Market Update - Stephanie Witt's Blog on Marin County Real Estate

Bay Area Homebuyers to Benefit From Credit Agencies’ New, Relaxed Rules

Stephanie Witt - Friday, August 15, 2014
August 13, 2014 by Pacific Union

More people will qualify for home loans, and at lower interest rates, thanks to recent policy changes by several U.S. credit agencies.Yellow road sign bearing the word "credit"

Fair Isaac Co.’s FICO credit-scoring system garnered top headlines last week with the news that medical bills and paid-off debts would no longer be counted against consumers in computing their FICO scores. But other credit agencies have also eased their reporting rules in recent months.

The net result will be higher credit scores — perhaps an additional 25 points, Fair Isaac said — enabling some homebuyers to qualify for a loan that otherwise would have been out of reach or at a higher interest rate.

“This move will ultimately make a real difference in the lives of millions of Americans, who have been shut out of the housing market or forced to pay higher mortgage interest rates because of flawed credit scores,” Steve Brown, president of the National Association of Realtors, said in a statement. “Since the housing crash, overly restrictive lending has been the greatest obstacle to home ownership.”

The change follows a recent study by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that showed that both paid and unpaid medical debts were unfairly penalizing consumers’ credit ratings. An estimated 64 million Americans have a medical-collection item on their credit reports, according to Nick Clements of MagnifyMoney, a personal-finance website.

Two of the nation’s biggest credit bureaus also recently changed their credit-reporting policies.

Both Experian and TransUnion have added verified rental-payment data into credit files, to be used to compute a consumer’s credit score when applying for a mortgage and other type of loan. Experian said the change especially favors consumers with little or no credit history, and a TransUnion study showed that including rental data raised credit scores by 10 points or more for 20 percent of renters.

Together, the changes at Fair Isaac, Experian, and TransUnion could make a noticeable difference in Northern California real estate markets.

Bay Area residents have some of the highest credit scores in the nation, but buyers face added loan pressures here because home prices are far above national averages.

TransUnion recently revealed that the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metro area is tied with the Minneapolis-St. Paul area for the highest percentage of “A” credit scores in the United States, with 23.5 percent of its residents scoring between 900 and 990 on the VantageScore rating system.

The San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont metro area had the second-highest percentage of “A” scores — 22.9 percent.

But looking at the VantageScore numbers by another metric shows the challenges still facing homebuyers here: Residents of the San Jose metro area collectively have an average score of 700 on the 501-to-990 scale — a low “C” grade in terms of credit worthiness. San Francisco metro area residents have an average score of 696 — a high “D.”

Those numbers show how even in a high-scoring region like the Bay Area, plenty of consumers — and potential homebuyers — will benefit from increased credit scores.

(Image: Flickr/401(K) 2012)

Investors Slowly Back Off as California Home Prices Rise

Stephanie Witt - Friday, August 08, 2014
August 7, 2014 by Pacific Union

Increasing prices are mildly cooling investment activity as the California housing market recovery continues, but these buyers still account for a substantial portion of sales.downpayment

In the California Association of Realtors’ 2014 Investor Survey – conducted in May and later presented in a webinar – real estate professionals said that investors made up 32 percent of their business, down from 39 percent in 2013. CAR figures that rising prices likely have something to do with the slowdown.

The median sales price for a single-family home in the state was $457,160 in June, a 7 percent annual increase. The current median price in California is 86 percent above its February 2009 low of $245,230 but still 23 percent short of its peak, set in May 2007.

In Pacific Union’s Silicon Valley region, where the median single-family home price has hovered around $2.5 million for most of 2014, escalating prices have also led to a noticeable decline in investor activity, according to company Vice President David Barca.

“The investment activity that has practically disappeared is for property that can be flipped or developed,” Barca says. “Prices are now so high that investors cannot realize acceptable margins when the property comes back on the market.”

California Investor Trends and Demographics

The vast majority of investors in the state – 80 percent — purchased single-family homes, a moderate gain from 2013. Investors have been moving much faster than typical buyers this year, scooping up properties in a median time of 15 days, more the twice as fast as the overall California market is moving.

Perhaps not surprisingly, investors are primarily motivated by profit, with 58 percent citing the potential to make money as their main reason for buying. Indeed, CAR found that about three-quarters of investors expect home prices to rise in the coming year and over the next half-decade.

And perhaps fearing another housing downturn, the majority of investors don’t plan to hold for long: 55 percent expect to keep the home for less than six years.

The survey also found that home flips across the state have increased on an annual basis, up from 20 percent in 2013 to 28 percent this year. Like the decrease in investment activity, CAR says that price appreciation is probably the main factor driving the trend.

Most of California’s real estate investors already have skin in the game, with 83 percent replying that they own at least one other property. Investors had an average age of 51 and skewed 75 percent male.

And as one might expect, the majority of Golden State investors are affluent and liquid: 58 percent earned more than $200,000 per year, and two-thirds paid all cash for their home.

CAR’s data shows that the state saw a slight 3 percent decrease in international investors from a year ago, but overseas buyers still make up about one-third of all California investors. China was the most prevalent country of origin for international investors.

But even though most California investors plan to sell in less than six years, Chinese buyers in the Bay Area don’t typically make deals to turn a quick buck, according to Pacific Union CEO Mark A. McLaughlin.

“It’s added a demographic of buyers who generally take a long-term view,” McLaughlin told KPIX in a televised interview in June. “They’re not sellers in the next five to seven years. So it is going to drive housing prices up.”

McLaughlin offered his in-depth thoughts on Chinese homebuyers in the Bay Area in a May interview with SFGate. And earlier this week, he explained Pacific Union’s unique China Concierge program in an interview with Real Estate Coaching Radio.

(Photo: Flickr/Steven Depolo)

Are Mortgage Rules Tightening? Relaxing? It Depends on Which Lender You Ask.

Stephanie Witt - Wednesday, July 30, 2014
July 30, 2014 by Pacific Union

A survey of mortgage lenders shows a widening gap in qualifying loan standards over the past six months, with small and midsize lenders tightening their credit rules for homebuyers. Large lenders, meanwhile, moved in the opposite direction and made it easier to obtain home loans.

Lenders most often cited “changing regulatory requirements” for the tightened credit rules, according to the survey by federal loan guarantor Fannie Mae.

“Lenders have been trying to find ways to manage their operational costs and meet new regulatory rules,” Doug Duncan, Fannie Mae’s chief economist, said in a statement accompanying the survey results. “They appear to feel cost-constrained and, thus, may be applying more conservative standards in their lending practices.”

No explanation was given for the opposite approach by large lenders, but Fannie Mae said the gap in mortgage requirements by large and small lenders is expected to further widen during the next three months and possibly longer.

Meanwhile, demand for mortgages rose during the second quarter of 2014, and Fannie Mae said that, too, will continue rising.

“These results are broadly in line with other major indicators released recently,” Duncan said, adding that they “support our expectations of a steady but unspectacular rebound for housing during the second half of this year.”

For homebuyers, the mixed mortgage outlook drives home the importance of planning ahead and securing financing before shopping for a home.

If you plan to buy a home in the Bay Area or the Tahoe/Truckee region, Pacific Union’s mortgage partner, Mortgage Services Professionals, can offer loan advice and consultation to help make your purchase a success.

(Image: Flickr/401(K) 2012)

Bay Area Job, Population Growth Will Continue to Fuel Housing Demand

Stephanie Witt - Tuesday, July 29, 2014
July 29, 2014 by Pacific Union

The Bay Area’s tech-industry-driven economy continues to add extremely desirable and high-paying jobs, attracting talented workers from around the nation and globe. But even though our region’s phenomenal economic growth likely will begin to slow over the next couple of years, intense demand for housing is almost certainly here to stay thanks to a pronounced lack of available homes.

“We’re getting closer to full employment,” says Stephen Levy, director and senior economist of Palo Alto-based Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy. “And what that means is that as we near full employment, that’s going to bring in people, which will add to the housing demand.”

May statistics from the California Employment Development Department show that each one of our Bay Area counties boasts an unemployment rate lower than the statewide average of 7.6 percent. Job growth remains particularly strong in Marin, Napa, San Francisco, and San Mateo counties, all of which have unemployment rates of less than 5 percent.

Levy believes that the Bay Area’s unemployment rate will never return to dot-com-era lows, when it hovered in the 2 to 3 percent range in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. However, he forecasts that even though job growth will level off over the next two years, the Bay Area will continue to outperform the rest of the country.

Population Growth Outpacing New Housing in Key Markets

Since the U.S. began to emerge from the Great Recession in 2010, the Bay Area’s population rate has jumped sizably, according to California Department of Finance data. Over the past four years, the number of residents in San Francisco and San Mateo counties has grown by nearly 4 percent while increasing by almost 5 percent in Santa Clara County.

But those counties have failed to build enough new housing units to keep up with the expanding populace. Since 2010, new housing has grown by just 2 percent in Santa Clara County, 1.3 percent in San Francisco, and 0.9 percent in San Mateo County.

“Peninsula prices and rents will continue to outpace the state and national average unless we see a dramatic increase in supply, and even then it would be snapped up pretty quickly,” Levy says.

Economic Climate Much More Stable Than in Dot-Com Days

As was the case in the dot-com boom and subsequent bust, the tech industry remains the primary driver of Bay Area employment growth. However, Levy believes that our current economy is far less frenetic than it was 15 years ago.

“I think it’s quite different,” he says. “These are real companies, and they have customers, profits, and burgeoning sales. The dot-com era was more about business plans.”

Still, technology companies aren’t the only businesses fueling Bay Area job growth. Other industries, including hospitality, health care, and construction, are seeing employment upticks, Levy says. However, he cautions that tremendous growth in the Internet sector could eventually slow expansion in other industries, including brick-and-mortar retail and financial services.

While the Bay Area’s economic outlook appears solid for the foreseeable future, the housing shortage may eventually impede growth, as workers could become wary of relocating to an area where finding a home is so difficult. Therefore, new construction remains a crucial factor in keeping our region’s economy moving upward and onward.

“I think [our economy] will always grow, but absolutely, housing poses a constraint to our growth over the long term,” Levy says. “The lack of housing could take some of the bloom off of the rose and limit some of the growth that might otherwise be there.”

(Photo: Flickr/Thomas Hawk)

Survey: Purchasing a Home ‘Overwhelming’

Stephanie Witt - Friday, July 25, 2014

July 25, 2014 by Pacific Union

A recent survey of prospective homebuyers found that most believe they are financially prepared for home ownership, yet many admit they aren’t sure what purchasing a property will actually cost them.

Illustration of a house made of hundred-dollar billsNearly 90 percent of buyers surveyed say they know what type of property they can afford, but only 52 percent have actually determined what their monthly mortgage payment would be, according to the poll byDiscover Home Loans.

Forty-one percent say they haven’t yet calculated their down payment, and nearly half — 48 percent — say they don’t know how much their mortgage payment would be if they chose a more or less expensive property.

Most homebuyers say they find the financing process “overwhelming,” including 76 percent of first-time buyers and, surprisingly, 54 percent of previous owners.

“The sheer amount of information can lead to confusion and stress,” Cameron Findlay, chief economist at Discover Home Loans, said  in a statement accompanying the survey results.

For help understanding the financial aspects of home ownership, buyers say they are more likely to turn to real estate professionals than other sources of information such as family, friends, and mortgage bankers.

Fully two-thirds of buyers said they consulted a real estate professional for help and information to assess whether purchasing a home will be a good investment, compared with 56 percent who said they spoke with family or friends and 39 percent who went to a mortgage banker.

For help evaluating mortgage terms and competing offers, 59 percent sought the advice of a mortgage banker, and 49 percent turned to a real estate professional.

(Image: Flickr/401(K) 2012)

Three Reasons Why This Housing Cycle Is Not a Bubble

Stephanie Witt - Tuesday, July 22, 2014

July 22, 2014 by Pacific Union

Bay Area real estate values, fundamentals, and “noise” continue to be hot topics at social gatherings and client meetings. Does this cycle resemble the dot-com era bubble? Can the pace and valuations we are seeing continue?housingbubble

While supply and demand are very basic and scalable market dynamics, I do believe it is important to separate the pace of sales from valuations.

In terms of sales volume, the market’s current pace still displays somewhat of a “slingshot” effect from constrained demand as a result of the 2008 equities-market meltdown. Buyers sought safety on the sidelines for three or four years, but in the last 24 months, demand has been ferocious.

Although we anticipate Bay Area sales volume will experience year-over-year growth of less than 5 percent by 2016 and 2017, slowing demand will not relax pricing.

The following three fundamentals are currently driving Bay Area real estate markets:

1. Supply constraints: Our region has limited land available for new housing development.

2. Exceptional job growth: Northern California enjoys the hottest employment market in the U.S., with intellectually challenging, highly sought-after, and lucrative jobs.

3. Population growth: The chart below illustrates that population growth across our nine-county region has exceeded new housing supply by an average of nearly 200 percent in four years.




Each of the market dynamics listed above generally has very positive impacts on residential real estate. I doubt there is another major U.S. market that is experiencing and enjoying the combination of all three of these factors.

On a global stage, the Bay Area trails New York City, London, Hong Kong, and Beijing on a dollar-per-square-foot valuation perspective. Over the next five years, look for our region’s real estate prices to meet the aforementioned international markets.

A few years ago I attended a Bay Area real estate conference where Leslie Appleton-Young, vice president and chief economist of the California Association of Realtors, spoke. When asked about the best time to invest in California real estate, Leslie replied, “I’ve been answering that question for 30 years, and my answer has always been ‘five years ago.’”

If I am not mistaken, Warren Buffet said, “Buy all the real estate you can,” in a 2009 television interview. I suspect we will all feel the same way in 2019 when we look back at today’s market.

- Mark A. McLaughlin, CEO, Pacific Union

 (Photo: Flickr/David Rodriguez Martin)

Real Estate Roundup: Bay Area Luxury Home Prices Soar

Stephanie Witt - Monday, July 21, 2014

July 21, 2014 by Pacific Union

While nonluxury home prices are rising faster than their swankier counterparts across the U.S., prices for high-end homes in the Bay Area have skyrocketed since the housing recovery began.

Luxury home prices across the country increased 6 percent from May 2013 to May 2014, a recent Forbes article says. During that same time period, prices for nonluxury homes rose by 9.3 percent.

The publication found that high-end homes in two Bay Area real estate market have experienced particularly robust price growth over the past few years. From November 2011 to March 2014, luxury home prices shot up about 38 percent in San Jose to $1.4 million and 34 percent in San Francisco to $1.1 million.

Slim inventory and a sizzling job market may be the two main drivers of Silicon Valley home price increases, but the fact that the region’s workers pull down the largest salaries in the U.S. surely plays a role as well.

The Atlantic Citylab reports that the average employee in the San Jose metro area takes home more than $75,000 per year, the highest wages in the country. The San Francisco metro area, which includes Oakland, ranks No. 3, with an average annual income of $60,562.

The article found that employees in pricey parts of the country still came out ahead despite higher costs of living.

“Their higher wages more than compensate,” Richard Florida writes in the Atlantic Citylab. “This takes some of the wind out of the sails of the arguments that people are better off moving from higher cost to lower cost places.”

In yet another sign that the U.S. housing market may be edging closer to a full recovery, foreclosure activity has declined to its lowest level in nearly eight years.

According to RealtyTrac’s latest foreclosure market report, about 107,000 homes had a foreclosure filing in June, a 16 percent year-over-year decline and the lowest level since July 2006. Foreclosure activity in the first half of 2014 has also dropped a substantial 23 percent compared with the same period last year.

ReatlyTrac Vice President Daren Blomquist said he expected foreclosure activity to continue improving and return to historically normal levels within the next nine months.

Zillow’s recently unveiled Coming Soon feature has prompted many in the industry to wonder whether the company really wants to become an MLS. Speaking at Inman’s Real Estate Connect San Francisco conference on July 17, Zillow Chief Revenue Office Greg Schwartz’s answer was a definitive “no.”

Stating that Zillow was doing just fine in its current incarnation as a media company, Schwartz told attendees that Coming Soon is the firm’s attempt to eliminate confusion about pocket listings. He noted that many users find homes on Zillow and then wonder why they’re not on the MLS.

Schwartz also said Zillow would play nice with MLS operators by offering them Coming Soon listing feeds.

(Photo: Flickr/Skip Kuebel)

California Home Price Gains Finally Leveling Off

Stephanie Witt - Thursday, July 17, 2014
July 17, 2014 by Pacific Union

Home price increases in California are beginning to moderate, a sign that our state’s housing market is heading toward a more balanced condition.

The median price for a single-family home in the state was $457,160 in June, a 2 percent decline from the preceding month, according to the California Association of Realtors latest home sales and price report. Although prices rose 6.6 percent from June 2013, the rate of annual appreciation was the lowest in quite some time.

“Home prices are finally increasing at a healthier pace, and the smallest year-over-year price gain in more than two years suggests that prices are stabilizing,” CAR Vice President and Chief Economist Leslie Appleton-Young said in a statement. “Last year’s frenzied market of multiple offers, which drove sales prices above listing prices, has tapered off as the sales-to-list price ratio has dropped to a more normal level at nearly 99 percent, which signals a return to a more balanced market.”

Here in the Bay Area, gains outstripped the state upticks on both a monthly and yearly basis. The median home price across our nine counties rose to $771,610, up 0.4 percent from May and 10 percent from June 2013. Six local counties lead the state by highest home price: San Mateo ($1,120,000), Marin ($1,060,610), San Francisco ($987,500), Santa Clara ($900,000), Contra Costa ($765,960), and Alameda ($743,810).

Annual home price increases exceeded double digits in six Bay counties, with Alameda heading up the pack at 16.3 percent. The robust year-over-year growth in Alameda County has pushed it ahead of the historically expensive Orange County and Santa Barbara County markets, both of which had higher home prices in June 2013.

Although unsold inventory across the state has increased substantially over the past year, the Bay Area has felt little of that relief.

Since June 2013, the months’ supply of inventory in California has increased from 2.9 to 3.7, meaning that the state is gradually moving from a seller’s market to a more balanced one. In that same time period, the Bay Area MSI inched up from 2.3 to 2.4, with four local counties actually recording inventory declines from a year earlier.

Unsurprisingly, five of the aforementioned six Bay Area counties with the state’s priciest homes also have the slimmest supply of inventory. The MSI ranged from 1.8 in San Mateo County to 2.4 in Marin County.

In what will surely come as more welcome news to beleaguered Bay Area shoppers, the pace of home sales slowed considerably in June from the previous month. Homes left the market in an average of 33.3 days, about a week longer than in May.

(Photo: Flickr/HomeSpot HQ)

Pacific Union to Test Zillow’s Coming Soon Feature

Stephanie Witt - Thursday, July 17, 2014

July 15, 2014 by Pacific Union

Zillow recently unveiled its Coming Soon feature, a forward-thinking initiative that lets real estate professionals advertise exclusive property listings up to 30 days before they are loaded into the MLS. While other companies in our industry may react to this disruptive move with fear and resistance, Pacific Union is choosing to test Zillow’s program and determine whether we can leverage it to our clients’ advantage.MarkMcLaughlin_small

According to Zillow’s own data, its website has 81 million monthly unique users, and traffic has grown by 50 percent since January. This is a huge community of consumers viewing homes for sale and an amazing opportunity for Pacific Union to test the quality of Zillow’s traffic. We do not yet know if Zillow’s user base consists of qualified buyers or simply consumers looking for remodeling ideas or viewing dream homes they likely cannot afford.

Subverting the MLS

With the Coming Soon program, Zillow has stepped in front of the MLS to fill a void in the industry and give consumers, as well as some real estate professionals and brokers, what they have been wanting. While some MLS operators share premarket listings privately with paid subscribers, none of them publicly display such listings.

If Zillow’s unique users are indeed qualified homebuyers, this move could be a wake-up call to MLS operators that to stay relevant, they must deliver what consumers and their members want rather than making decisions based on preserving their perceived control in the industry. This includes embracing technology that homebuyers and sellers describe a need for – like the Coming Soon listings.

Coming Soon listings may prove to have a particularly large impact in highly competitive real estate markets like the Bay Area. If Zillow’s traffic consists of serious homebuyers, real estate professionals will gain the ability to actively market their properties before uploading them to the MLS, which have many “rules” in place designed to maintain industry control instead of meeting market demand.

Qualified buyers, meanwhile, will have advanced time to research a home and prepare an offer, crucial ingredients to success, since many Bay Area homes go under contract as soon as they hit the market.

How We’re Approaching Zillow’s Coming Soon

Pacific Union believes that if Zillow’s traffic indeed comes from qualified buyers, giving our real estate professionals and their clients the ability to market homes before they are listed on the MLS is tremendously beneficial and represents yet another tool to help them succeed. To that end we’re implementing a technology interface in early August that will allow our professionals to seamlessly upload pre-MLS listings to Zillow’s Coming Soon offering at no cost.

Pacific Union primarily will be testing the quality of Zillow’s unique users. If the Coming Soon feature generates qualified buyers and closed escrows, we will value the service.

While technology will doubtlessly play a key role in our industry moving forward, we do not believe it can replace or remove the trust, knowledge, and advice that a Pacific Union real estate professional offers clients.

For example, Zillow’s Zestimates for eight of the nine Bay Area counties receive just two-star accuracy ratingsand only come within 10 percent of the sales price about half of the time. And in San Francisco County Zillow’s margin for error comes in as high as 12 percent. Therefore, it remains clear to Pacific Union and our clients that the Zestimate is not currently a credible industry tool.


By contrast, seasoned real estate professionals can predict a home’s value with a much higher degree of certainty, as they provide a level of trusted local knowledge and expert neighborhood advice that a website simply cannot replicate.

Zillow’s Coming Soon feature is just the latest in a line of technology innovations designed to propel our industry forward. As technology continues to alter the way real estate professionals and brokerages do business, Pacific Union will evaluate each new innovation carefully and adopt the ones that we feel deliver the largest benefits to our clients.

We will know shortly if Coming Soon is a valuable industry innovation and whether Zillow’s huge user base really contains serious homebuyers.

 - Mark A. McLaughlin, CEO, Pacific Union

SFGate Post: Are tech-sector newcomers elbowing out Mill Valley's funky-arty vibe?

Stephanie Witt - Monday, July 14, 2014

Interesting article on SFGate

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