House flipping back in vogue, after four years of declines

House flipping is making a comeback.

Last year marked the first annual jump in the share of homes flipped after four years of declines, according to RealtyTrac, which defines a home flip as a property sold in an arms-length sale for the second time within a 12-month period.

According to RealtyTrac, 179,778 U.S. single-family homes and condominiums were flipped in 2015, about 5.5 percent of overall sales and an increase from 5.3 percent a year earlier.

Profits from the transactions hit a 10-year high of $55,000, although investors in high-cost markets such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles earned six-figure returns.

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Tighter credit standards for mortgages that followed the subprime mortgage crisis means more investors are paying with cash than a decade ago, indicating the market isn't as speculative as it once was, according to Daren Blomquist, a RealtyTrac senior vice president.

That said, the share of cash purchases by flippers has declined since peaking at 82 percent in 2010, Blomquist emailed. "So slowly we are seeing more flippers leverage their money to purchase investment properties."

RealtyTrac data showed year-over-year increases in 83 out of 110 metropolitan statistical areas, with smaller investors increasingly trying their hand at flipping.

Approximately 110,008 investors or entities flipped at least one property in 2015, the most since 2007. That compares to 259,192 flippers in 2005, when the market was at its height.

Flipping was especially hot in 12 metropolitan areas such as Pittsburgh, Memphis, Buffalo, New York and Seattle, where activity was above 2005 levels.

But buying and rehabbing houses isn't always the pathway to easy riches as portrayed on cable shows dedicated to the business.

RealtyTrac found flippers in 74 zip codes lost money in 2015. It also found the average flip took an average of 176 days, a longer process than might be relayed on television screens.

"The flipping you see on TV shows is a bit of a fairy tale," Bloomquist said. "We are talking about six months' worth of work that's involved from the time you buy that property from the time that you sell it."

The cable channel FYI recently debuted two shows: "Zombie House Flipping" and "Nicole and Jionni's Shore Flip," adding to a cable lineup that already includes HGTV's "Five Day Flip" and "Love it or List It."

"While we do have a few shows with the word `flip' in the title, it's a bit of a misnomer for us since the focus is not solely on how to make money," HGTV spokeswoman Amy Hammontree said in an email. "Profit may be the outcome, but it's not the motivation."

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.