the building full time. As a result, the West Coast couple got their earnest money back, and the unit sold to another buyer at about $80,000 above the asking price.

Even if the real reason is simply buyer’s remorse, real-estate agents say buyers can get back earnest money as long as they can find some valid-sounding reason for dissatisfaction. Ms. Jones in San Francisco had clients withdraw an offer on a $1.1 million house. They’d been looking for two years and when the house came up the wife was traveling abroad; the husband said he was sure she would love it. Turns out the wife didn’t like it at all. The couple used the excuse of a leak found in the inspection process and got their $33,000 deposit back.

And about that ghost. A buyer who put down $43,000 in earnest money pulled out after a neighbor told them the previous owner had died in the home, among other things. The matter went into arbitration, and the potential buyer got the entire deposit back.

Ever since then, Ms. Jones says she has sellers disclose in their contracts the possibility that there might be a ghost. “You have to prepare for anything,” she says.

Increasing Rent Costs Present a Challenge to Aspiring Homeowners

https://i0.wp.com/dsnews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/25/2013/12/rising-arrows-two.jpgby Tory Barringer

Fast-rising rents have made it difficult for many Americans to save up a down payment for a home purchase—and experts say that problem is unlikely to go away any time soon.

Late last year, real estate firm Zillow reported that renters living in the United States paid a cumulative $441 billion in rents throughout 2014, a nearly 5 percent annual increase spurred by rising numbers of renters and climbing prices. Last month, the company said that its own Rent Index increased 3.3 percent year-over-year, accelerating from 2013 even as home price growth slows down.

Results from a more recent survey conducted by Zillow and Pulsenomics suggest that rent prices will continue to be a problem for the aspiring homeowner for years to come.

Out of more than 100 real estate experts surveyed, 51 percent said they expect rental affordability won’t improve for at least another two years, Zillow reported Friday. Another 33 percent were a little more optimistic, calling for a deceleration in rental price increases sometime in the next one to two years.

Only five percent said they expect affordability conditions to improve for renters within the next year.

Despite the challenge that rising rents presents to home ownership throughout the country, more than half—52 percent of respondents—said the market should be allowed to correct the problem on its own, without government intervention.

“Solving the rental affordability crisis in this country will require a lot of innovative thinking and hard work, and that has to start at the local level, not the federal level,” said Zillow’s chief economist, Stan Humphries. “Housing markets in general and rental dynamics in particular are uniquely local and demand local, market-driven policies. Uncle Sam can certainly do a lot, but I worry we’ve become too accustomed to automatically seeking federal assistance for housing issues big and small, instead of trusting markets to correct themselves and without waiting to see the impact of decisions made at a broader local level.”

On the topic of government involvement in housing matters: The survey also asked respondents about last month’s reduction in annual mortgage insurance premiums for loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The Obama administration has projected that the cuts will help as many as 250,000 new homeowners make their first purchase.

The panelists were lukewarm on the change: While two-thirds of those with an opinion said they think the changes could be “somewhat effective in making homeownership more accessible and affordable,” just less than half said the new initiatives are unwise and potentially risky to taxpayers.

Finally, the survey polled panelists on their predictions for U.S. home values this year. As a whole, the group predicted values will rise 4.4 percent in 2015 to a median value of $187,040, with projections ranging from a low of 3.1 percent to a high of 5.5 percent.

“During the past year, expectations for annual home value appreciation over the long run have remained flat, despite lower mortgage rates,” said Terry Loebs, founder of Pulsenomics. “Regarding the near-term outlook, there is a clear consensus among the experts that the positive momentum in U.S. home prices will continue to slow this year.”

On average, panelists said they expect median home values will pass their precession peak ($196,400) by May 2017.

The Next Housing Crisis May Be Sooner Than You Think

How we could fall into another housing crisis before we’ve fully pulled out of the 2008 one.

https://i0.wp.com/cdn.citylab.com/media/img/citylab/2014/11/RTR2LDPC/lead_large.jpgby Richard Florida

When it comes to housing, sometimes it seems we never learn. Just when America appeared to be recovering from the last housing crisis—the trigger, in many ways, for 2008’s grand financial meltdown and the beginning of a three-year recession—another one may be looming on the horizon.

There are at several big red flags.

For one, the housing market never truly recovered from the recession. Trulia Chief Economist Jed Kolko points out that, while the third quarter of 2014 saw improvement in a number of housing key barometers, none have returned to normal, pre-recession levels. Existing home sales are now 80 percent of the way back to normal, while home prices are stuck at 75 percent back, remaining undervalued by 3.4 percent. More troubling, new construction is less than halfway (49 percent) back to normal. Kolko also notes that the fundamental building blocks of the economy, including employment levels, income and household formation, have also been slow to improve. “In this recovery, jobs and housing can’t get what they need from each other,” he writes.

Americans are spending more than 33 percent of their income on housing.

Second, Americans continue to overspend on housing. Even as the economy drags itself out of its recession, a spate of reports show that families are having a harder and harder time paying for housing. Part of the problem is that Americans continue to want more space in bigger homes, and not just in the suburbs but in urban areas, as well. Americans more than 33 percent of their income on housing in 2013, up nearly 13 percent from two decades ago, according to newly released data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The graph below plots the trend by age.

Over-spending on housing is far worse in some places than others; the housing market and its recovery remain highly uneven. Another BLS report released last month showed that households in Washington, D.C., spent nearly twice as much on housing ($17,603) as those in Cleveland, Ohio ($9,061). The chart below, from the BLS report, shows average annual expenses on housing related items:

(Bureau of Labor Statistics)

The result, of course, is that more and more American households, especially middle- and working-class people, are having a harder time affording housing. This is particularly the case in reviving urban centers, as more affluent, highly educated and creative-class workers snap up the best spaces, particularly those along convenient transit, pushing the service and working class further out.

Last but certainly not least, the rate of home ownership continues to fall, and dramatically. Home ownership has reached its lowest level in two decades—64.4 percent (as of the third quarter of 2014). Here’s the data, from the U.S. Census Bureau:

(Data from U.S. Census Bureau)

Home ownership currently hovers from the mid-50 to low-60 percent range in some of the most highly productive and innovative metros in this country—places like San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. This range seems “to provide the flexibility of rental and ownership options required for a fast-paced, rapidly changing knowledge economy. Widespread home ownership is no longer the key to a thriving economy,” I’ve written.

What we are going through is much more than a generational shift or simple lifestyle change. It’s a deep economic shift—I’ve called it the Great Reset. It entails a shift away from the economic system, population patterns and geographic layout of the old suburban growth model, which was deeply connected to old industrial economy, toward a new kind of denser, more urban growth more in line with today’s knowledge economy. We remain in the early stages of this reset. If history is any guide, the complete shift will take a generation or so.

It’s time to impose stricter underwriting standards and encourage the dense, mixed-use, more flexible housing options that the knowledge economy requires.

The upshot, as the Nobel Prize winner Edmund Phelps has written, is that it is time for Americans to get over their house passion. The new knowledge economy requires we spend less on housing and cars, and more on education, human capital and innovation—exactly those inputs that fuel the new economic and social system.

But we’re not moving in that direction; in fact, we appear to be going the other way. This past weekend, Peter J. Wallison pointed out in a New York Times op-ed that federal regulators moved back off tougher mortgage-underwriting standards brought on by 2010’s Dodd-Frank Act and instead relaxed them. Regulators are hoping to encourage more home ownership, but they’re essentially recreating the conditions that led to 2008’s crash.

Wallison notes that this amounts to “underwriting the next housing crisis.” He’s right: It’s time to impose stricter underwriting standards and encourage the dense, mixed-use, more flexible housing options that the knowledge economy requires.

During the depression and after World War II, this country’s leaders pioneered a series of purposeful and ultimately game-changing polices that set in motion the old suburban growth model, helping propel the industrial economy and creating a middle class of workers and owners. Now that our economy has changed again, we need to do the same for the denser urban growth model, creating more flexible housing system that can help bolster today’s economy.

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Dream housing for new economy workers
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Energy Workforce Projected To Grow 39% Through 2022

The dramatic resurgence of the oil industry over the past few years has been a notable factor in the national economic recovery. Production levels have reached totals not seen since the late 1980s and continue to increase, and rig counts are in the 1,900 range. While prices have dipped recently, it will take more than that to markedly slow the level of activity. Cycles are inevitable, but activity is forecast to remain at relatively high levels.  

An outgrowth of oil and gas activity strength is a need for additional workers. At the same time, the industry workforce is aging, and shortages are likely to emerge in key fields ranging from petroleum engineers to experienced drilling crews. I was recently asked to comment on the topic at a gathering of energy workforce professionals. Because the industry is so important to many parts of Texas, it’s an issue with relevance to future prosperity.  

 

Although direct employment in the energy industry is a small percentage of total jobs in the state, the work is often well paying. Moreover, the ripple effects through the economy of this high value-added industry are large, especially in areas which have a substantial concentration of support services.  

Petroleum Engineer

Employment in oil and gas extraction has expanded rapidly, up from 119,800 in January 2004 to 213,500 in September 2014. Strong demand for key occupations is evidenced by the high salaries; for example, median pay was $130,280 for petroleum engineers in 2012 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  

Due to expansion in the industry alone, the BLS estimates employment growth of 39 percent through 2022 for petroleum engineers, which comprised 11 percent of total employment in oil and gas extraction in 2012. Other key categories (such as geoscientists, wellhead pumpers, and roustabouts) are also expected to see employment gains exceeding 15 percent. In high-activity regions, shortages are emerging in secondary fields such as welders, electricians, and truck drivers.  

The fact that the industry workforce is aging is widely recognized. The cyclical nature of the energy industry contributes to uneven entry into fields such as petroleum engineering and others which support oil and gas activity. For example, the current surge has pushed up wages, and enrollment in related fields has increased sharply. Past downturns, however, led to relatively low enrollments, and therefore relatively lower numbers of workers in some age cohorts. The loss of the large baby boom generation of experienced workers to retirement will affect all industries. This problem is compounded in the energy sector because of the long stagnation of the industry in the 1980s and 1990s resulting in a generation of workers with little incentive to enter the industry. As a result, the projected need for workers due to replacement is particularly high for key fields.

The BLS estimates that 9,800 petroleum engineers (25.5 percent of the total) working in 2012 will need to be replaced by 2022 because they retire or permanently leave the field. Replacement rates are also projected to be high for other crucial occupations including petroleum pump system operators, refinery operators, and gaugers (37.1 percent); derrick, rotary drill, and service unit operators, oil, gas, and mining (40.4 percent).  

http://jobdiagnosis.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/petroleum-engineer.jpg

Putting together the needs from industry expansion and replacement, most critical occupations will require new workers equal to 40 percent or more of the current employment levels. The total need for petroleum engineers is estimated to equal approximately 64.5 percent of the current workforce. Clearly, it will be a major challenge to deal with this rapid turnover.

Potential solutions which have been attempted or discussed present problems, and it will require cooperative efforts between the industry and higher education and training institutions to adequately deal with future workforce shortages. Universities have had problems filling open teaching positions, because private-sector jobs are more lucrative for qualified candidates. Given budget constraints and other considerations, it is not feasible for universities to compete on the basis of salary. Without additional teaching and research staff, it will be difficult to continue to expand enrollment while maintaining education quality. At the same time, high-paying jobs are enticing students into the workforce, and fewer are entering doctoral programs.  

Another option which has been suggested is for engineers who are experienced in the workplace to spend some of their time teaching. However, busy companies are naturally resistant to allowing employees to take time away from their regular duties. Innovative training and associate degree and certification programs blending classroom and hands-on experience show promise for helping deal with current and potential shortages in support occupations. Such programs can prepare students for well-paying technical jobs in the industry. Encouraging experienced professionals to work past retirement, using flexible hours and locations to appeal to Millennials, and other innovative approaches must be part of the mix, as well as encouraging the entry of females into the field (only 20 percent of the current workforce is female, but over 40 percent of the new entries).

Industry observers have long been aware of the coming “changing of the guard” in the oil and gas business. We are now approaching the crucial time period for ensuring the availability of the workers needed to fill future jobs. Cooperative efforts between the industry and higher education/training institutions will likely be required, and it’s time to act.

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Today’s Hottest Trend In Residential Real Estate

The practice of multigenerational housing has been on the rise the past few years, and now experts are saying that it is adding value to properties.
by Lauren Mennenas

The practice of multigenerational housing has been on the rise the past few years, and now experts are saying that it is adding value to properties.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, several couples across the country are quoted saying that instead of downsizing to a new home, they are choosing to live with their adult children.

This is what many families across the country are doing for both a “peace of mind” and for “higher property values.”

“For both domestic and foreign buyers, the hottest amenity in real estate these days is an in-law unit, an apartment carved out of an existing home or a stand-alone dwelling built on the homeowners’ property,” writes Katy McLaughlin of the WSJ. “While the adult children get the peace of mind of having mom and dad nearby, real-estate agents say the in-law accommodations are adding value to their homes.”

And how much more are these homes worth? In an analysis by Zillow, the homes with this type of living accommodations were priced about 60 percent higher than regular single-family homes.

Local builders are noticing the trend, too. Horsham based Toll Brothers are building more communities that include both large, single-family homes and smaller homes for empty nesters, the company’s chief marketing officer, Kira Sterling, told the WSJ.

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Single Family Construction Expected to Boom in 2015

https://i0.wp.com/s3.amazonaws.com/static.texastribune.org/media/images/Foster_Jerod-9762.jpgKenny DeLaGarza, a building inspector for the city of Midland, at a 600-home Betenbough development.

Single-family home construction is expected to increase 26 percent in 2015, the National Association of Home Builders reported Oct. 31. NAHB expects single-family production to total 802,000 units next year and reach 1.1 million by 2016.

Economists participating in the NAHB’s 2014 Fall Construction Forecast Webinar said that a growing economy, increased household formation, low interest rates and pent-up demand should help drive the market next year. They also said they expect continued growth in multifamily starts given the nation’s rental demand.

The NAHB called the 2000-03 period a benchmark for normal housing activity; during those years, single-family production averaged 1.3 million units a year. The organization said it expects single-family starts to be at 90 percent of normal by the fourth quarter 2016.

NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe said multifamily starts currently are at normal production levels and are projected to increase 15 percent to 365,000 by the end of the year and hold steady into next year.

The NAHB Remodeling Market Index also showed increased activity, although it’s expected to be down 3.4 percent compared to last year because of sluggish activity in the first quarter 2014. Remodeling activity will continue to increase gradually in 2015 and 2016.

Moody’s Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi told the NAHB that he expects an undersupply of housing given increasing job growth. Currently, the nation’s supply stands at just over 1 million units annually, well below what’s considered normal; in a normal year, there should be demand for 1.7 million units.

Zandi noted that increasing housing stock by 700,000 units should help meet demand and create 2.1 million jobs. He also noted that things should level off by the end of 2017, when mortgage rates probably will  rise to around 6 percent.

“The housing market will be fine because of better employment, higher wages and solid economic growth, which will trump the effect of higher mortgage rates,” Zandi told the NAHB.

Robert Denk, NAHB assistant vice president for forecasting and analysis, said that he expects housing recovery to vary by state and region, noting that states with higher levels of payroll employment or labor market recovery are associated with healthier housing markets

States with the healthiest job growth include Louisiana, Montana, North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming, as well as farm belt states like Iowa.

Meanwhile Alabama, Arizona, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico and Rhode Island continue to have weaker markets.

BofA Banker Arrested In Hong Kong For Double Murder Of Two Prostitutes

Rurick Jutting, a Cambridge University graduate, has been named as the suspect of the double murder

by Tyler Durden

The excesses of 1980s New York investment banking as captured best (and with just a dose of hyperbole) by Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho may be long gone in the US, but they certainly are alive and well in other banking meccas, such as the one place where every financier wants to work these days (thanks to the Chinese government making it rain credit): Hong Kong. It is here that yesterday a 29-year-old British banker, Rurik Jutting, a Cambridge University grad and current Bank of America Merrill Lynch, former Barclays employee, was arrested in connection with the grisly murder of two prostitutes. One of the two victims had been hidden in a suitcase on a balcony, while the other, a foreign woman of between 25 and 30, was found lying inside the apartment with wounds to her neck and buttocks, the police said in a statement.
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A spokesman for Bank of America Merrill Lynch told Reuters on Sunday that the U.S. bank had, until recently, an employee bearing the same name as a man Hong Kong media have described as the chief suspect in the double murder case. Bank of America Merrill Lynch would not give more details nor clarify when the person had left the bank.

Britain’s Foreign Office in London said on Saturday a British national had been arrested in Hong Kong, without specifying the nature of any suspected crime.

The details of the crime are straight out of American Psycho 2: the Hong Kong Sequel. One of the murdered women was aged between 25 and 30 and had cut wounds to her neck and buttock, according to a police statement. The second woman’s body, also with neck injuries, was discovered in a suitcase on the apartment’s balcony, the police said. A knife was seized at the scene.

According to the WSJ, the arrested suspect, who called police to the apartment in the early hours of Nov. 1, was until recently a Hong Kong-based employee of Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

 
 

Filings with Hong Kong’s securities regulator show that the suspect was an employee with the bank as recently as Oct. 31.The man had called police in the early hours of Saturday and asked them to investigate the case, police said.

Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper said the suspect had taken about 2,000 photographs and some video footage of the victims after the killings including close-ups of their wounds. Local media said the two women were prostitutes.

The apartment where the bodies were found is on the 31st floor in a building popular with financial professionals, where average rents are about HK$30,000 (nearly $4,000) a month.

According to the Telegraph the suspect, who had previously worked at Barclays from 2008 until 2010 before moving to BofA, and specifically its Hong Kong office in July last year, had apparently vanished from his workplace a week ago. It has also been reported that he resigned from his post days before news of the murders emerged.

And as usual in situations like these, the UK’s Daily Mail has the granular details. It reports that the British banker arrested on suspicion of a double murder in Hong Kong has been identified as 29-year-old Rurik Jutting. 

 
 

Mr Jutting, who attended Cambridge University, is being held by police after the bodies of two prostitutes were discovered in his up-market apartment in the early hours of yesterday morning.

Officers found the women, thought to be a 25-year-old from Indonesia and a 30-year-old from the Philippines, after Mr Jutting allegedly called police to the address, which is located near the city’s red light district. The naked body of the Filipina victim, who had suffered a series of knife wounds, was found inside the 31st-floor apartment in J Residence – a development of exclusive properties in the city’s Wan Chai district that are popular with young expatriate executives.

The second woman was reportedly discovered naked and partially decapitated in a suitcase on the balcony of the apartment. She is believed to have been tied up and to have been left there for around a week. 

Sex toys and cocaine were also reportedly found, along with a knife which was seized by officers.

Mr Jutting’s phone is today being examined by police in a bid to identify possible further victims, according to the South China Morning Post. 

It is understood that photos of the woman who was found in the suitcase, apparently taken after she died, were among roughly 2,000 that officers found on the device.

Mr Jutting attended Winchester College, an independent boys school in Hampshire, before continuing his studies in history and law at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he became secretary of the history society.  

He appears to have worked at Barclays in London between 2008 and 2010, when he took a job with Bank of America Merrill Lynch. He was moved to the bank’s Hong Kong office in July last year. 

A spokesman for Bank of America Merrill Lynch confirmed that it had previously employed a man by the same name but would not give more details nor clarify when the person had left the bank.

CCTV footage from the apartment block, located near Hong Kong’s red light district, showed the banker and the Filipina woman returning to the 31st floor shortly after midnight local time yesterday.

He allegedly called police to his home at 3.42am, shortly after the woman he was seen with is believed to have been killed.

She was found with two wounds to her neck and her throat had been slashed. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

The body on the balcony, wrapped in a carpet and inside a black suitcase, which measured about three feet by 18 inches, was not found by police until eight hours later. 

A police source quoted by the South China Morning Post said: ‘She was nearly decapitated and her hands and legs were bound with ropes. ‘She was naked and wrapped in a towel before being stuffed into the suitcase. Her passport was found at the scene.’

Wan Chai, the district where the apartment is located, is known for its bustling nightclub scene of ‘girly bars,’ popular with expatriate men and staffed by sex workers from South East Asia.  Police have today been contacting nearby bars in an attempt to find out more about the background of the two murdered women.  

One resident in the 40-storey block, where most of the residents are expatriates, said he had noticed an unusual smell in recent days. He told the South China Morning Post that there had been ‘a stink in the building like a dead animal’.

And just like that, the worst excesses of the “peak banking” days from 1980, when sad scenes like these were a frequent occurrence, are back.


Government workers remove the body of a woman who was found dead at a flat in Hong Kong’s Wan chai district in the early hours of this morning. A British man was been arrested in connection with the murders.

A second victim was found stuffed inside a suitcase on the balcony of the residential flat in Hong Kong

The 40-storey J Residence is reportedly a high-end development favored by junior expatriate bankers

Update

Bank Of America Psycho Killer Was Busy Helping Hedge Funds Avoid Taxes During His Business Hours

The most bizarre story of the weekend was that of Bank of America’s 29-year-old banker Rurik Jutting, who shortly after allegedly killing two prostitutes (and stuffing one in a suitcase), called the cops on himself and effectively admitted to the crime having left a quite clear autoreply email message, namely “For urgent inquiries, or indeed any inquiries, please contact someone who is not an insane psychopath. For escalation please contact God, though suspect the devil will have custody. [Last line only really worked if I had followed through..]”

But while his attempt to imitate Patrick Bateman did not go unnoticed, even if it will be promptly forgotten until the next grotesquely insane banker shocks the world for another 15 minutes, the question that has remained unanswered is what did young Master Jutting do when not chopping women up.

The answer, as the WSJ has revealed, is just as unsavory: “he had been part of a Bank of America team that specialized in tax-minimization trades that are under scrutiny from prosecutors, regulators, tax collectors and the bank’s own compliance department, according to people familiar with the matter and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.”

Basically, when not acting as a homicidal psychopath, Jutting was facilitating full-blown tax evasion, just the activity that every developed, and thus broke, government around the globe is desperately cracking down on, and why every single Swiss bank is non-grata in the US and may be arrested immediately upon arrival on US soil.

More from the WSJ:

Mr. Jutting, a U.K. native and a competitive poker player, worked in Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Structured Equity Finance and Trading group, first in London and then in Hong Kong, according to these people and regulatory filings. Mr. Jutting resigned from the bank sometime before Oct. 27, which police say was the date of the first murder, according to a person familiar with the matter.

 The trading group, known as SEFT, employs about three dozen people globally, one of these people said. It helps hedge funds and other clients manage their stock portfolios, often through the use of derivatives, according to the people and internal bank documents.

Mr. Jutting joined Bank of America in 2010 and worked three years in its London office, the bank’s hub for dividend-arbitrage trades, the people familiar with the matter say. He moved to Bank of America’s Hong Kong office in July 2013.

Ironic, because it was just this summer that a Congressional panel headed by Carl Levin was tearing foreign banks Deutsche Bank and Barclays a new one for providing structures such as MAPS and COLT, which did precisely this: give clients a derivative-based means of avoiding taxation (as described in “How Rentec Made More Than 34 Billion In Profits Since 1998 “Fictional Derivatives“).

As it turns out not only did a US-based bank – Bank of America – have an entire group dedicated to precisely the same type of hedge fund, and other Ultra High Net Worth, clients tax evasion advice, but it also housed a homicidal psychopath.

Perhaps if instead Levin had been grandstanding and seeking to punish foreign banks, he had cracked down on everyone who was providing this service, Jutting’s group would have been disbanded long ago, and two innocent lives could have been saved, instead allowing the alleged cocaine-snorting murderer to engage in far more wholesome, banker-approrpriate activities:

During his time in Asia, Mr. Jutting’s pastimes apparently included gambling. In a Sept. 14 Facebook post, he boasted of winning thousands of dollars playing poker at a tournament in the Philippines. He signed off the post: “God I love Manila.” The comment drew eight “likes.”

Alas one will never know “what if.”

But we are certain that with none other than America’s most prominent bank, the one carrying its name, has now been busted for aiding and abetting hedge fund tax evasion around the globe, it will get the same treatment as evil foreign banks Barclays and Deutsche Bank, right Carl Levin?

Americans Pay More For Slower Internet

internet speeds

When it comes to Internet speeds, the U.S. lags behind much of the developed world.

That’s one of the conclusions from a new report by the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, which looked at the cost and speed of Internet access in two dozen cities around the world.

Clocking in at the top of the list was Seoul, South Korea, where Internet users can get ultra-fast connections of roughly 1000 megabits per second for just $30 a month. The same speeds can be found in Hong Kong and Tokyo for $37 and $39 per month, respectively.

For comparison’s sake, the average U.S. connection speed stood at 9.8 megabits per second as of late last year, according to Akamai Technologies.

Residents of New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. can get 500-megabit connections thanks to Verizon, though they come at a cost of $300 a month.

There are a few cities in the U.S. where you can find 1000-megabit connections. Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lafayette, La. have community-owned fiber networks, and Google has deployed a fiber network in Kansas City. High-speed Internet users in Chattanooga and Kansas City pay $70, while in Lafayette, it’s $110.

The problem with fiber networks is that they’re hugely expensive to install and maintain, requiring operators to lay new wiring underground and link it to individual homes. Many smaller countries with higher population density have faster average speeds than the United States.

“Especially in the U.S., many of the improved plans are at the higher speed tiers, which generally are the most expensive plans available,” the report says. “The lower speed packages—which are often more affordable for the average consumer—have not seen as much of an improvement.”

Google is exploring plans to bring high-speed fiber networks to a handful of other cities, and AT&T has also built them out in a few places, but it will be a long time before 1000-megabit speeds are an option for most Americans.

Home Ownership Rate Since 2005

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by Wolf Richter

The quintessential ingredient in the stew that makes up a thriving housing market has been evaporating in America. And a recent phenomenon has taken over: private equity firms, REITs, and other Wall-Street funded institutional investors have plowed the nearly free money the Fed has graciously made available to them since 2008 into tens of thousands of vacant single-family homes to rent them out. And an apartment building boom has offered alternatives too.

Since the Fed has done its handiwork, institutional investors have driven up home prices and pushed them out of reach for many first-time buyers, and these potential first-time buyers are now renting homes from investors instead. Given the high home prices, in many cases it may be a better deal. And apartments are often centrally located, rather than in some distant suburb, cutting transportation time and expenses, and allowing people to live where the urban excitement is. Millennials have figured it out too, as America is gradually converting to a country of renters.

So in its inexorable manner, home ownership has continued to slide in the third quarter, according to the Commerce Department. Seasonally adjusted, the rate dropped to 64.3% from 64.7 in the prior quarter. It was the lowest rate since Q4 1994 (not seasonally adjusted, the rate dropped to 64.4%, the lowest since Q1 1995).

This is what that relentless slide looks like:

US-quarterly-homeownership-rates-1995-2014

Home ownership since 2008 dropped across all age groups. But the largest drops occurred in the youngest age groups. In the under-35 age group, where first-time buyers are typically concentrated, home ownership has plunged from 41.3% in 2008 to 36.0%; and in the 35-44 age group, from 66.7% to 59.1%, with a drop of over a full percentage point just in the last quarter – by far the steepest.

Home ownership, however, didn’t peak at the end of the last housing bubble just before the financial crisis, but in 2004 when it reached 69.2%. Already during the housing bubble, speculative buying drove prices beyond the reach of many potential buyers who were still clinging by their fingernails to the status of the American middle class … unless lenders pushed them into liar loans, a convenient solution many lenders perfected to an art.

It was during these early stages of the housing bubble that the concept of “home” transitioned from a place where people lived and thrived or fought with each other and dealt with onerous expenses and responsibilities to a highly leveraged asset for speculators inebriated with optimism, an asset to be flipped willy-nilly and laddered ad infinitum with endless amounts of cheaply borrowed money. And for some, including the Fed it seems, that has become the next American dream.

Despite low and skidding home ownership rates, home prices have been skyrocketing in recent years, and new home prices have reached ever more unaffordable all-time highs.

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Assisted-Living Complexes for Young People

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by Dionne Searcey

One of the most surprising developments in the aftermath of the housing crisis is the sharp rise in apartment building construction. Evidently post-recession Americans would rather rent apartments than buy new houses.

When I noticed this trend, I wanted to see what was behind the numbers.

Is it possible Americans are giving up on the idea of home ownership, the very staple of the American dream? Now that would be a good story.

What I found was less extreme but still interesting: The American dream appears merely to be on hold.

Economists told me that many potential home buyers can’t get a down payment together because the recession forced them to chip away at their savings. Others have credit stains from foreclosures that will keep them out of the mortgage market for several years.

More surprisingly, it turns out that the millennial generation is a driving force behind the rental boom. Young adults who would have been prime candidates for first-time home ownership are busy delaying everything that has to do with becoming a grown-up. Many even still live at home, but some data shows they are slowly beginning to branch out and find their own lodgings — in rental apartments.

A quick Internet search for new apartment complexes suggests that developers across the country are seizing on this trend and doing all they can to appeal to millennials. To get a better idea of what was happening, I arranged a tour of a new apartment complex in suburban Washington that is meant to cater to the generation.

What I found made me wish I was 25 again. Scented lobbies crammed with funky antiques that led to roof decks with outdoor theaters and fire pits. The complex I visited offered Zumba classes, wine tastings, virtual golf and celebrity chefs who stop by to offer cooking lessons.

“It’s like an assisted-living facility for young people,” the photographer accompanying me said.

Economists believe that the young people currently filling up high-amenity rental apartments will eventually buy homes, and every young person I spoke with confirmed that this, in fact, was the plan. So what happens to the modern complexes when the 20-somethings start to buy homes? It’s tempting to envision ghost towns of metal and pipe wood structures with tumbleweeds blowing through the lobbies. But I’m sure developers will rehabilitate them for a new demographic looking for a renter’s lifestyle.

FHA Is Set To Return To Anti-House-Flipping Restrictions


House flippers buy run-down properties, fix them up and resell them quickly at a higher price. Above, a home under renovation in Amsterdam, N.Y. (Mike Groll / Associated Press)

Can you still do a short-term house flip using federally insured, low-down payment mortgage money? That’s an important question for buyers, sellers, investors and realty agents who’ve taken part in a nationwide wave of renovations and quick resales using Federal Housing Administration-backed loans during the last four years.

The answer is yes: You can still flip and finance short term. But get your rehabs done soon. The federal agency whose policy change in 2010 made tens of thousands of quick flips possible — and helped large numbers of first-time and minority buyers with moderate incomes acquire a home — is about to shut down the program, FHA officials confirmed to me.

In an effort to stimulate repairs and sales in neighborhoods hard hit by the mortgage crisis and recession, the FHA waived its standard prohibition against financing short-term house flips. Before the policy change, if you were an investor or property rehab specialist, you had to own a house for at least 90 days before reselling — flipping it — to a new buyer at a higher price using FHA financing. Under the waiver of the rule, you could buy a house, fix it up and resell it as quickly as possible to a buyer using an FHA mortgage — provided that you followed guidelines designed to protect consumers from being ripped off with hyper-inflated prices and shoddy construction.

Since then, according to FHA estimates, about 102,000 homes have been renovated and resold using the waiver. The reason for the upcoming termination: The program has done its job, stimulated billions of dollars of investments, stabilized prices and provided homes for families who were often newcomers to ownership.

However, even though the waiver program has functioned well, officials say, inherent dangers exist when there are no minimum ownership periods for flippers. In the 1990s, the FHA witnessed this firsthand when teams of con artists began buying run-down houses, slapped a little paint on the exterior and resold them within days — using fraudulent appraisals — for hyper-inflated prices and profits. Their buyers, who obtained FHA-backed mortgages, often couldn’t afford the payments and defaulted. Sometimes the buyers were themselves part of the scam and never made any payments on their loans — leaving the FHA, a government-owned insurer, with steep losses.

For these reasons, officials say, it’s time to revert to the more restrictive anti-quick-flip rules that prevailed before the waiver: The 90-day standard will come back into effect after Dec. 31.

But not everybody thinks that’s a great idea. Clem Ziroli Jr., president of First Mortgage Corp., an FHA lender in Ontario, says reversion to the 90-day rule will hurt moderate-income buyers who found the program helpful in opening the door to home ownership.

“The sad part,” Ziroli said in an email, “is the majority of these properties were improved and [located] in underserved areas. Having a rehabilitated house available to these borrowers” helped them acquire houses that had been in poor physical shape but now were repaired, inspected and safe to occupy.

Paul Skeens, president of Colonial Mortgage in Waldorf, Md., and an active rehab investor in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C., said the upcoming policy change will cost him money and inevitably raise the prices of the homes he sells after completing repairs and improvements. Efficient renovators, Skeens told me in an interview, can substantially improve a house within 45 days, at which point the property is ready to list and resell. By extending the mandatory ownership period to 90 days, the FHA will increase Skeens’ holding costs — financing expenses, taxes, maintenance and utilities — all of which will need to be added onto the price to a new buyer.

Paul Wylie, a member of an investor group in the Los Angeles area, says he sees “more harm than good by not extending the waiver. There are protections built into the program that have served [the FHA] well,” he said in an email. If the government reimposes the 90-day requirement, “it will harm those [buyers] that FHA intends to help” with its 3.5% minimum-down-payment loans. “Investors will adapt and sell to non-FHA-financed buyers. Entry-level consumers will be harmed unnecessarily.”

Bottom line: Whether fix-up investors like it or not, the FHA seems dead set on reverting to its pre-bust flipping restrictions. Financing will still be available, but selling prices of the end product — rehabbed houses for moderate-income buyers — are almost certain to be more expensive.

kenharney@earthlink.net. Distributed by Washington Post Writers Group. Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Why Are Chinese Millionaires Buying Mansions in an L.A. Suburb?

Why Are Chinese Millionaires Buying Mansions in an L.A. Suburb?

by Karen Weise

“Oh, hey! How ya’ doin’?” Raleigh Ornelas hollers, leaning out the window of his spotless white pickup truck. He’s recognized the man across the street, a developer standing in front of a Tuscan-style mansion under construction. “Where have you been hiding at? I call you, you don’t call me.”

Ornelas is an informal broker in Arcadia, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb at the foot of the San Gabriel mountains. He’s been keeping an eye out for the builder, an Asian man with a slight comb-over who goes by Mark. Ornelas has found two older homeowners who’ve finally agreed to sell their properties, and he knows that Mark, like all developers here, needs land on which to build mansions for an influx of rich clients from mainland China.

Ornelas rattles off addresses on a nearby street. “Three-eleven, that guy, he’s wack,” he says, shaking his head. “He wants 2.8.” He means million dollars. “And then 354, they want $2 million.”

The lot is 17,000 square feet. “Seventeen for 2 mil?” Mark asks, incredulous.

“I know,” Ornelas says. “They’re going crazy.”

A year ago the property would have gone for $1.3 million, but Arcadia is booming. Residents have become used to postcards offering immediate, all-cash deals for their property and watching as 8,000-square-foot homes go up next door to their modest split levels. For buyers from mainland China, Arcadia offers excellent schools, large lots with lenient building codes, and a place to park their money beyond the reach of the Chinese government.

The city, population 57,600, projects that about 150 older homes—53 percent more than normal—will be torn down this year and replaced with mansions. The deals happen fast and are rarely listed publicly. Often, the first indication that a megahouse is coming next door is when the lawn turns brown. That means the neighbor has stopped watering and green construction netting is about to go up.

Ornelas matches sellers with developers. Deals happen fast; many aren’t listed publicly
Damon Casarez for Bloomberg Businessweek.
Ornelas matches sellers with developers. Deals happen fast; many aren’t listed publicly.

This flood of money, arriving from China despite strict currency controls, has helped the city build a $20 million high school performing arts center and the local Mercedes dealership expand. “Thank God for them coming over here,” says Peggy Fong Chen, a broker in Arcadia for many years. “They saved our recession.” The new residents are from China’s rising millionaire class—entrepreneurs who’ve made fortunes building railroads in Tibet, converting bioenergy in Beijing, and developing real estate in Chongqing. One co-owner of a $6.5 million house is a 19-year-old college student, the daughter of the chief executive of a company the state controls.

Arcadia is a concentrated version of what’s happening across the U.S. The Hurun Report, a magazine in Shanghai about China’s wealthy elite, estimates that almost two-thirds of the country’s millionaires have already emigrated or plan to do so. They’re scooping up homes from Seattle to New York, buying luxury goods on Fifth Avenue, and paying full freight to send their kids to U.S. colleges. Chinese nationals hold roughly $660 billion in personal wealth offshore, according to Boston Consulting Group, and the National Association of Realtors says $22 billion of that was spent in the past year acquiring U.S. homes. Arcadia has become a hotbed of the buying binge in the past several years, and long-standing residents are torn—giddy at the rising property values but worried about how they’re transforming their town. And they’re increasingly nervous about what would happen to the local economy if the deluge of Chinese cash were to end.

Back on the street corner, Ornelas and Mark agree to meet for coffee to discuss other deals. Before he drives away, Ornelas asks if the developer wants to speak with a reporter. Mark declines, saying he tries to keep a low profile. “See?” Ornelas says as he pulls away, leaning toward the passenger seat and raising his eyebrows. “Everything’s hush-hush here in Arcadia.”

For almost a century after its founding in 1903, Arcadia was white and conservative. In the late 1930s more than 90 percent of the city’s property owners signed agreements, circulated by the Chamber of Commerce, to sell only to white buyers. Its Santa Anita racetrack held about 19,000 Japanese Americans as they were relocated to internment camps during World War II. In the early 1980s an influx of immigrants from Taiwan arrived, drawn in large part to the great public schools. A second wave came from Hong Kong after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. The city’s Asian population grew from 4 percent in 1980 to 59 percent in 2010. There were tensions at first—a letter in a local newspaper praised a proposed ban on non-English storefronts, writing, “Please leave your Asian signs in the old country and get Americanized.” Over time, the new residents got involved in civic life, joining the Rotary Club, entering local government, and opening businesses such as Din Tai Fung Dumpling House, a Taiwanese restaurant tucked in the corner of a strip mall.

Arcadia has no real downtown, only low-rise commercial stretches lined with real estate offices and boba tea shops; Din Tai Fung is the closest thing there is to a central hub. Hostesses with walkie-talkies manage the hourlong wait of people clamoring for plump soup dumplings and pork buns. It was here, a decade ago, that Ornelas broke into Chinese real estate. Leaving lunch one day, he spotted a Ferrari parked outside. “Boy, that’s a beautiful car,” he said. The owner was Chinese and asked Ornelas if he wanted to take it for a drive. Ornelas squeezed in and took a quick spin. As he returned, a white man walked by and made a racial slur about the owner.

“I said, ‘Leave the guy alone,’ ” Ornelas recalls. The talk escalated into a fistfight, which ended badly for the heckler. Ornelas is a Vietnam veteran who spent years bare-knuckle boxing for cash while working as a longshoreman. “The Chinese guy goes, ‘I’m a stranger. Why did you stick up for me?’ I said, ‘We’re all equal in this world, man.’ ” After that, Ornelas says, “I just met people from him, and then I got into different developers.”

“Obviously if your house isn’t feng shui-friendly, it’s like we’re not even going to have a conversation”

Ornelas matches them up with sellers. He swings by garage sales to chat up owners, and as he drives Arcadia’s streets, he looks for signs a homeowner may need money. On a blistering hot day in July, he goes scouting through the city’s foothills. “The roof is popping in that one there,” he says, pointing to an older ranch house. “This one, they put a new roof on, but the house is in bad shape.” Ornelas stops at a corner lot, where a property is under construction. “Look at how big that house is,” he says. “Ooof. Gigantic.”

As Ornelas tells it, last year the real estate website Zillow (Z) had estimated the property’s value at $1.2 million when he, on behalf of a developer, offered the owner $1.5 million. The owner’s brother, who worked in law enforcement, called Ornelas to ask if he was laundering money. “I told him, ‘That’s what the house is worth to me,’ you know? And he kind of investigated to see if it was dirty money. Everything was on the uppity-up, so he sold it to us.” Where Ornelas’s tales can be checked against public records, they stand up—Zillow did make the lower estimate, the house did sell for $1.5 million, and the owner’s brother is a sergeant with the county sheriff’s department. (The lawman didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Next, Ornelas drives over to one in a string of construction sites in the city’s Upper Rancho neighborhood, where large lots line curving streets shaded by gracious oak trees. At the site, buzz saws blare, and stacks of plywood lie on a concrete foundation. Richard Smith, the sun-tanned owner of a construction company working on seven homes in Arcadia, walks over to talk shop. Smith is building the 11,000-square-foot home for a developer who expects to sell it, he says, for $8 million to $9 million. Smith grew up in Arcadia, and his company has only Asian clients. They have certain preferences. “Obviously, if your house isn’t feng shui-friendly, it’s like we’re not even going to have a conversation,” he says. That means minding the number of stairs, the directions rooms face, and how materials line up. “And understanding the value of water, that’s probably one of my key strengths,” he says. “If you go to any successful businessman in China, or even here, they generally will have a picture of water behind their desk.” He whips out his phone and swipes to photos of a project with a waterfall cascading off the top of a gazebo and into a backyard pool.

A teardown that sold for $2.75 million in July 2013Photograph by Damon Casarez for Bloomberg BusinessweekA teardown that sold for $2.75 million in July 2013

Smith says many of the newest buyers in Arcadia don’t speak English. “They’ve just come here,” he says. “They’re on that EB—what’s it called?” He means the EB-5 visas that the U.S. grants to foreigners who plow at least $500,000 into American development projects. Congress created the program in 1990 to spur investment, and demand for the visas has grown recently. This year, for the first time, the government gave away the annual allocation of 10,000 visas before the year was over, with Chinese nationals snapping up 85 percent. Brokers in the area say it’s the most common way buyers are coming to town. “Once they obtain residency, they want to bring their family over and get the United States education,” says real estate agent Ricky Seow. “They can start a new life in California.”
 
 
Taillights whiz by as 19-year-old Cheng Qianrong heads east along the freeway that runs from Los Angeles International Airport toward Arcadia, in a video she posts in June to her 22,000 Instagram followers. Later that night she stands in a marble kitchen, points a gold iPhone at a mirror, and, with a hip to the side, snaps a picture of her reflection, writing, “I’m finally home.

A sophomore studying business at the University of Oregon, Cheng, who goes by Heli in the U.S., is a minor social media celebrity in China. In selfies, her long, straight hair and wide-eyed gaze make her look younger than she is. Her followers express awe for her style and gush at photos of her enjoying a smoothie; posing with stuffed animals; and smiling with a birthday cake made to look like a stack of Tiffany boxes.

In late 2013, Cheng and her mother, Wang Jun, bought a 9,000-square-foot house with a pool and spa in Arcadia for $6.5 million. According to an L.A. property filing, Wang’s husband is Cheng Qingtao. He’s CEO of China Huayang Economic & Trade Group, one of the first state-owned companies set up by the central government, which still owns a majority stake. Heli’s two-story chateau-style home is only a few miles from one owned by her aunt, who’s married to Cheng’s older brother, Cheng Qingbo. Qingbo was the first private owner of railroads in China and, by 2013, was the country’s 257th-richest person, worth an estimated $1.06 billion, Hurun says. In June, Shanghai police arrested Qingbo for allegedly duping people into investments, including a project that, China Business News says, didn’t exist.

For most Arcadians, it would be hard to know if Heli owned the house next door. A member of one homeowners association estimates that about 20 percent of the new purchases sit empty, and for those who don’t speak Mandarin, language barriers have made it hard to share more than a wave with neighbors. For many sales, public records provide no way to understand who the new owners are. A recorded deed may show just an English transliteration of a buyer’s name, with no signature. Some public documents provide small clues: a second address in a luxury condo near Tiananmen Square; a seal if a document has been notarized at the U.S. Embassy in Guangzhou; a husband who relinquishes rights to the land to his wife; or a signature in Chinese characters.

Chinese nationals hold $660 billion in personal wealth offshore; they spent $22 billion on U.S. homes in the past year

Some of those clues match up with public documents in China. A mile north of the Chengs, Fu Youhong and Zhang Jian, a couple who founded a pharmaceutical distributor in China before starting a business converting agricultural waste into energy, bought a $3.5 million home advertised as a “spectacular brand-new French Normandy Estate.” Pesticide manufacturer Huifeng International USA got into the boom early, in 2012, and for $3.4 million bought a house with a grand circular staircase and Swedish sauna. The company says the property is used as an office for its trading business and not as a personal home. And a $3.2 million property in one of Arcadia’s rare gated communities was sold to a woman from Guangzhou named Zeng Fang, who runs a network of immigration sites, one of which, baby-usa.net, tells Chinese mothers they can deliver babies at Arcadia Methodist Hospital.

A few miles south, another new house, this one with Tuscan styling and Moorish window treatments, sold last year to a woman named Jin Liping. Her husband, Du Jianming, is the owner of one of China’s largest private builders of steel structures. His company has built bridges in Shanghai and connecting railways on the Tibetan Plateau. His wife bought the 8,000-square-foot house in Arcadia for $4.8 million in September 2013, around the same time the couple faced financial pressures at home. They lost three lawsuits in China related to unpaid loans, but their home in California looks in peak condition, with little red ribbons tied around the topiary by the front door.

Arcadia Sales Frenzy

A goldenrod-yellow house on South 6th Avenue belongs to Tao Weisheng and Du Xiaojuan, who develop homes and run hotels in Chongqing. Tao is known in China for collecting calligraphy and paintings—and for reportedly paying bribes to bureaucrats. According to state-run media, in 2004, Tao and a business partner paid a local official’s gambling debt at a Macau casino. The official had given them a land certificate they needed for a loan. In 2010 the court found the official guilty of taking a bribe and gave him a suspended death sentence. The prosecutor didn’t charge Tao and his partner. The homeowners or their representatives declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests.

Lately, groups of Chinese investors have pooled their money to buy Arcadian homes, which often aren’t occupied. More than 400 residents showed up at a community meeting with the police department this spring, in part concerned about a spate of burglaries targeting empty mansions. When there are leaks or other problems with a property, even the city struggles to identify who’s responsible. “Who do we contact? Where do we contact them?” says Jim Kasama, the community development administrator for the city’s building department. “Sometimes it’s not that easy.”
 
 
Arcadia is on track to bring in record revenue this year. In the fiscal year ended in June, fees from building permits and development reached $7.9 million, a 72 percent increase from the previous year. Its quiet streets are busy with gardeners blowing leaves and laborers laying roofs. This summer, the high school updated its gym and cafeteria. For a generation of older homeowners, the boom has created one hell of a nest egg. The Great Recession hit many retirees hard, but now they’ve sold and moved to cheaper places a few miles away. As Smith, the contractor, says, “They still live close, but they’ve got 2 million bucks in their bank account.”

With so many homes vacant and language barriers prevalent, distrust is building. There are strange rumors—local officials on the take; bridal studios as fronts for massage parlors—and stranger truths. Just steps from the Arcadia police station, a local TV news reporter uncovered a hotel being used for birth tourism. A member of one homeowners association says a developer told the local board at various meetings that three separate homes he was building were all for his own family. When the board called him on it, he said his wife couldn’t decide which one she wanted.

“The growth we’re experiencing isn’t typical,” Kasama says. “It’s not like we have new subdivisions. It’s the houses that are growing.” The city’s homeowners associations can do only so much—three years ago, the city changed a regulation that limits their ability to cap the size of houses.

Neighborhood disputes are getting intense. Dong Chang, a local dermatologist who told the Rotary Club that he left Taiwan in the early 1970s with “two bags of rice and a frying pan,” is suing the developer building a mansion next door for cutting down an old oak tree on his property. He’s seeking about $280,000, saying the harm was “intentional, fraudulent, oppressive, malicious, and despicably done.”

A red sign reading “Cannon against dogs” hangs from one of two replica cannons a developer installed pointing to his neighbor across the street
Courtesy City of Arcadia
A red sign reading “Cannon against dogs” hangs from one of two replica cannons a developer installed pointing to his neighbor across the street

Then there’s the cannon incident. That battle went down on West Las Flores Avenue, on a block with a mix of older homes and newer construction, including a house owned by David Tran, the Huy Fong sriracha magnate. A family moved into a new home in 2008 and flanked the front walkway with two waist-high lion statues, the “fu dogs” that guard imperial Chinese palaces. A few years later, a developer named Ricky Tang began building his own home across the street. Tang didn’t care for the lions, but their owners refused to remove them. In January 2011, according to city records, Tang mounted two replica cannons on top of a construction trailer in the front of his lot, aiming back at the lions. A red sign reading “Cannon against dogs” in Chinese hung from each cannon. “The neighbor across the street took offense,” Kasama says. “He felt they looked threatening.” Soon a city-owned Prius pulled up, lights flashing, with an official entreating Tang to take down the weaponry. He acquiesced after a month of haggling. Tang didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mary Garzio, a widow who’s Tang’s neighbor, calls him “a very nice man.” She says he’s been wooing her to sell her 73-year-old house for $3 million in cash. He brings over fruit and says she can live rent-free until she gets settled elsewhere. “He says, ‘You’re a good neighbor, Mary. I don’t want you to leave, but I want your home.’ ”
 
 
Arcadia’s Chinese buyers may have made their wealth in different ways, but they face a common problem: getting their cash to America. China controls the flow of its currency, restricting residents from converting more than $50,000 in yuan into foreign denominations each year. At that pace it would take half a lifetime for a couple to buy a $4 million home.

Jeff Needham, a senior vice president at HSBC (HSBC), says it’s most common for buyers to transfer money from personal or business accounts they already have in Hong Kong, which doesn’t impose caps. “In most of our buyer situations, they have funds outside China already that they have accumulated over years,” he says, adding that the bank verifies the source of the funds.

It’s trickier for those without accounts in Hong Kong. Chen Ping, a local broker, says there’s a common workaround. “We call it ‘head-count wiring,’ ” she says. Buyers line up other people—friends, family, or, if need be, paid strangers—to each transfer a share. “I once had a customer who bought a $1.9 million house in Arcadia who said, ‘Not a problem. I have more than enough head counts,’ ” Chen says. Many buyers have legitimate ways to wire the funds, says broker Imy Dulake, but “there is no way we can have this much cash coming in legally.”

When they can’t get enough money through, property records show many get mortgages to buy the homes, often putting at least 40 percent down. Others buy with all cash and later take out home-equity loans, freeing up funds for other investments in the U.S. without going through the rigmarole of getting money across the Pacific again. Dozens of Chinese homeowners in Arcadia have loans from HSBC and East West Bancorp (EWBC), both of which have branches in China. HSBC’s Needham says the bank gives “premier” clients a discounted rate, and it can underwrite loans in the U.S. based on international credit scores and assets overseas. East West didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Even as they fret about their town, longtime Arcadians worry about a sudden end to the money. What happens if the U.S. limits visas, the Chinese government clamps down, or the émigrés pick another place to park their cash? “How high we go, we can’t foresee, because we never know the policy changes,” real estate agent Seow says. This summer, after an exposé on China Central Television, the Bank of China ended a government program that quietly let some customers convert an unlimited amount of yuan into dollars and transfer it overseas. And President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign has raised the specter of a larger slowdown. “I was in escrow on a property before this crackdown, and oh my God, they could not get their money out” of China, broker Dulake says. The sale fell through.

Stig Hedlund lives on the block with the cannons, in a house built in 1937 by his grandfather, a civil engineer who laid out many of the city’s roads when everything was still alfalfa fields. Now Hedlund is wondering if he should leave. He’s received nice offers for his house, like when a broker and a couple drove up his driveway unannounced in a black Mercedes one Sunday morning; the broker knocked on the front door, saying the couple wanted to buy his home. He’d like to wait until his last son graduates from college, but he fears his “five-year plan” will make him miss the boom. When he reads news about recent protests in Hong Kong, he wonders how China’s response will ripple across the mainland. “If a communist government starts putting the kibosh, isn’t it more incentive to get money out of the country?” he asks. Or would a crackdown mean he blows his chance to sell? It’s a question central to Arcadia’s gardeners and construction workers, the car salesmen and the boba tea makers, who all rely on the money surging out of China. For now, Hedlund figures he can wait a little longer. He hears Ornelas just brokered a sale down the street for $2.8 million.

Southern California Housing Lost It’s Momentum In January

Source: LA Times

Southern California home buyers continue to turn their backs on an expensive market with few houses for sale.

Home prices fell 3.8% in January compared with December, though the median price remained up sharply compared with January of last year, research firm DataQuick reported Wednesday. The price decline, coupled with falling sales, revealed a market that has lost momentum after an explosive price run-up in the first half of 2013.

“Buyers are not overpaying,” said Broker Derek Oie, owner of Century 21 the Oie Group in the Inland Empire. “They know the market has changed.”

January’s median home price, $380,000, is the lowest since May. The year-over-year gain — prices rose 18.4% since January 2013 — is the smallest increase since November 2012.

In the six-county Southland, 14,471 new and resale condos and houses changed hands last month, a three-year low for a January, signaling that high prices and tight inventory have handcuffed buyers. Sales were 9.9% below January 2013 levels and have now fallen year-over-year for four consecutive months.

“The pause is related to a deterioration in affordability,” said Stuart Gabriel, director of UCLA’s Ziman Center for Real Estate. “The urgency to buy has essentially evaporated.”

The price decline from December isn’t unusual; the market typically slows in the winter months. But this year’s decline was slightly sharper than normal, DataQuick said. Investors usually play a larger role in the marketplace this time of year as families pull back. That can drop the median price because investors often seek lower-priced homes.

The median price is the point at which half of homes sell for less and half for more.

Absentee buyers — mostly investors and some second-home purchasers — bought a slightly higher share of homes last month: 27.5%, compared with 27.2% in December.

Prices soared early last year as investors and families rushed to buy homes they viewed as bargains. But the demand pushed prices up quickly, forcing many buyers out of the market.

In last year’s fourth quarter, only 32% of California’s potential home buyers could reasonably afford a median-priced home, the California Assn. of Realtors said Wednesday. That was unchanged from the previous quarter, but down from 48% in the fourth quarter of 2012.

The spring home-buying season should provide clearer insight into the direction of demand and prices.

DataQuick President John Walsh said two big questions hang over the market: Will sellers list more homes to cash in on recent price appreciation? And if inventory does expand, how much pent-up demand is left?

“Unfortunately, we’ll probably have to wait until spring for the answers,” Walsh said in a statement.

Some agents, especially those in wealthier neighborhoods, say they’ve already noticed a shift.

“The moment the clock hit January, it was like a starting gun went off,” South Bay real estate agent David Keller said. “We are all busy.”

Sales in the lower end of the market continued to decline in January, while sales in more affluent neighborhoods rose. The number of homes that sold for $800,000 or more jumped 36.7% compared with a year earlier.

But overall sales fell, as lower-priced neighborhoods remain stymied by low inventory and weak income growth. Even though prices have risen considerably in these areas, many homeowners saw big drops in their home’s value during the housing crash. So listings remain limited because many homeowners still owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.

Real estate agent Leo Nordine said he’s seen the disparity across his coverage area of South Los Angeles and the South Bay, with far more demand in upper-class neighborhoods.

“Everywhere else is really weak,” he said.