We all know our housing market positively stinks. What's so vexing is last week's report that new home sales dropped nationwide by 33 percent - largely because of the end of a popular federal tax credit - even as mortgage rates are available at the lowest levels in 60 years. Look for the latter half of 2010 to be bleaker for housing than the first half.
If new housing can't sell with 30-year fixed mortgages offered well below 5 percent, when will they sell?
Here are 10 trends gleaned from some of our best housing experts, including those at last week's Urban Land Institute meeting in Tampa assessing the recovery of area housing. No surprise, bad news outweighs the good, unless you happen to be buying a bargain-priced home, have little debt and impeccable credit credentials, are putting 30 percent down and do not plan to sell for a decade or more. Beyond that - whether you are buyer, seller, builder, lender, underwater owner or speculator - you're entering troubled waters.
1. Think back to 2005, 2006 and 2007 when the biggest complaint was that homes here had become too expensive given the modest wage scales. As Metrostudy housing guru Tony Polito notes, in 2007 there was a huge "affordability gap" between the national average price of a new home ($235,000) and how much someone making an average income of $60,000 could afford to buy ($173,000).
But since then, the affordability gap has been shrinking and, as of the fourth quarter of 2009, stood at a more reasonable $13,000. That translates to an average new home price of $205,000 vs. what the same average income can afford of $192,000. It's a healthy trend. In the Tampa Bay area, Polito says, new home prices in the better selling developments now average under $174,000, much lower and more affordable than they were several years ago.
2. The old mantra was Midwesterners poured down Interstate 75 from Michigan, Ohio and neighboring states to the Tampa Bay region, demanding Midwest housing tastes and some open spaces around them. Not so much any more. Of the 10 counties outside Florida that most feed Tampa Bay's new population these days, eight of those counties are from the region encompassing New York south to Washington, D.C. Only two Midwestern counties - giant Cook County, which includes Chicago, and Wayne County, which includes Detroit - are now included among our top 10 feeder counties. This geographic shift means Tampa Bay is filling with more people who are already more accustomed to higher density housing. And more density - housing clustered around proposed rail transportation and concentrations of jobs - is coming.
3. The oldest baby boomers are just starting to hit 65 and think more seriously about relocating to sunny climes like Tampa Bay. That's still likely to happen but perhaps not in the abundance experts predicted in the past. Housing experts warn we are fighting for retirees against other states, including Tennessee and Minnesota, that Florida never anticipated would ever be our competition.
4. The perception of Florida has changed. The state's multi-generational, dreamy aura as the cheap place to enjoy warm weather and beaches has taken it on the chin thanks to a series of nasty events. They range from the current nightmarish BP gulf oil spill, sharp cost of living increases, greater perceived threats from hurricanes and the lack of a healthy property insurance market to an especially hard-hit economy, state budget woes and tough media headlines.
Remember the Wall Street Journal's now infamous 2007 front page story: "Is Florida Over?" Florida leaders still wince at that headline. I get why Rust Belt kings Cleveland and Detroit top the latest U.S. census list of cities losing residents, but why did St. Petersburg and Cape Coral, two Florida cities, rank so high as population losers? Fewer relocating retirees is one reason.
5. Some good news. A recent Forbes analysis of IRS data shows wealthy people are most likely to move to Florida and Texas, two Sun Belt states with no state income taxes. Led by No. 1 Collier County (home to Naples), Florida boasts eight counties of the top 20 in the Forbes report.
6. The allure of sprawl continues to dwindle. Housing experts say there is rising demand for housing to be closer to downtown cities where jobs and entertainment are more available. The old trend of young families driving to the fringe of suburbia to find larger, affordable home is fading because the time and cost of commuting is becoming prohibitive - in some cases costing more than housing itself. The problem is there is not enough "close-in" housing yet for the demand, which keeps prices high. More redevelopment is ahead.
7. There is a big difference between ultra-low mortgage rates - which we have - and the ability to qualify for a mortgage and come up with a heftier down payment. "It's harder to get qualified buyers," acknowledges Mark Metheny, Central Florida division president of Lennar Homes. Adds Andrew Wright, managing partner of Tampa's Franklin Street Financial Partners: "Underwriting is tightening. Lenders used to want your first-born. Now they also want your first grandchild."
8. A former federal Housing and Urban Development Department official and speaker at last week's Urban Land Institute conference, Pamela Patenaude, volunteered what everybody's been thinking but has not said out loud often enough. "Perhaps we have been too aggressive with our home ownership policy in America." Gee, ya think?
9. It's a chicken and egg topic. How do you revive the housing market here without first improving the job market? And how do you attract new jobs when housing prices are still dropping? Tampa Bay lost 15,000 jobs in the last year, and its unemployment rate in May was 11.7 percent. You can't build a housing comeback with those lousy numbers.
10. Want an insider's tip on when Florida's housing market will bounce back? When Naples decides to start reporting its home sales data again. The numbers got so bad down there that they decided to stop publicizing how their real estate market is doing, even though everybody else in the state reports their numbers. Just wait until Naples gets its nerve back and goes public again.
Contact Robert Trigaux at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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1 Affordability gap between home prices and what people can pay is shrinking from peak 3 years ago, but it's still there.
2 More people are coming from New York/D.C. area than Midwest which once was our main source of newcomers.
3 There's more and more competition from other states for retirees Florida always assumed would come here.
4 Perceptions of Florida have changed, not for the better, prompting more people to rethink relocation here. That is reflected in our slower POPULATION growth.
5 For all the negatives, wealthy people still are more likely to move to Florida than most states. Eight of nation's top 20 counties favored by relocating wealthy are in Florida.
6 More people want housing closer to jobs and entertainment as fewer seek long distance suburban living. Affordable types of housing close in are still in short supply.
7 Mortgage rates are at lows not seen in 60 years, yet housing still struggles as lenders demand bigger down payments - tough for people in this recession.
8 One former HUD official suggested last week in Tampa that "perhaps we have been too aggressive in our home ownership policies in America." So will we see any more tax credits and incentives out of Washington? Probably.
9 Chicken or egg? Can't revive our housing market without ADDING JOBS. But can we add jobs with falling home prices?
10 It got so bad in Naples in Collier County, real estate folks stoppedpublicly reporting their salesdata. Housing experts joke we'll know the real estate market is back in that part of Florida when the local figures are once again made public.