In a frosty February 2014, the U.S. real estate market trend was down, as businesses and schools were shuttered in more than half of the country. Pockets of deeper dips underscored the message that there is no one storyline encompassing the national real estate picture. Coming off the back of January clocking in the slowest sales in 18 months, there's more to blame than the weather; affordability is an issue. Due to frigid conditions in much of the nation, the February real estate wrap-up required boots and a shovel, as well as deeper pockets.
In this season of Golden Globes and Academy Awards, we recall Fagin in the award-winning musical "Oliver!" explaining the imbalances of the distribution of cash. He counsels, "You've got to pick a pocket or two, boys." In this current housing market, there are investor pockets bulging with cash and first-time buyer pockets requiring practical prices and mortgage repayments. We need a larger role for the latter in order for this production to have a sustainable run. Affordability will be the word up in lights on the marquee.
Blaming the Weather
The National Association of Realtors informed that home sales dropped 5.1 percent in January, the slowest resale pace in 18 months. With the January polar vortex extending its stay into February, Atlanta resembled Alaska, Boston got buried in drifts and Lake Michigan froze. Not even Valentine's Day could warm things up as unrelenting snow storms ensured that the house hunting process and new homes construction froze.
Not So Hot
Even without subzero temperatures, it didn't take much to keep buyers sitting on their hands as affordability floundered. RealtyTrac took a look at financed homeownership of a three-bedroom, median-priced home in late 2013 compared to a year prior, using a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage of 4.46 percent and a 20-percent down payment. A 10-percent increase in house prices combined with a 33-percent increase in the borrowing rate from 3.35 percent produced an average 21-percent rise in monthly costs across 325 counties.
Freddie Mac Forecast
On top of a rise of 1 percent over this time last year, Freddie Mac states, "We expect to see rates rise as the economy strengthens. At the end of 2015, we expect to see 30-year fixed mortgage rates around 5.5 percent."
Pick a Pocket or Two
Along with a prediction of interest rates climbing throughout 2014 and 2015, Freddie Mac places pockets of affordability on a U.S. map. The least affordable cities are led off by San Francisco, followed by a typical California lineup including coastal parts of Los Angeles, Santa Ana and San Jose. Also on the untouchable list, predictably, is New York City. Affordability, as defined by a Freddie Mac index model, is no more than 28 percent of a household's gross income used for housing-related expenses. The pockets of affordability are Indianapolis, Indiana; Syracuse and Buffalo in upstate New York; Youngstown, Ohio; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Broadly speaking, most of the Southeast (other than Florida cities of Miami, Naples and Sarasota) and all of the Midwest, including Chicago, are currently affordable. In the Sunbelt, Texas cities do well on affordability, while Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas ride the cusp.
Hot, Even Warm, Pockets
According to CoreLogic Case-Shiller's latest home price forecast, the top 10 metro pockets with the steepest price ascents of between 7.3 percent and 9.3 percent in 2014 will be Oakland, California; Fort Worth, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Richmond, Virginia; Hartford, Connecticut; Tampa, Florida; Baltimore, Maryland; Birmingham, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; and New York City at 7.4 percent. It's catch-up time for some of these cities, for example, Hartford and New Orleans were on the list of slow growth cities in 2013.
California Dries Up
In California, winter never came, but the housing market sure cooled off. The drought in sales reflects the state's severe drought emergency. According to Redfin's monthly research tracker, homes sold in the first six weeks of 2014 show San Diego is down 19.2 percent, Sacramento is down 19.8 percent and Los Angeles is down 14.5 percent from a roaring 2013. However, fueled by the effervescent tech industry and recent big IPOs, San Francisco and San Jose outpace the market, remaining in a class of their own.
Most of all, remember that things change very fast; some of the forecasts made at Christmas 2013 already require a rewrite. Also, check your pockets. Note that "every market is local," as Brian Lewis of Halstead Property in Manhattan points out.
Laurie JM Farr is a freelance writer covering all things in her adopted San Francisco. A dedicated urbanite, she's a transplanted New Yorker by way of a couple of decades in London as a hotel sales and marketing manager. Follow her work on @ReferencePlease, USA Today, Yahoo! and on Examiner.com.
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