NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Maybe the best word for the U.S. housing market right now could be confused. New home prices are starting to rise. Rents have risen as well. Banks continue to offer low interest rates, though many potential buyers have trouble qualifying for loans.
While spring is usually a buoyant season, homebuilders say they're less confident in sales over the next coming months. Everyone agrees that a healthy U.S. economic recovery depends on recovery in housing, but opinions on the timing of that vary from don't hold your breath to right around the corner.
And the housing market varies widely from city to city, region to region. We check in on housing from time to time here on TALK OF THE NATION. If you're buying, selling or working in construction, how's it going where you live? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, North Korea on the Opinion Page and how the regime in Pyongyang continues to get away with it. But first NPR economics correspondent Chris Arnold joins us from his home in Boston. Always nice to have you with us.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: And as we mentioned, spring is typically the buying season, people aggressively looking for new homes. This year?
ARNOLD: Well, that remains to be seen. You know, pretty much every year for the past three or four years, we've been saying, you know, spring, this will be the year, hope springs eternal for the housing market. But you know, so far we haven't seen a real takeoff in any one of these springs in recent years.
And in fact the last month that we have data for the pace of home sales actually declined a little bit. But overall, home sales have been coming off of the bottom. And I think this is the first sign that the housing market really is starting to recover, very early stages in that recovery, but home sales overall are rising, and that's a good thing.
CONAN: Well, people said in order to hit bottom and start to rise, the market had to absorb all those houses that went on the market as foreclosures.
ARNOLD: The market has been trying to absorb those homes, yes. There's a lot more, and there are many that have not hit the market yet. So there's still a big question mark. There's millions more homes that are going to be foreclosed on. Those have yet to hit the market. Will that push down home prices even further? There's still a lot of question marks.
CONAN: And places that were so hard hit - Florida, Nevada, Arizona, California - there are others as well, but those are really the epicenters; are they beginning to recover?
ARNOLD: Yes, we're starting to see, in some of those areas where prices declined the most, 30 percent to 50 percent or higher in some of those places, because home prices are now so cheap, that's attracting buyers, especially investors who are buying up these properties, looking to turn them into rental properties or hang onto them for a bit and sell them when prices recover.
It's now gotten so cheap to buy a home in some of those hardest-hit areas that we are starting to see a lot more buying activity get underway.
CONAN: You did a piece on MORNING EDITION today, basically mom-and-pop operators in some of those hard-hit places like Phoenix, buying up some of those foreclosures and making a nice business out of it.
ARNOLD: Yeah, there's always been mom and pops, and that's, you know, like we said in the story, the nice old guy up the block who owns two houses and, you know, will sit down and have a cup of tea with you or whatever. But there's also private equity firms investing hundreds of millions of dollars right now, buying up thousands of homes, and that's a whole 'nother scale.
That could be a good thing. It could take a lot of these houses off the market, so instead of just sitting there for sale glutting the market, these could be converted into rentals, and then they're not in the housing market anymore in terms of buying, so you kind of - you can eliminate, say, a million homes from the inventory, as they say. So that could be a good thing.
Some nonprofits have some concerns - well, who's doing the buying, are they going to have the homeowners who are there now, what are we going to do with them, and what about renters, are they going to take care of the renters well and be good landlords? So there's, again, lots of questions but things happening.
CONAN: We're talking with Chris Arnold, NPR economics correspondent, about the housing market, and yes, we remember the immortal phrase location, location, location. If you're buying, selling, if you're an agent or a builder, how is it going where you live? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. Jean's(ph) on the line calling from Richmond.
JEAN: Hi there.
CONAN: Hi, Jean.
JEAN: I live in sort of an old and historic neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, that used to be solidly upper-middle class, and then when sort of the racial things happened in Richmond in the '70s, it became mostly an African-American neighborhood and was really abandoned, and folks had to deal with all of the problems, folks that had always lived in that neighborhood or had moved to the neighborhood had to deal with those(ph) very serious issues.
And now it's rebounding. And both African-American and other ethnicity families - families are moving in, which is great. Unfortunately, there are now a lot of foreclosures, and we're seeing landlords buying these properties, thinking that they're going to be, you know, a great revenue source, doing the minimum that they can do to fix them up and then renting them for very little money to folks that don't have any connection to the neighborhood and don't care.
The guy next door to me bought a house, and thank goodness he's local. He did a beautiful job fixing up the house, couldn't sell it, rented it to folks that didn't take care of it, and so now he's tryied to fix it up again, and now he's trying to sell it again. He's one of the good guys.
There are other people in our neighborhood who have bought homes who don't care, and we're seeing some of the problems that we thought we had vanquished years ago starting to creep back in - you know, trash, homes not being taken care of, crime element moving back in because we're in the city. And it's very disheartening.
There are folks who have purchased some of these homes and have restored them, not renovated them, restored them to their absolute original beauty, and they're having a very difficult time selling them.
CONAN: Chris Arnold, this seems to be a description of the downside of what you were just describing.
ARNOLD: Right, you know, it's good to buy up homes so they're not sitting there vacant. But if the person who buys them or the investment group that buys them, if they're sitting maybe not even in the same city, they're across the country or something, and you've got absentee landlords who it sounds like in this case aren't paying a lot of attention to how the properties are being cared for or who's renting them - I don't know who is the owner, whether it is a little guy or a big investment fund in this case, but you know, certainly you've got - another thing this brings up too is neighborhoods in transition are vulnerable coming out of a housing crash, that in some neighborhoods, you know, people were buying up property, the neighborhood was getting better, there was just a great diversity, all kinds of people living there.
And then a bunch of foreclosures happened. And the neighborhood starts to get dragged down, and then you've got people who invested in this neighborhood and want it to succeed, but you've got vacant buildings and what this caller, Jean, is describing.
So this is going on, I'm sure, in many other neighborhoods around the country that are like this.
CONAN: Jean, we wish you the best of luck, thanks for the call.
JEAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Joining us now is - by phone from the Asheville Citizen-Times is Mark Barrett. He's their staff writer, who covers government and growth and development. Nice to have you with us today.
MARK BARRETT: Good to be here.
CONAN: And how's the market, housing market there in Asheville?
BARRETT: Well, it's a lot better than it was. It's certainly not back to where it could be. But for the first quarter of this year, housing - existing home sales, rather, were up about 27 percent in this area over the same quarter a year ago. Of course you've got to keep in mind that, you know, we're still probably 40 percent of what we were back when, you know, the market was going really, really well, maybe too well.
CONAN: A lot of places would say 27 percent, we'll take it.
BARRETT: A lot of people would be very happy with that. And housing starts are up about 26 percent over the same period a year ago, and that's also, you know, that's good news as well.
CONAN: Any speculation as to why?
BARRETT: Well, a couple different things. One is the economy is better. Obviously buying a house is a pretty big economic decision for anyone, and if they feel more confident about the economy, that helps a lot. More people are working, you know, those sorts of things. We have - and Asheville is a great place to live. We have a lot of people who move here to retire. And so they are especially affected by the value of their investments, i.e., the stock market, whether they can sell their homes wherever it is they're moving here from.
So as the market in Florida, the Northeast, has seen some recovery, as the stock market has come back, they're better able to have the confidence to come here and buy. Oh, one other thing, the weather helped. We had a very warm winter. How much it helped, I don't know, but you know, a year ago we had maybe not record snowfall but the most snow we've had in a long time.
And this year, like the rest of the country, it's been very mild. So people...
CONAN: And so that first quarter last year wasn't much. So it didn't take a whole lot to get up 27 percent.
BARRETT: Right, that's true. If you're batting 100, it doesn't take too much to get up to - you know, to improve your average.
CONAN: Chris Arnold, those factors, especially the weather, people said, you know, the statistics, those rather sunny statistics the first couple of months of this year, well, kind of inflated by the nice weather in much of the country.
ARNOLD: Right, in the wintertime you don't have as many home sales. People don't tend to go out and buy a house in the middle of the winter. So the seasonal adjustments, the error factors get magnified, basically. So you have a warmer early spring or late winter, and we take the small sample of data and then multiply by it by a seasonal adjustment factor.
And so, you know, a warm spring or a warm late winter can throw off the numbers, and that's - there was some speculation about that one: OK, we've got this latest round of home sales data, it was little lower - is that what we're seeing, that maybe things aren't as good as we think they are?
But if you look back over the course of, say, a year, we are definitely off the bottom in terms of home sales - things are picking up.
CONAN: And Mark Barrett, are people feeling pretty confident for the rest of the year?
BARRETT: Well, you know, folks in the real estate industry, I think, always are confident. That's what they're paid to be.
CONAN: That's true.
BARRETT: But even once you get past that, yeah, they are feeling more confident. I had one analyst say, you know, the trends are getting to the point where maybe in a year so we can say we've turned the corner. He said, you know, we're kind of at the beginning of the corner, if you will. Some other folks feel even, you know, more confident than that.
But, you know, the general feeling is, is there's - the odds are pretty good this is a trend that will probably stick with us now. We probably won't see increases of this magnitude going forward, but yeah.
CONAN: Continued good luck to you, thanks very much.
BARRETT: Thank you.
CONAN: Mark Barrett is the staff writer for the Asheville Citizen-Times who covers government and growth and development. He joined us by phone from the newspaper there in Asheville, North Carolina. If housing's your business, if you're a developer, a real estate agent, a builder, call and tell us what the market is like where you live. We'd also like to hear from those of you who are selling or buying. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join us on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We'll be back in just a minute. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. News on housing is so mixed these days it can be tough to figure out what's going on. NPR's Chris Arnold is with us today to sort through it all: home prices, foreclosures, interest rates, housing starts and more. We want to hear from those of you buying a home, selling one or working in the industry as an agent, a lender or in construction. How is going where you live?
800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and let's go to - this is Victor(ph), Victor with us from Buffalo.
VICTOR: How are you doing today?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
VICTOR: Well, I've been a property manager for six years, and this city, that was pre-bubble. What we saw was is that because we're a rust-belt town, we've had a lot of surplus housing that drives the price down. When the bubble went up, people that had equity in their homes pulled that equity out in order to purchase rental units in the city.
And what happened when the bubble collapsed was a lot of people now needed their equity. Houses went for sale, some people simply couldn't afford the mortgages. They allowed the banks to take them back. And as a company, because that we are a mom-and-pop management company for mom-and-pop investors, we saw the size of our management pool drop by 50 percent.
I lost half the houses I managed in the last couple years, and it really affected our business as a whole. We've almost had to abandon property management just to go into contracting, and we're still not out of the woods as a management company.
CONAN: And Buffalo, just reading the economics statistics, as a rule has been troubled, continues to be troubled. Is that continuing in the housing market, as well?
VICTOR: I would say really we never saw the bubble. All we saw was people outside investing in. So our prices never really went up. If they did, it's select neighborhoods. But as a whole throughout the city, because I work in each neighborhood of it, all around it, we still have 50 properties spread throughout the western New York area, I see all manners of it, and I see houses for sale in a lot of places, and I see some houses that I was affiliated with still being empty, like three, four years later.
CONAN: Three, four years later. That's - a couple, three years ago, that would be almost imaginable.
VICTOR: And simply put, like if a house is damaged at this point in the city, it's not repaired, it's torn down. House fires, I mean, I'm actually sitting in a neighborhood, a street as we speak, and there's a fresh tear-down across the street and a grassy lot in front of where I'm parked. So the city simply cannot deal with the large volume of empty housing that it has.
So for individuals like me, when the bubble dropped, there is a legitimate case that we may not continue to make unless things pick up.
CONAN: Victor, thanks very much for the call. We hope you turn it around.
VICTOR: Thank you, I appreciate it.
CONAN: And Chris Arnold, tear-downs, the story not just in Buffalo but other places like Cleveland and Detroit.
ARNOLD: Sure, yeah, I mean, any place you don't have strong demand for housing, when you have a lot of foreclosures, buildings sitting empty, you know, it's not a pretty picture. We should also say that there's really two housing markets out there, and that's on multiple scales. But, you know, there are good neighborhoods in areas where the economy is still pretty solid, and by a good neighborhood, that can mean a lot of things, but a good school district, a place people want to live, basically, whether those are super-rich people or middle-class people or whatever.
If there is a gravity to the area, if it's a place people want to be, those neighborhoods by and large, if it's not in the middle of the rust belt where some horrible economic thing has happened, by and large those areas are doing just fine. The home prices haven't fallen that much. There's - you've still got to look around to find a nice house. There aren't really a lot of bargains.
Other neighborhoods that are sort of the opposite of that, or there's a spectrum between that and the exurbs or places people really didn't want to be in the first place, but they figured, well, I'll drive an hour and a half outside the city, now there's a lot of vacant houses, and it's a real problem.
CONAN: Email from a realtor named Justin(ph) in Houston: Residential real estate in Houston doing just great with a healthy upswing in demand since January. This from Marcia(ph): My husband and I are both appraisers in Oakland and recently purchased a distressed property near our neighborhood which we then fixed up and now have it cash flowing, rented to wonderful tenants, and the property looks great.
So there's some of those mom-and-pop operators you were talking about.
ARNOLD: Yeah, and I was actually struck by something Scott Simon, who is the head mortgage bond...
CONAN: We refer to him as the other Scott Simon.
ARNOLD: The other Scott Simon, right, the Scott Simon with more zeroes after his name...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Well, on his paycheck, anyway.
ARNOLD: On his paycheck, right. So he was talking about this, and here's one of the biggest investors in the world, you know, super-smart guy, and he's thinking, you know, this is a great business if you're going to own three homes. You know, if you buy three rental properties, the numbers are terrific. You get a great return. It's like 10 percent a year or more.
Look at what the stock market's done on average over the past 10 or 20 years, it's not that. So that's sort of an argument, at least from his perspective, that, you know, little mom-and-pops are the way to go if you can buy up a couple of these places that are in a good neighborhood where you're not trying to be a slumlord or do something that's going to cause all kinds of problems for yourself...
CONAN: And a neighborhood you know, too. I mean, I think that's important, too.
ARNOLD: Exactly, yeah. Yeah, it should be down the block or, you know, somewhere nearby where you really know the neighborhood.
CONAN: Joining us now by phone from his office in Los Angeles is Christopher Thornberg, founding partner at Beacon Economics, an economic research and consulting firm. Nice to have you with us today.
CHRISTOPHER THORNBERG: Nice to be here.
CONAN: And California has been, as we mentioned earlier, one of the epicenters of the housing bust. Are things beginning to recover, and are they beginning to recover in different places?
THORNBERG: Yeah absolutely. You know, when you say the word recovery, I think we need to be careful about what we mean by that. A lot of folks refer to quote-unquote recovery as basically prices starting to go up to where they were before the bubble broke, and I think that that's the wrong way of thinking about it.
Ultimately, cheap housing is better than expensive housing, which is often forgotten. So when you talk about recovery, I think what we need to do is think about it from, well, what's happening on the foreclosure front, what's happening on the construction front, what's happening on the sales front.
And I think that for most of those categories. Things have clearly moved past the bottom. It's still very early, obviously construction still quite depressed, if you will, but nevertheless permits are starting to heat up, transactions are starting to heat up. And probably more than anything else, the number of foreclosures and overall delinquent mortgages has dropped precipitously over the course of the last two years.
So I'd say clearly we are moving into a recovery. I think it's really more the speed of that recovery that's a question now.
CONAN: Yeah, small-R recovery, though, as you mentioned.
CONAN: And any particular ups and downs in terms of cities in California?
THORNBERG: Well, those economies along the coast that are home to hiring properties, never saw the boom and so therefore are getting past the bust that much quicker. You know, we had an interesting phenomenon through this particular real estate cycle because it was driven by sub prime lending. And as such, it was kind of a bottom-up bubble. That is to say it was really those units at the lower end of the scale who were most inflated.
And you saw a big compression between the high and low end in terms of prices over the course of the cycle. Well, now that things have dropped back to normal, the sort of price gap between higher- and lower-end neighborhoods had re-decompressed, if you will. And as such, the drop and the overall foreclosure problem is much more difficult in lower-end neighborhoods.
Higher-end neighborhoods didn't see much of a drop, haven't seen a lot of foreclosures, and you've even starting to hear the first anecdotes of, you know, a good house comes on the market, it's well-priced, and suddenly you have six, seven, eight, nine offers for it, very reminiscent of what was happening before things started to break.
CONAN: As you look at this in the future, are you beginning to see acceleration?
THORNBERG: Absolutely. Again, things are moving forward again. But again, you know, I want to go back to something I said before because I continue to hear from some regulators the idea that housing prices is going to be the best form of recovery. What's interesting is despite the big decline in prices for homes in California, the state is still the second-least-affordable housing market in the U.S. right now when you compare home prices to people's incomes.
THORNBERG: And ultimately, we hear all the time about how business-unfriendly California is. I point to the fact that probably our most unfriendly aspect of our economy is the still-astronomically high cost of housing. And in many ways, this is due to the fact that California just doesn't build relative to population growth the way that other places have. We have a housing shortage here.
So in the short run, that probably has cushioned us relative to our other sort of fellow bubble states - Florida, Nevada, Arizona - but in the long run I think it remains a big obstacle for the ability for this economy to grow.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much, we appreciate the forecast.
CONAN: Christopher Thornberg, founding partner at Beacon Economics, an economic research and consulting firm, with us from his office in Los Angeles. Let's go next to Michael(ph), and Michael's with us from Nashville.
MICHAEL: Hi, how are you?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
MICHAEL: I'm an (unintelligible) building-developer in Nashville, Tennessee, and Nashville is presently ranked number three by Forbes, behind, I think, Dallas and Houston, for top real estate markets in the U.S. And I'm putting houses on the ground faster than I can get them sold.
CONAN: Really, so am I hearing the word boom? Am I hearing the word boom there, Michael?
MICHAEL: Yes, I think that Nashville is incredibly ahead of the economic downfall that happened with the real estate market. I was a real estate agent in Seattle, Washington, before I moved down here, and had a 58-percent appreciation annually over five years. So when we crashed, we crashed hard. Nashville, Tennessee has five percent over that five-year period, and so the comeback was a lot faster. And the biggest push that we've noticed is that people no longer want to live in the suburbs. The infill development is what's driving our real estate market now.
CONAN: Infill. In other words, in the city itself.
MICHAEL: Inner city, tearing down old houses, building back new ones. All the old vacant lots that people talk about in these other cities, where cities that are tearing down houses, developers are buying those things up faster than you could ever imagine here.
CONAN: Chris Arnold, we've heard so many stories over the past several years of places that were, well, way below the norm. It's nice to hear stories of places like Ashville and Nashville - just probably just a coincidence - that are - you're hearing anecdotes - at least some places are really bouncing right back.
ARNOLD: Yeah, absolutely. And the housing market, the cliche is location, location, location, you know? But that is very true, and it comes down to is this a place people want to be? If all of a sudden people around Nashville have decided we want to take back the city, we want to move in, and you've got young couples with baby strollers and, you know, I'm sure musicians and vibrancy and everything happening, and there's some kind of organic things working in the right way, then yeah.
They haven't seen huge price declines. They didn't see a big run-up. There are areas that are - could absolutely be in a little mini-boom all of their own. When you back away up to space and sort of look down on the planet, the housing market is still - still has a lot of problems, but it is nice to hear there are places where things are better.
MICHAEL: I think one of the biggest pushes for the infill development has been the gas prices. Everybody that's driving an hour to work every day is feeling the four to five dollar a gallon gas prices on their wallets right now. And so people are - a lot of people are wanting to live closer to where they work. They're no longer wanting to live an hour from work.
ARNOLD: It's certainly hurting the exurb areas where people moved out farther than they probably wanted to be just to get in on the housing market, and now gas prices are way up and - there's a lot of foreclosures there. I don't know about around Nashville, but just nationally.
MICHAEL: Well, the outskirts of Nashville are still struggling. The inner city is incredibly vibrant.
CONAN: Thanks for the report, Michael.
MICHAEL: Thank you.
ARNOLD: Thanks, Michael.
CONAN: We're talking with Chris Arnold, NPR's economics correspondent. We mentioned that he did a story this morning on people who are buying up foreclosures, mom-and-pops, and renting and making a new market out of that. There's link to that on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go next to Dave, and Dave with us from Mishawaka in Indiana.
DAVE: Hi there.
DAVE: Yeah. I'm a mom-and-pop investor. We started a company last year, and we bought a house and - in a tax sale, invested $22,000 in it, and we're looking to mortgage it. And the banks are telling me, well, they'll loan me and my partner the money, but they don't want to loan our company the money. And the reason, if I'm understanding it right, is Fannie Mae will buy the loan if it's a personal loan. But if our company buys it, the bank ends up having to actually hold the loan.
ARNOLD: Hmm. Sure. They want to get a loan that there's a guarantee on, basically, there.
DAVE: What's that?
ARNOLD: They want a - there's a - if Fannie Mae buys it, then they guarantee it (unintelligible) buying and guaranteeing it or - whether they buy it or they guarantee it, the bank's not on the hook. And so...
ARNOLD: ...they're saying that's preferable for them, probably, right?
DAVE: They're saying that's definitely preferable to them, although for tax reasons, you know, we need Reliance(ph), our company, to own these homes rather than us.
CONAN: So what are you going to do?
DAVE: I'm going to do whatever I have to do to make money.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Well, there you go, Dave. Good luck to you.
DAVE: I'm going to search for banks, and if I have to, I guess we'll re-deed the houses and do it that way.
CONAN: All right, Dave. Thanks very much.
DAVE: You're welcome.
CONAN: And, Chris Arnold, is money as tight as it was? I mean, in other words, those mortgage rates are really, really low, but apparently you have to be Warren Buffett to qualify for them.
ARNOLD: Yeah, or close. This is interesting because what it brings up is the - what used to be called - and is still called, although it's nonexistent - the securitization market for mortgage-backed securities. It used to be that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are these two large mortgage companies that are now owned and controlled by the government, they guarantee loans so that banks will make loans, because it's uncertain times and everybody is underwater, or lots of people are.
And so if the government is going to guarantee it, the bank will make the loan. If Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac won't guarantee it, there's almost nobody who will give you a loan unless you're Warren Buffett. So there are a lot of people right now who are running into a range of different problems, whether it's a business like this guy is running or somebody who doesn't fit into Fannie and Freddie's criteria. For whatever reason, they can't refinance and take advantage of these low rate. So this is an issue that is across the housing market right now.
CONAN: This email from Susan in Denver: I'm a real estate agent in Denver. Our market has been turning into a seller's market this winter-spring. Our inventory is extremely low. There are often multiple offers on desirable new listings. I currently have a 900k buyer who I've been unable to find a suitable home for. A year or two ago, this would not have been a problem.
And, well, again, pockets here, pockets there. But the turnaround - slow acceleration, Chris?
ARNOLD: You caught me taking a sip of water. Yes, definitely slow acceleration. I don't think anybody is predicting a real - I mean, outside of a couple of little niches like we've talked about, we're not coming roaring back here. And some of the biggest thinkers on home prices, they're still not sure we've really hit the bottom in terms of prices. We're selling more homes now. People are starting to get back in the market. Interestingly, a lot of investors, about a third of all home sales are investors with cash, you know, because people are having trouble qualifying for mortgages. So this is not going to be a quick recovery.
CONAN: Chris Arnold, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.
ARNOLD: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Coming up, Jennifer Lind - Chris Arnold, I should mention, is NPR's economics correspondent, and he covers the economy, with a focus on housing, and he joined us from his home in Boston, Massachusetts, where, of course, it's Patriots Day today, the day of the Boston Marathon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.