Saturday, November 29, 2008

Weakening Economy Takes It's Toll On The Real Estate Market

With the month of November at an end, the effects of the weakening economy on the already weak real estate market are becoming more evident, and the impact has been negative. For November, the closings of single family homes declined from 357 in 2007 to 232 this year. That is a decline of 35%. For the year, sales of single family homes around the county have been off by about 21% on a year to year basis, so the November numbers show a further weakening of the real estate market.

Closed sales are a trailing indicator of real estate activity because the closed numbers reflect deals that were actually struck 30, 60 or 90 days earlier. New contracts, called pending sales, is a more current indicator of sales activity, so let's take a look at those numbers. In November 2007 there were 352 pending sales reported in Monmouth County as compared to 245 for November 2008. That represents a decline of 31% year to year. That is not as bad as the closing figures, but still represents clear evidence that the weakening economy is having a negative effect on the local real estate market.

What does all this mean and what can we expect as we move into 2009. Sadly, there is no evidence that the real estate market is showing signs of improvement. The oversupply of housing, relative to demand, is the highest it's been this decade. Because of this, it is likely that prices will continue to decline well into 2009, at the very least. Will there be more buyers in the Spring? Yes there will. But those buyers will likely be buying at lower prices than we see today. What to do?

If you are a seller, time is of the essence. You find yourself in a race against time for every day that your house doesn't sell means you are likely to get less money when it does. We have many clients that tell us they "aren't in a hurry" or "we don't have to sell" or "we don't have a gun to our head". Those people will probably wish they had been in a hurry. If you are a seller and want to attract the next buyer for your type of house, make sure you offer the best value based on the asking price. You have to price your house to stand out from the competition. You must make your home a "no brainer" in the mind of a buyer. As we advise our clients, this is a market that requires a strong stomach and bold action. This is not a market for half hearted sellers.

If you are a buyer, you should only pursue those homes that meet your lifestyle needs and are absolutely the best value, based on the asking price. Since prices are likely to decline again next year, you should only buy if you plan to be in the home at least five years. If you only see yourself in the home for a period less than that, you should not buy! This is a market that does require a buyer have faith that prices will stabilize and once again go up. Though we don't have these markets often, they do test one's faith in the future.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Is There Anyone Who Will Represent Us?

Although this is a real estate blog, I feel compelled to comment and vent my anger at the Bailout Mania that is sweeping through our government. It seems that our "leaders", and I use that word very loosely, have completely lost their minds and can't move fast enough to bail out everyone, whether it be companies, individuals or governments who now find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

The more I listen to the "experts", the more I am convinced that nobody in a position of authority has a clue on how to get us out of the mess we are in. You need to look no further than our Treasury Secretary, who less than two months ago said the world would end if we didn't agree to buy toxic assets from troubled banks, now says we don't need to buy them at all! Think about this for a minute. Our habit of borrowing from tomorrow to pay for today has, in large measure, brought us to the point we are at. What is our government's plan to rescue us? Borrow even more money from tomorrow to pay for today! This is nuts!

You would think that once it is clear that nobody has the answers, caution would be the order of the day. But no, instead we throw caution to wind and race to spend money we don't have to bail out people who can't be rescued. We are bailing out banks, insurance companies, probably auto companies, those unfortunate individuals who are in trouble with their mortgages, and probably city and state governments as well. We are at the point where we are no longer talking tens or hundreds of billion of dollars, but are now talking in the trillions. And these trillions of dollars are dollars we don't actually have. This can't possibly end well.

But not everyone is in trouble. There are people in the country who have made it a habit to live within their means. IS THERE ANYONE IN OUR GOVERNMENT LOOKING OUT FOR THOSE OF US WHO HAVE USED OUR HOMES AS ATM MACHINES, WHO HAVE NOT MADE IT A LIFESTYLE TO BORROW FROM TOMORROW TO PAY FOR TODAY? It would appear not. Isn't anyone willing to stand up and be the voice of us that don't have massive credit card debt, that have gone without at times because we didn't have the money to pay for it, that have made a habit of saving some of what we earn because it is the right thing to do?

This whole economic situation is not only sad, it is downright maddening. What is most frustrating is that those of us that have lived our lives in an economically responsible way are going to get stuck with the tab for the disaster that our government seems intent on bringing upon us!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mortgage Bailout Plan Is The Government Version of Predatory Lending

The mortgage bailout plan unveiled yesterday, designed to "help" homeowners in financial difficulty stay in their homes, is a perfect example why we should board up the windows and barricade the doors whenever the government attempts to come to our rescue.

What has been proposed is little more than a government version of predatory lending. Here are the basics as I understand them. Homeowners who are delinquent on the mortgages and have no equity in their homes can get a loan modification whereby the rate would be adjusted to 3% and the total housing payment for the homeowner would not be more than 38% of the monthly income. All this is based on a 40 year amortization schedule. So good so far.

Now here is the bad (predatory) part. Nothing is being done to change the mortgage balance. Let's say you bought the house for $300,000 and the mortgage was $280,000 and now the house is worth $200,000. That means your have negative equity in the home of $80,000. Let's also assume that the rate adjustment with the payment limit would equate to a $180,000 mortgage. If you stayed in the home for forty years, which is unlikely but possible, you would still owe the lender $100,000 at the end of the mortgage.

If you sold the house, which is more likely, you would have to pay off the full mortgage amount of $280,000. Since the average family moves every 7 years, what are the chances that the prices will stop falling and then appreciate enough to get the value back to around $300,000 before you move? Not likely.

The government thinks this workable based on the notion that housing prices inevitably go up. Isn't this the same assumption that got us into this mess in the first place? This program will do little more than postpone the day of reckoning that troubled homeowners are currently facing. It is very unlikely to solve their problems. Isn't it ironic that we listen to our elected officials to rail against the predatory mortgage companies, yet feel it is OK to offer the same kind of garbage in the name of "assistance"?

As a real estate broker, I want to see the market improve ASAP. I wish this sounded like a solution, but it doesn't. It sounds like another reason why government intrusion into the private sector is likely to make a bad situation even worse.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

How to Hire the Right Agent if You Are Selling Your Home

If you are selling your home, hiring the right agent has never been more important. With prices declining, you are in a race against time. The longer it takes for you to sell your home, the less money you are likely to get. Over my 30 years of experience, it has become apparent that most homeowners really DON'T know what to look for or know what questions to ask when interviewing agents to represent them. So here is my attempt to give you some perspective as to what look for before hiring an agent to sell your home.

1. Look for an agent with experience. That has never been more important than now. If you can find one, get an agent who has worked through Buyers' Markets in the past. That won't be easy, the last one was back in the early 1990's and few agents have been in business that long. If you can find one, they often have a perspective on how to be successful in this market that agents who haven't been through it just don't have.

2. Look for an agent with a proven track record of production. Sounds pretty obvious, but the truth is that roughly 50% of the agents in our local Board of Realtors have gone the entire year with zero business transacted. If you get one of those, guess what, the chances of selling your house are remote. When you talk to any agent they will tell you they are productive, but make them prove it. Have them show you copies of the MLS sheets for every transaction they have been involved with over, lets say, the last three years and have it be a copy that shows that they were either the listing or selling agent.

3. Look for an agent who has success with sellers. We deal with buyers and sellers as real estate agents, and although the priorities are often similar, they are seldom the same. Many agents who are productive in a general sense, are not successful with sellers. In fact, it has been my experience that most agents prefer working with buyers, especially in a Buyer's Market. Make sure the agent you hire is at least as successful with sellers as with buyers.

4. Look for an agent who does business in your area. Knowledge of the local market is critical. Make sure the business an agent does is in your market. It is not critical that the agent has sold a house on your street in the last year or so, but is important that the agent is doing business in your area. I have encountered owners that think because an agent sold a house on their street in the last year, that somehow that makes them more qualified than one who hasn't. What if that sale was the agent's only sale in the last two years, or their only sale in the local market or has never successfully marketed a listing before? Clearly that agent is probably not the most qualified to handle your home.

5. Look for an agent you feel you can trust. If you don't feel you can trust a person, you shouldn't do business with them, simple as that. A good agent wants the client to get the most money they can for their house and will make recommendations to help the client reach that end. Sometimes those recommendations are not music to the client's ears. If you don't trust your agent, you are less likely to follow those recommendations. The truth is, there isn't much point to hiring a top flight agent if you are going to disregard their advice.

6. Look for an agent you can communicate with. Without the ability to communicate with one another things are not likely to go well, regardless of your motivation or the agent's track record. Be sure that the agent listens to your point of view and that you can understand the information and points the agent is trying to convey to you.

Did you notice what is not on the list of things to look for? How about the agent's opinion of the value of your home. The truth is, what the agent thinks your home is worth is not the most important criteria but is often the one that homeowners rely on most heavily. My experience has been that owners will very often hire the agent whose opinion of value is most close to the owners opinion of the value of their home. Guess what? Most owners have an inflated view of the value of their homes. If you hire an agent based on their opinion of value, you will likely overprice your home and it either won't sell or it will take longer to sell and you will get less money. It is quite likely that the best agent will have one of the more conservative estimates, if not the most conservative estimate, of your home's value.

There you have it. If you follow these guidelines you will have a much better chance of getting the right agent to market you home and will likely get the best price the market will bring you. If you don't follow these guidelines and get the wrong agent, you have only yourself to blame.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Financial Crisis of October Seems to Have Had an Impact on Real Estate

And the impact hasn't been good. Needless to say the real estate market was in the doldrums before the you know what hit the fan in October. Now the question that is being asked is "What effect is the crisis having?"

It's too early to measure the impact on prices, but there seems to have been a measurable impact on new contracts. For the year, closed sales of single family homes in Monmouth County have been running about 22% below the levels of last year and the October closings seem in line with that figure.

The new contracts are another thing. The single family homes reported under contract around the county this October is about 32% below the number reported in October 2007. There will be some contracts that will be reported in early November that will be counted for October, so that figure will come down some, but most likley it will change the number by only a couple of percentage points.

Why are new contracts important? New contracts are the best indicators of current activity in the real estate market. The closed sales reflect the sales activity that occured 45-90 days ago. So as we go forward, the new contracts for October will be reflected in the closing numbers for November, December and January.

What does all this mean? The Buyers' Market we find ourselves coping with is likely to continue well into next year, at least. It is hard to come up with a scenario, regardless of who wins the election, that the excess inventory will dry up and prices will firm up within the next 6 months.

If you are a seller, it's a race against time. You aren't going to like today's prices but you will probably like them a lot better than next year's prices. If you are a buyer, more and more good buys are popping up on the market. Yes, everyone wants to buy at the bottom, but only hindsight will tell you where that was. For anyone with a 5-10 year time horizon, now is a great time to buy.