Top 10 Real Estate Stories of 2009

Last Updated Dec 29, 2009 4:55 PM EST

As we're getting ready to say goodbye to 2009, I have just two words ... good riddance! Like many Americans, hubby and I took advantage of lower prices to buy a home, but like many Realtors, my income took a dive (a shocking 40 percent off last year.) In general, for real estate, it was a lousy year ... but at least eventful. Thanks to all the MoneyWatch readers who sent in your comments and questions -- I'm sorry that I couldn't answer them all! Below, in a trip down memory lane, were the top real estate stories of 2010:

1) Foreclosure numbers cross three million. Unfortunately, it looks like the cycle won't peak till next year, when the stat might hit four million.

2) Mortgage modifications start -- slowly. Although hundreds of thousands of homeowners have applied for relief, the number of actual modifications granted has been just a fraction of that, less than 32,000. Every month, MoneyWatch issues a report card of the banks that are doing modifications best (and worst) -- and we'll keep doing that in 2010.

3. Renters return to renting again. Some of the foreclosures we've seen have been a natural cleansing of the system, as people with a marginal economic foothold (who really should be renters but bought during the bubble) got thrown back in the rental category. (Statistically, according to the Census, the homeownership rate has been around 65 percent -- it's now down from a peak of 69.1 percent in 2005 to 67.6 percent in the third quarter of this year).

4. It's the jobs, stupid. Other defaults we've seen have been unemployment-related, as people who could formerly afford their house payments lost their incomes. In "Jobs and Real Estate Still Tied Together," my colleague Ilyce Glink explains that the outlook for real estate is still dark until some of those jobs come back.

5. Credit is still crunched. Here in Manhattan, my mainstay market of "upscale family homes" -- which are $2-$3 million apartments -- died big-time, because borrowing $2 million became tougher than getting a kidney. More than one of my top competitors folded, including the local Coldwell Banker-branded firm. As of this writing, it looks like mortgage lending is coming back, but slowly.

6. Starter sales boomed. The first-time homebuyer tax credit, which was meant to support and stimulate the lower end of the market, did its thing, helping more than 1.4 million homebuyers (Including a four-year-old). The credit was extended into 2010, covering closings through June with contracts through April.

7. Madoff's homes start selling. A billion-dollar Ponzi scheme unraveled in 2008, catching as victims many who had counted themselves lucky to be able to invest with "Uncle Bernie" Madoff. 2009 was the year that reparations began to be made: the Federal government began to auction off Madoff's homes. Sadly, as of this writing, 86 percent of the victims' claims had been denied. Still, I can tell you that there are four ways in which your house is better than Bernie Madoff's.
8. Banks got indulgent. Certainly not everyone kept drinking champagne, but there was a strong streak in the financial industry of giving out bonuses while Rome burned, as though it wasn't somehow our money that was keeping the sector from the brink of collapse. No story of 2009 better exemplified this "What, Me Worry?" attitude than that of a Malibu banker (later fired) who partied in the foreclosed house of a Madoff victim.

9. Interest rates, and some currencies, stayed low. When I complain to my boss -- or any other old real estate hand -- about the tough real estate market, I get an eyeroll and a speech about how it was so much harder in the late '80s, with double-digit interest rates. Mortgage rates mostly in the fives kept the crash from being worse than it was and the weak dollar brought in some foreign investment. A weak pound, meanwhile, propelled London real-estate prices to new, record highs.

10. Celebrities -- they're just like us!On a bigger scale, celebs have the same real estate problems that we all do -- can I find my dream home, and can I hold on to it? In 2009, reality TV celeb Victoria Gotti fought foreclosure, movie star Nicolas Cage lost two homes, and music powerhouse Madonna -- after years of trying to find her dream pad -- got her secret garden.

  • Alison Rogers

    Since graduating from Harvard summa cum laude, Alison Rogers has been a reporter, an editor, a real-estate agent, a Wall Street desk jockey, a columnist, a failed flipper, and a landlady. A member of the National Association of Realtors, she currently sells and rents luxury co-ops in Manhattan for the Chelsea-based firm DG Neary. (If you've got $27,500 a month, the firm has an apartment for you!) Her book, Diary of a Real Estate Rookie, was called "a valuable guide for rookie buyers" by AOL/Walletpop, "beach-read fun" by the New York Observer, and "witty" by Newsweek.