Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Price Data Is Good News For Home Buyers

Wall Street Journal
Homes are now cheap.

No, not everywhere in the country (more about that later). And, even after the latest Case-Shiller data, it's anyone's guess when they might actually turn around and start rising steadily again. It could be years.

But if you've been thinking of buying a home to live in, the current meltdown is a big opportunity.

You might not know it from the coverage of the latest data. Too many, as usual, are focused on the trees instead of the forest. The 10 and 20-city composite indexes were unchanged between September and October. And the numbers were lower than a year ago, but the rate of decline seems to have slowed: Two facts that are both obvious and practically useless. Indeed the latest survey contains a whole truckload of information for all those who prefer data to knowledge.

But long-term fundamentals are more important than the short-term noise. And it's generally a mistake to pay too much attention to doomsayers or to overthink these things.

Here's some home truths.

Real estate prices in the Case-Shiller 10-city index have now fallen by a stunning 30% from their 2005 peak. Nothing like it has been seen since the Great Depression–and, according to some sources, not then either. Obviously for anyone who bought a home at the peak of the market this has been a disaster. But for those thinking of buying a home now this is exceptionally good news.

And at the same time, mortgage rates have also plummeted. In 2006 you had to pay an average of about 6.4% on a 30-year fixed loan, according to the Federal Reserve. Right now you can get deals for about 5%.

Put the two together, and it's a winning combination.

The Case-Shiller 10-city data go back to 1987. I ran the numbers comparing the index values, mortgage rates and average weekly earnings. Net conclusion: On average–an important point I'll return to shortly–buying a home now is as cheap as it was in the mid-1990s, when houses were an absolute steal.

No, the Case-Shiller data aren't perfect. The biggest complaint is that they are weighted too much towards the coasts and the big "bubble" cities like Miami, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

So I decided to run the same analyses–average prices, mortgage rates and weekly earnings–for the home price data tracked by the U.S. Census. Those numbers go back further than Case-Shiller, to 1972.

You can see the results in the two charts here.

The top chart simply compares the average home price to average weekly earnings. Yes, there has been a clear, gently rising long-term trend: Over many decades people have been choosing to spend more on housing, buying bigger and better homes. But the bubble, and subsequent collapse, still stand out clearly. By this measure, median homes nationwide today are about as cheap–when compared to earnings–as they were in the early 1990s.

Yet back then mortgage rates were around 8, 9 or even 10%.

If you buy an average home today, and take out a 30-year mortgage at 5%, the annual bill for interest and repayment of principal will come to about 19 times typical weekly earnings (If you get the $8,000 refundable tax credit too, it drops below 18 times). As you can see from the bottom chart, we haven't seen it that low since the early 1970s.

You can hear the objections. Doomsayers ask: What about these waves of mortgage resets coming in the next two years? What about all the unemployment? And the foreclosures? And so on.

These are all valid arguments for refusing to buy homes when they are expensive, or even averagely priced. But the whole point about markets is that they adjust. Prices are now cheap. They reflect this bad news, and more. If you have a stable income, and you can get a 30-year mortgage at 5% or so, and you are willing to drive a hard bargain on a home in this market, this is your time.

Over and over again, history suggests that the best investments are the ones no one wants–gold when it was $260 an ounce, Amazon.com when it fell below $10 in 2002, Hong Kong shares during the SARS "crisis" in 2003, and so on. If an investment feels comfortable, it's should make you nervous. If it makes you really nervous, that's probably good.

The biggest objection, or caveat, is one I hinted at earlier. These are average prices  - check with a realator for prices on Raleigh real estate. The variations are truly remarkable. Prices in places like Miami, Las Vegas and Phoenix have roughly halved from the highs in early 2006, according to Case-Shiller. Meanwhile in cities like New York and Boston they have fallen by a fifth or less. It's hard to argue that some of the most resilient areas are cheap. New York real estate prices are still up about 75% since the start of the decade. Maybe they have much further to fall.

But outside of these hot spots, real estate is now cheap.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Citigroup To Suspend Foreclosures For 30 Days

USA Today

WASHINGTON — Citigroup will suspend foreclosures and evictions for 30 days in a temporary break for about 4,000 borrowers during the holiday season.

The New York-based bank said Thursday the suspension will run from Friday through Jan. 17. It applies only to borrowers whose loans are owned by Citi. Borrowers who make payments to Citi but whose loans are owned by other investors are out of luck.

"We want our borrowers to have a much less stressful time, to spend their time with their families during the holidays as opposed to worrying about their homes," Sanjiv Das, head of the company's mortgage division, said in an interview.

The suspension means Citi will halt foreclosure sales and stop evicting homeowners from properties it has already seized. The company projects it will help 2,000 homeowners with scheduled foreclosure sales and another 2,000 that were due to receive foreclosure notices including holders of Raleigh real estate.

Das also said the company is working on "some long-term fundamental alternatives" to foreclosure, but declined to be specific. "We know that moratoriums are not permanent solutions," he said.

Most major lenders suspended foreclosures last winter while the Obama administration developed its $75 billion loan modification program. Foreclosures picked up again after those suspensions lifted. In recent months, they have fallen as banks evaluate whether borrowers qualify for the government program.

Citi has enrolled about 100,000 borrowers in the Obama program, but had made only about 270 of those modifications permanent as of the end of last month, according to a Treasury Department report. But Das said the low number resulted from a "reporting error" and said it will rise dramatically by year-end.

"I have put a lot of pressure on my team to make sure that there is almost nothing left in the pipeline," he said.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Homebuyer Tax-Credit Extension Fails as Catalyst


President Barack Obama’s extension last month of a tax credit for first-time homebuyers failed to stir optimism among homebuilders or stock investors about the industry’s prospects.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index and a Standard & Poor’s index of homebuilding shares dropped after Obama signed the legislation on Nov. 6. The chart tracks these indicators since 2000.

Homebuyers received another five months, until April 30, to take advantage of the government’s $8,000 credit. They also became eligible for an additional $6,500 credit if they owned their previous residence for at least five years.

“The extension has not materially helped traffic or sales despite the program’s expansion,” Carl Reichardt, a Wells Fargo analyst, wrote yesterday in a report.

The NAHB/Wells Fargo index, an indicator of builders’ confidence, fell to 16 this month from 17 in November. None of the 47 economists in a Bloomberg News survey expected the decline. Readings below 50 show that most participants are pessimistic.

S&P’s industry gauge, consisting of builders in the S&P 500, MidCap 400 and SmallCap 600 indexes, dropped 8.4 percent from Nov. 6 to yesterday. S&P’s broadest index of U.S. stocks rose 4 percent during the period.

The shifts in sentiment and share prices were at odds with the growth in November housing starts and building permits that the Commerce Department reported today. Starts rose 8.9 percent to an annual rate of 574,000 homes. Permits climbed 6.9 percent to a 584,000 pace including such items as vacation homes in Atlantic Beach NC, the fastest since November 2008.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Annual Remodeling Report Finds 4 Best Improvements For Selling Your Home


House prices are still dropping, so it pays to know which upgrades will deliver the best return when you sell your home. An annual remodeling report finds 4 basic replacements are likely your smartest choice.

Remodeling is a better investment in some years than others. This year is among the worst if you’re hoping to recoup much money when you sell, says a newly released report. Homeowners are getting back just 64%, on average, of a project’s cost, compared with 87% in 2005, according to Remodeling Magazine’s 2009-2010 Cost vs. Value report.

Some projects pay back better than others. You get more bang for the buck putting money into a basement or attic upgrade than adding a wing to the house. Some of the highest-return projects include a deck addition and quick, conservatively priced replacements of old siding, entry door or windows. (If you want a different perspective, personal-finance guru Liz Pulliam Weston calls remodeling “a waste of money.”)

The report compiles responses from about 4,000 members of the National Association of Realtors in 80 cities to survey questions about 33 hypothetical projects. “I think what the real-estate agents are saying is you’re taking a big risk if you’re buying these high-ticket items, because the market is slow. Buyers are looking for utility,” says Sal Alfano, the magazine’s editorial director. “They’re not so wowed these days as they were three or four years ago.”

A retreat from overbuilding
Some contractors are dropping their rates to get work, so it might seem a good moment, if you have the money, to do a big, blow-out addition. And maybe it is, if you can keep the house long enough. But today, a high-end master suite remodel, for example, returns just 56% of the cost, on average, compared with 80% in 2005. 

“You’re not seeing the big 750-square-foot additions being put on the side of a house like you were a few years ago,” says Martin Conneely, owner of Conneely Contracting, in Arlington, Mass. “Our biggest (jobs) right now are maintenance replacements (of windows, doors, siding and roofing), basement renovations and moderately priced upgrades in the kitchen and bath.”

Despite widespread talk of falling labor prices among remodelers, the cost of construction overall hadn’t changed much.  Return on investment (ROI) is dropping because, in a market flooded with foreclosures, even if labor costs are dropping, the price of existing homes is at such a discount that anything newly built can’t compete.

The 22-year-old Cost vs. Value survey makes clear that return on investment depends greatly on where you live. The highest payback is in the Pacific region (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington). There, although costs are double the next-most-expensive region (the Mid-Atlantic, including New Jersey, New York and home remodeling Pennsylvania), high resale values more than compensate.

Peter Michelson, CEO of Renewal Design-Build in Decatur, Ga., cautions homeowners to be aware that projects described and priced in this report can — and often do — cost considerably more than the amounts given.

ROI is better in the West South Central (Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma), South Atlantic (Washington, D.C., Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia) and East South Central (Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee) regions.

Residents of the Mountain states (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico) and New England (Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont) enjoy average returns.

It’s hardest to make a buck back on your project in the Middle Atlantic, West North Central (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, the Dakotas) and East North Central (Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin) regions.

The math didn’t always come out so poorly. As recently as 2005, few homeowners bothered to figure out if their plans meant overbuilding for the neighborhood, Alfano says. They just commissioned the work they wanted and assumed prices would rise to cover their costs.

They were largely correct until 2006, when payback began shrinking along with the scale of jobs that homeowners were undertaking. “The projects that were evaluated as having the most return were not kitchens and baths so much anymore. All of a sudden it was these exterior replacements: roofing, siding and windows,” Alfano says.

It was the beginning of the end of the housing boom. “Today, resale value has come to the forefront. People are much more conscious of building for the neighborhood, and they’re worried about their mortgage rates and their jobs.”

Basic replacements rule
As a group, low-cost replacements — new siding, windows, doors and roofing — deliver the best bang for the buck now, a considerably better payback than from a two-story remodel or a kitchen remodel.

Given great improvements in materials, you can replace your inefficient 10- or 15-year-old products with highly efficient ones for a decent return when you sell. In addition, the improvements help you save on heating and cooling bills. Replacing leaky windows with highly efficient newer ones is a good example. The technology behind the glass and frames has so improved that you’re tightening up your home’s weatherproofing in the process. You get more comfort and, from the real-estate agent’s point of view, new windows show off your house from the street.

Replacement projects included in the Cost vs. Value survey all cost less than $20,000 and most cost considerably less. They instantly enhance curb appeal, boosting a home’s marketability, and they require little maintenance once installed - all of which are better prospects than with a home addition. A bonus: Most of these replacements qualify for a federal tax credit for energy efficiency (not included in Remodeling Magazine’s ROI calculations).

1. Replace the front door.

    * The absolute best return on the money of any of the projects surveyed — 129% of cost — is gained by replacing a beat-up front door with a $1,200 steel-shell door filled with foam insulation.
    * A new fiberglass door (more expensive, at $3,490) returns less, about 65%. (Fiberglass is the new chic building material because it’s rugged and durable, can be painted and will mimic almost any wood. Unlike wood, it doesn’t crack, warp or shrink and needs zero maintenance.)
    * Spend about $7,500 on an entire new entrance, including a widened opening, a solid-core wood door and high-end glass, new lighting and better locks, and you’ll recoup 69%, on average.

2. Replace home siding

    * Replacing old siding with a durable fiber-cement product ($13,287) recoups about 84% at resale.
    * Use vinyl siding ($10,607) to get an 80% return.
    * Foam-backed vinyl ($13,022) costs more and earns back less — roughly 79% — but it is much more efficient at insulating a home.

3. Replace windows. Three of the four window-replacement projects considered in the survey pay back about 77%:

    * Wood-trimmed windows ($11,700).
    * Lower-end vinyl windows ($10,728).
    * Windows trimmed in higher-end vinyl ($13,862).
    * The fourth project, higher-end wood-replacement windows ($17,816), has a return of about 72%. Fiberglass windows weren’t included in the study.

Replace the roofing: Spend $19,731 on new fiberglass asphalt shingles and you’re likely to recoup about 67% of the cost.

    * A higher-end roof replacement using standing-seam metal ($37,359) pays back about 61% of the cost, agents told the survey.

Additions aren’t cost-effective
Except for a new deck, which pays back nicely, adding to a home’s footprint brings a poor return these days. There are better ROIs for Raleigh real estate.

A new deck
    * Wood is high-maintenance, but homebuyers love it: A new wood deck ($10,634) returns 81%.
    * New outdoor decks of midrange composite planks ($15,373) return around 71% of the cost at resale.
    * A higher-grade composite ($37,745) brings an ROI of about 61%.

Other additions
    * Adding a 200-square-foot sunroom ($73,167) recoups 51%. [Find a Sunroom Builder in Grand Rapids Michigan]
    * A high-end ($225,995) master suite project, adding 640 square feet to the house, including a bath with walk-in shower and stone walls, brings a 56% return.
    * A less ambitious, less costly ($103,696), 640-square-foot master suite addition including whirlpool bath and ceramic tile recoups 65%.
    * A garage addition ($87,230) earns back about 56%.
    * A high-end bathroom addition ($75,812) earns about 58% at resale.
    * Adding a midrange, 6-by-8-foot full bath ($39,046) recoups about 60%.
    * Add a midrange two-story wing ($156,309) to the house, including 24-by-16-foot first-floor family room and second-floor bedroom and full bath, for a return of about 69%.
    * A midrange family room addition ($82,756) returns around 65% of the cost.
    * Adding a sunroom or home office were the projects that yielded the least payback, presumably because these special-purpose rooms appeal to fewer buyers and are in less demand.

Best use of the money (besides replacements)
Upgrading existing space, such as a bathroom remodel, is the best bet for recouping cost. It makes sense: Pouring a foundation, framing a structure and bringing in electricity and plumbing are among the most expensive aspects of a building project. When you can largely skip these steps and increase your usable space, the payback is richer:

    * An attic conversion, including a 15-by-15-foot bedroom with dormer and a 5-by-7-foot bath with shower ($49,346) returns comparative gold: 83% return, on average. Agents in several cities said this job would return more than 100%.
    * A basement ($62,067) remodel —a 20-by-30-foot entertainment room and 5-by-8-foot full bath — recoups about 75% of its cost.
    * A midrange 5-by-7-foot bathroom remodel ($16,142) with standard fixtures and trim has a 71% ROI.
    * Expanding that bathroom to 100 square feet ($52,295), including moving plumbing and wiring and adding higher-end cabinets and fixtures, brings a 62% ROI.

Kitchens and baths: Scaled back but ever popular
High-end kitchens and baths are fading in popularity, replaced by “very practical things,” Michelson says. “The $400,000 and $500,000 jobs are few and far between. The jobs between $50,000 and $200,000, we’re doing lots of those.”

Bath and kitchen remodeling hasn’t stopped, since these projects maximize the enjoyment of the most-used spaces in a home. But “people are definitely being smarter with their money,” Conneely says. “For instance, a $75,000 remodel five years ago? That same client would today spend $50,000.” People who blithely bought the best of everything now pursue the same look by choosing materials judiciously.

    * A minor kitchen upgrade ($21,411) installing new cabinet fronts, laminate counters and other cosmetic improvements is a decent investment, at 78% ROI.
    * A major kitchen remodel ($57,215) using midrange materials — semi-custom cabinets and laminate counters — pays back about 72%.
    * A high-end major kitchen remodel ($111,794) with top-of-the-line cherry cabinets, stone counters, glass backsplash and expensive, built-in appliances, pays back just 63%.