Value

Home Buyers are Bond Traders

The fixed income bond market. Likely the most unsexy of all the traders on Wall Street. Also some of the most wildly paid when the bond market is on a roll. It is an area that few casual investors really want to understand. It’s boring. Buying 10 year bonds payable by Chrysler just does’t excite. And more importantly, it confuses any newbie to the debt market.

When interest rates go down, bond prices go up. When interest rates go up, bond prices go down.

Now, why do we as Realtors care? Well, on the most basic level, we care because our 30 Year Fixed Rate mortgages that drive the US housing market are set (at least theoretically) based on federal 10 year treasury notes. But I argue that every home buyer who doesn’t pay cash is gambling in the bond market without really understanding it.

What drives price of a home? Lots of things. Scarcity is top of the list. Inventory is way down across our MSA, and thus, prices are no longer falling, and in many cases even going up.

But the other factor to influence prices is affordability. And affordability is directly impacted by interest rates.

Take a family that today has $100,000 saved to put down on a house. With a 20% downpayment, this qualifies them to purchase a $500,000 home. (Let’s set aside closing costs for the purposes of this argument.) When there was a 4.0% interest rate just a few weeks ago, this would have meant a mortgage payment of $1,909 in Principal and Interest. When the interest rate hits 5.0% — and that will be soon — that same $1,909 no longer affords a mortgage of $400,000. It affords only $355,735. This is an 8.8% reduction in buying power with only a 1% move in interest rates.

mtgrateshift.png

So the question then becomes why are these home buyers bond buyers. Simple. They have a specific return they have decided they need to make an investment. And likely, that return is in the form of specific home specifications. They are looking for 4 bedrooms with a minimum of 3,000 finished square feet in a specific school district. And for months they have been looking, and they have been told by their mortgage lender that they can afford $500,000. As they continue to look for homes, however, they unknowingly are becoming priced out of the market.

But, when they find that dream home, they aren’t going to decide to spend more. They aren’t going to decided to find a cheaper house. They are going to go after this one house, but demand a drop in price commensurate with their new mortgage rate. So, they are looking to cut that $500,000 house to $455,735. Will this happen each and every time? No! Will it sometimes? Depends on the seller and their motivation. But it will happen. And that will bring down comparable sales, and that will bring down the escalating prices.

I said this as the rates were coming down. People don’t buy a house based on sale price. They buy it based on the mortgage price. People didn’t mind prices going up during the interest rate decline because they still paid less, and they felt richer. Well, here comes the reverse of that.

Value of Tax Value

The City of Charlottesville released their 2013 tax assessments this week. Mailings have been sent to home owners, and the web site has been updated to reflect the changes.

Assessments cause all kinds of a ruckus. There is an erroneous perception that prices should instantly adjust to match these new numbers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reality is, this is the City’s best effort to meet state requirements to estimate the values of the parcels in the city. No one in the assessors office would argue they are perfect. I won’t go so far as to say they are even close in many cases.

There are, however, certain times when assessments should be darn easy. Like the day a home sells. If a home sells for $745,000 after being offered on the open market, and the transaction is indeed an arms length transaction, it makes total sense that the City would be able to assess that house without really thinking about it. The value at which a seller is willing to sell and a buyer is willing to buy is $745,000. That is the definition of market value. And that’s why it’s truly bizarre to see the assessment today on this house at $381,000. (Assessing this home at 51.2% of its market value.)

From the City assessors web site:

Real Estate Assessments are required by the Codes of Virginia and the City of Charlottesville to be at 100% of fair market value.  Assessments are made each year by the City Assessor’s Office and are effective January 1.

and

As required, the City’s assessment is an estimate of fair market value as of January 1 each year, based on property sales for the previous calendar year.

The City breaks down the city into neighborhoods and then samples that neighborhood to determine what is happening price wise over the course of the year. Then, barring changes to a home, they apply a % change to all the houses in that neighborhood. There are certainly some places where there is more specific work being done, but in general, this is the practice. I pulled up a sampling of 10 homes in the neighborhood that is bounded by Rugby Road, Emmett Street, Westview Road, and Wayside Place. The tax assessments I pulled changed from -4.68% to -4.7%. You can’t tell me that is an accident. So, the question is, how accurate is this practice. I would say we can bicker about whether -4.7% is the correct amount, but in general, I agree with the practice. If my neighbor’s home goes up 5% or down 3%, it is fairly accurate to say mine did too — UNLESS one of us has done improvements or allowed our house to waste away, in which case, they certainly change at different rates.

So, I focused on this one neighborhood and pulled every house that sold in 2012 to see if the new 2013 assessments were accurate for these homes. Nine homes total ranging in sales price from $367,000 to $1,250,000. How’d they do? Mixed Bag.

  • 938 Rosser Lane – Sold for $367,500 – Assessed for $443,600 – 121% of Sale Price
  • 901 Rosser Lane – Sold for $450,000 – Assessed for $449,200 – Spot On.
  • 1865 Field Road – Sold for $469,000 – Assessed for $511,900 – 109% of Sale Price
  • 1825 Edgewood Lane – Sold for $530,000 – Assessed for $734,100 – 139% of Sale Price — (NOTE: On the market for nearly a year)
  • 1859 Wayside Place – Sold for $706,000 – Assessed for $590,000 – 84% of Sale Price
  • 1863 Wayside Place – Sold for $745,000 – Assessed for $381,600 – 51% of Sale Price
  • 920 Rosser Lane – Sold for $753,000 – Assessed for $735,000 – 98% of Sale Price
  • 1872 Edgewood Lane – Sold for 890,000 – Assessed for $778,800 – 88% of Sale Price
  • 1820 Edgewood Lane – Sold for $1,250,000 – Assessed for $993,000 – 79% of Sale Price

Don’t get me wrong, I totally respect the fact that assessing homes that the City has likely never been in is extremely hard. And I respect the fact that the city has a good process. But no one can argue that a group of nine homes that all sold in the past year, arguably the easiest homes to assess, range in values compared to their sale price from 51% to 139% all in the same neighborhood is anything close to useful, valuable, or accurate.

My point here is not to say that all assessments are bad, or that we should be challenging every one. What I want people to realize is that basing listing and offering prices on City (or County) assessments is dangerous. While it can be a guide, and certainly should be considered, it has to be a single tool of many in pricing a home. We look at comps all day long. And the price you paid four years ago for your home will affect its sale price far more than the new City assessments. Prices in the Venable neighborhood did not go down 4.7% this week with the new assessments. The only thing that changed is that the taxes these home owners will pay went down by 4.7%.

 

 

Decade of New Construction

Better to Buy or Build?

This question comes about in almost every new client conversation I have. There are those diehards that refuse to live in a new house, and there are those who want a maintenance free home from the start. (no such thing by the way – but new homes are certainly less). Personal tastes aside, there is always a financial question regarding which is better. It is the goal of every seller, whether builder or homeowner, to maximize their price at the sale of a home. There may be some other factors on the table regarding timing, but it all comes down to the final net price to seller. Always.

So, prices tend to go up and down in tandem for resale and new construction. Sometimes, one lags the other, but in general, when prices are rising, they are going up for both types of sellers. For that reason, the percentage of sales that are new construction tend to be pretty flat in good times and bad. I’m not saying that new homes keep selling, I’m saying that as a percentage of total sales, they remain fairly constant.

When we look at the last decade, this is certainly what we see. From 2003 to 2011, the percentage of total sales that were new construction (Albemarle and Charlottesville only) remained between 16.7% and 18.0%, and in 7 of those years, it was even tighter, between 16.6% and 17.1%. Not a lot of variance.

But in 2012, we saw a major shift. In Oct of 2011, builders began getting advance warning from their suppliers that prices were going up. Drywall, lumber, you name it… Prices went up. And we’re not talking 2% here. In 2012, prices on drywall went up roughly 30%. And in January of this year, prices went up another 20%+. 2012 saw lumber prices up 44%. And that drives new home prices up. Nationally, the average new home contains roughly 45% of it’s cost in materials. And when they go up as significantly as they have, there is little way to protect the profit without ratcheting prices up.

But good news may be on the horizon. Lumber commodity future point to as much as a 25% decline in prices from mills as China demand decreases and output from Canada increases.

So, here is the interesting thing. 2012, saw the first major drop in new construction. Builders may not have even noticed. The actual number of new homes sold in 2012 (266) was the highest in any year since 2007 (376 – so we are still a long way off the bubble path). But while there was a 4.7% increase in new construction sales in Charlottesville and Albemarle, that paled in comparison to the 15.7% increase in total sales. End result is that the percentage of homes sold in Charlottesville and Albemarle that were new construction went from 16.7% to 15.1%. (Explanation of the Graph: Blue and Green columns represent the total number of homes sold and total number of new construction homes each year. The yellow line is the ratio of new construction to total market.)

NewConstructionWhat brings this back? Two things are possible, likely a combination of the two will play out.

The first is that material prices come back down. As the lumber news points, there should be some relief from manufacturers as output increases. This won’t bring it back to par, but it will allow some relaxing of prices.

The second option is that resale homes will see a price increase. (It has been many years since I said that and it feels pretty good.) As long as resale prices remain depressed, the builder market will have a tough time competing. My bet is that 2013 sees better numbers than 2012 for new construction, but not back to the 2011 16.7%.

Quick Look Back

New Year, New Plan…

I have found over the last year since I studied and wrote consistently that I have really missed it. I have missed the conversation. I have missed the structure. But I have genuinely missed just digging into data. I am going to do my best to get back to a schedule that is doable and valuable. While I have continued to stay on top of numbers, probably not as much as I should have, and certainly not as much as I used to. Time to get back to that.

Looking at 2012 is a tough thing to do at this date. While all the closings that will happen in 2012 have indeed happened. It is not true that all those closings have been entered into our MLS and thus the data is not right. But, what we do know is that all the data is too conservative. Very little probability that closings will disappear. Very high probability that two weeks from now a good number of new deals will be in the MLS changing our data and making the year look even better. So where are we right now?

City2012

To the left are some brief numbers on the Charlottesville City market. Sheer number of closings are up 23.4% from year prior and 31.6% from two years ago. Total volume is up an even more impressive 26.8% from year prior. And shockingly, the median price, which fell $15,000 from 2010 to 2011, rose $5,000 to $235,000 in 2012. Still down fairly significantly from the 2007 peak of $280,000 in 2007, this is showing a positive trend that we did not expect to see until we had a more sustained recovery.

County 2012

For Albemarle County, numbers are similar, although not quick quite as significant. Closings are up 12.6% from year prior and 16.4% from two years prior. The median prices in 2012 exceeded both 2010 and 2011, by reaching $292,000. For the county, this is the highest median price since 2008, when the number was $320,000, and takes us back to a pre-bubble median price from 2005 when the median price reached $289,000.

Median PricesKeep in mind that for all these prices and sales figures, while we are showing extrememly positive trends (escpecially in the City), these numbers are to date, incomplete. We anticipate a good number of transactions to be reflected by the MLS in the next two weeks that are still not showing today. We will update them in the near future as they are recorded. In the last 48 hours, we have had 9 closings updated in the MLS going back as far as Dec. 14. It will be likely 10 more days until we have accurate 2012 total data.

Raising Perceived Value

I had a professor in B-School who at the end of a class session would, as students began coming to the conclusion that he wanted all along, remark, “I love it when a good plan comes together.” Well, I feel that way today. On March 17, I posted a blog on tax assessments and relative value / perceived value. I argued that sellers should fight with the County / City to raise their assessed value when they go to sell their house as this will provide a higher baseline. County of Albemarle - GIS-Web - Property Information.jpg

Well, I have a reader who did just this. Perhaps they are not a reader, but I found a listing this morning where this has happened. Look to the right at this copy from their assessments, and I’ll go over what has happened.

So, here is a very nice home in Western Albemarle that was assessed in 2007 for $924,500. In 2008, that assessment dropped to $899,800. Along with the overall market decline in 2008, the 2009 resulting assessment dropped another $39,000 to $860,000.

Enter the owner who wishes to sell his home. I contacted the assessor to ask what “Appraiser’s Review” meant. According to the assessor, the notes in the computer stated that the “owner contacted the assessors office and stated that they believe that the property assessment did not reflect a high enough value.”

Wow. They keep records of why appraiser’s reviews take place. Even better for my purposes. The new assessment reverses two years of declining real estate prices. The new assessment was valid as of Feb 13, 2009 and was entered at $927,600.

On March 4, 2009, the house goes on the market for $1.125 mm. Now, that is still priced at a 21% premium to the tax assessment. Pretty aggressive. But if you go back the official County of Albemarle assessment, we are now 30.7% premium to tax assessment.

Personal thought: neither will fly. BUT… 20% over tax is certainly better than a 30% premium. And if other agents don’t really look through the history of the assessment, they may not even notice the change.

A note to the readers. In the City of Charlottesville, there are no history files available on assessment values for real estate. Only the current assessment is on line. You can contact the assessor’s office and they will give you the historical numbers, but their on-line information does not have the ability to display the history.

If any readers see additional homes like this, let me know, and I’m happy to look at the process.

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