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Talking Heads: Burning Down The House, S&P Style

February 5, 2013 | 4:48 pm | |

As the credit world was unraveling around them, email communications between analysts at S&P seems to be pretty damming to their neutrality position. And finally now the lawsuit. There’s a fascinating re-write of the great Talking Heads song “Burning Down The House” by an S&P analyst.

I’ve got the entire Talking Heads catalogue on my iPhone and I’ll bet that David Byrne and the rest of the ‘Heads never imagined their music would used to describe a global credit bubble.

Here is the S&P email with the revised lyrics – as the credit world was imploding…

“With apologies to David Byrne…here’s my version of “Burning Down the House”

“Watch out
Housing market went softer
Cooling down
Strong market is now much weaker
Subprime is boi-ling o-ver
Bringing down the house

Hold tight
CDO biz — has a bother
Hold tight
Leveraged CDOs they were after
Going — all the way down, with
Subprime mortgages

Own it
Hey you need a downgrade now
Free-mont
Huge delinquencies hit it now
Two-thousand-and-six-vintage
Bringing down the house.”

Wow. Their other songs like “Wild Wild Life”, “Road to Nowhere”, and “Psycho Killer” might have also done the trick.

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Falling Inventory Has Created a Housing “Pre-Covery,” not “Recovery”

January 28, 2013 | 9:00 am | |

I was speaking at the New York Real Estate Bar Camp recently and asked the audience what to call the state of housing market right now, since I objected to the use of the word “recovery” and “a period of better stats without underlying fundamentals” wasn’t catchy. Philip Faranda came up (more like shouted out) a brilliant suggestion. We’re in a “Pre-Covery!” I loved it and it stuck.

I thought about the new word when I read a great Robert Shiller piece in the New York Times this weekend called: A New Housing Boom? Don’t Count on It.

Shiller questions the substance of the happy housing news we’ve all been reading about:

It’s hard to pin down, because nothing drastically different occurred in the economy from March to September. Yes, there was economic improvement: the unemployment rate, for example, dropped to 7.8 percent from 8.2 percent. But that extended a trend in place since 2009. There was also a decline in foreclosure activity, but for the most part that is also a continuing trend, as reported by RealtyTrac.

What’s missing from all the metrics being tracked and discussed is sharply falling inventory – that’s what is driving prices higher even though little else has changed.

The reason for falling inventory? Sellers, when they sell, become buyers (or renters) and with >40% of mortgage holders having low or negative equity, they don’t qualify for the trade up. We have been so focused on negative equity that we’ve paid short shrift to the impact of low equity.

Not only don’t many sellers qualify – they simply aren’t under duress i.e. they haven’t lost their job, don’t need to move, etc. so what will they do when they realize they don’t qualify?

Nothing.

They expect/hope hope the market improves eventually.

This has created yet another form of “shadow inventory.”

Although I certainly agree that the long term trend of mortgage rates doesn’t really correlate with housing prices since rates have been falling for years, weak employment and personal income are not justifying the last 6 months of housing market improvement.

I see falling mortgage rates as simply keeping demand steady (but rates can’t fall much further) and falling inventory is either pressing prices higher or to stabilization depending on the market.

Here is a simplistic generic but typical scenario in most of the markets I follow over a 2 year window:

  • The number of sales in a market rises 2%.
  • The number of listings in same market falls 30%.

In this scenario the rise in sales is NOT working off inventory – the math doesn’t work so something else is in play – low or negative equity is choking off new listings entering the market against steady demand caused by falling rates.

Since low inventory is not a local market phenomenon but is happening in nearly every housing market I can think of (sales rising modestly and listing inventory falling sharply) it makes this a credit phenomenon. I like to say “housing is local but credit is national.”

To make this discussion really crazy we could even say that tight credit conditions are actually prompting the pre-recovery something that on the surface is very counterintuitive. But in reality, tight credit is choking off supply and low rates are keeping demand constant. Then prices rise.

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In the Context of Income, New York Prices Housing Prices are a Steal

January 28, 2013 | 8:00 am | |

Prices by themselves don’t tell the story of affordability. Income has something to do with it. Candy bars were only 20¢ in 1978 but I was only making $2.65 at my college job.

Catherine Rampell of NYT Economix blog posts a cool chart on the ratio of house price to annual household income from the IMF.

Housing prices are crazy expensive in Asia.

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Broken Appraisal: Lack of Market Knowledge Overpowers Lack of Data

January 27, 2013 | 6:06 pm | |

There was a really good appraisal story in the Sunday Real Estate Section this weekend by Lisa Prevost focusing on appraising high end properties whose theme is well-captured in the opening sentence:

As home sales pick up in the million-dollar-plus market, deals are being complicated by unexpectedly low appraisal values.

The higher the price strata of the market, the smaller the data set is to work with so the conventional wisdom seems to be that less data = more unreliable appraisals. However I believe the real problem is lack of market knowledge by more appraisers today as a result of May 2009’s Home Valuation Code of Conduct (HVCC) – the lack of data at the top of the market merely exposes a pervasive problem throughout the housing market.

To the New York Times’ credit, they are the only national media outlet that has been consistently covering the appraisal topic since the credit crunch began and I appreciate it since so few really understand our challenges as well as our our roles and relationship to the parties in the home buying and selling process. Appraising gets limited coverage in the national media aside from NAR’s constantly blaming of the appraisers as preventing a housing recovery (in their clumsy way of articulating the problem, they are more right than wrong).

Here’s the recent NYT coverage:

January 27, 2013 Appraising High-End Homes
January 11, 2013 Understanding the Home Appraisal Process
October 12, 2012 Scrutiny for Home Appraisers as the Market Struggles
June 14, 2012 When the Appraisal Sinks the Deal
May 8, 2012 Accuracy of Appraisals Is Spotty, Study Says
September 16, 2011 Decoding the Wide Variations in House Appraisals

The general theme and style of coverage comes about when Realtors start seeing an increase in deals blowing up that involve the appraisal. The Prevost article indicates that higher end sales are more at risk because the market at the top (think pyramid, not as in ponzi) is smaller and therefore the data set is smaller.

This may be true but I don’t think that is the cause of the problem but rather it exposes the problem for what it really is. I contend that the problem starts with the appraisal management company (AMC) industry and how it has driven the best appraisers out of business or pushed them into different valuation emphasis besides bank appraisals by splitting the appraisal fee with the appraiser (the mortgage applicant doesn’t realize that half their appraisal fee is going to a bureaucracy).

My firm does a much smaller share of bank appraisals than our historical norm these days but it is NIRVANA and we’re not likeley to return to our old model anytime soon.

Since the bank-hired AMC relies on appraisers who will work for half the market rate and therefore need to cut corners and do little analysis to survive, they generally don’t have local market knowledge often driving from 2 to 3 hours away.

Throw very little data into the equation as well as a very non-homogonous housing stock at the luxury end of the market and voila! there is an increased frequency of blown appraisal assignments.

There is always less data at the top of the market – the general lack of expertise in bank appraisals today via the AMC process is simply exposed for its lack of reliability. Unfortunately the appraisal disfunction affects many people’s financial lives unnecessarily such as buyers, sellers and real estate agents (and good appraisers not able to work for half the market rate and cut corners on quality).

The appraisal simply is not a commodity as it is treated by the banking industry. The appraisal is a professional service so by dumbing it down through the AMC process, they have succeeded in nearly destroying the ability to create a reliable valuation benchmark on the collateral for each mortgage in order to be able to make informed decisions on their risk exposure.

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[7-Year List Low] 4Q 2012 Queens Report

January 21, 2013 | 10:21 pm | | Reports |

We recently published our report on the Queens sales market for 4Q 2012. This is part of an evolving market report series I’ve been writing for Douglas Elliman since 1994.

Key Points

  • Although year-over-year inventory slipped nominally, it was the lowest fourth quarter total in 7 years.
  • Price indicators up from same period last year year.
  • Number of sales declined from year ago levels restrained by limited inventory.
  • Luxury market prices rise but not at pace of overall market.
  • Mortgage underwriting remains “irrationally tight” but record low mortgage rates and improving employment continue to drive demand.

Here’s an excerpt from the report:

…In the final quarter of 2012, the Queens housing market saw a sharp year-over-year bump in prices, a modest slip in sales and listing inventory, shorter marketing times, and less negotiability between buyers and sellers. The historically tight mortgage underwriting standards continued to hold the impact of record low mortgage rates in check.

Both price indicators pressed above prior year levels. Median sales price was up 13.7% from the prior year quarter at $390,000, the highest level in nearly 4 years. Average sales price showed a similar result, rising 9.4% to $432,503 over the same period. All market quintiles generally saw gains in median sales price compared to the prior year period…

Our Queens data tables are now updated for 4Q12 and charts will be available soon.




The Elliman Report: 4Q 2012 Queens Sales [Miller Samuel]
The Elliman Report: 4Q 2012 Queens Sales [Douglas Elliman]
Aggregated Custom Market Data Tables [Miller Samuel]


Having Fits With Appraisal In Home Buying Process

January 13, 2013 | 9:27 pm | | Public |

The New York Times Real Estate goes gonzo this weekend with a nice write-up AND a large color artwork on perhaps the least understood part of the home buying process.

No not the radon test…

The appraisal. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

Here’s my stream of consciousness on the topics brought up in the article:

  • “Sale and “Comparable” are not interchangeable terms. Really.
  • There is no ratings category for (like totally) “super excellent.” The checkboxes provide good average fair poor with “good” at top end (but fear not, “super excellent” is marked “good” and like total adjusted for).
  • Not all amenity nuances that are important to you as a seller (ie chrome plated doorknobs), are important to the buyer.
  • Not all amenity nuances that are important to you as a seller, are measurable in the market given the limited precision that may exist.
  • Not all appraisers have actually been anywhere near your market before they were asked to appraise your home, so technically they shouldn’t be called appraisers. Since their clients don’t seem too concerned about this, something like “form-filler” seems more appropriate.
  • Most appraisers who work for appraisal management companies are not very good, but some actually are.
  • When an appraiser makes a time-adjustment for a rising market, understanding whether a bank will accept that adjustment or not is (should be) completely irrelevant and quite ridiculous (unless they are “form-fillers” and not actual appraisers). I have always believed that the appraiser’s role is to provide an opinion of the value and that occurs in either flat, rising or falling markets.
  • HVCC was a created with best intentions by former NY AG Cuomo by attempting to protect the appraiser from lender pressure, but it has literally destroyed the credibility of the appraisal profession by enabling the AMC Industry.
  • The 12% deal kill average of an AMC an arm’s length sale properly exposed to the market is absolutely an unacceptably high amount and a major red flag for appraiser cluelessness about local markets.
  • I’ve never heard of a major bank since the credit crunch began who would throw out the original appraisal found to have glaring errors that would severely impact the result. My quote on this nailed that sentiment with brutal precision, if I do say so:
“You have a better chance of winning Powerball than getting a lender to abandon the first appraisal.”



Understanding the Home Appraisal Process [NY Times]

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[NYT] Donut Housing Market Economics Rebranded As “Hard to Trade-up” Market

December 26, 2012 | 2:06 pm | | Charts |

Back from a short self-imposed overwhelmed-with-year-end-deadline-work-blogging-hiatus. Hope everyone had a nice holiday.

So I’m a bit late but the donuts are still fresh…

Michelle Higgins at the New York Times wrote a great piece weekend before last on the current stratification of the housing market that I call a “donut.” Strong on bottom, strong on top and weak in the middle. Mortgage rates are pulling in first time buyers at entry-level and high end is being driven high net worth and international buyers, leaving a weaker middle. The NYT editors weren’t very excited about my “donut” analogy even when I suggested a more New York City-ish bagel or bialy. However the piece correctly focused on the challenges the “trading-up” market in today’s houisng market.

I had lunch with my friend Barry Ritholtz last week and he didn’t like my donut analogy saying it should have been a “barbell” – but seriously, can you put icing or frosting on a barbell? I thought so.

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Ignore The False Positives, Foreclosure Sales Are Rising Again Now

December 6, 2012 | 12:16 pm | |

,br> [click to open RealtyTrac Report]

RealtyTrac released their Q3 2012 U.S. Foreclosure & Short Sales Report which shows a pretty clear recent trend:

A timeline that counters the national “recovery” discussion over the past year. Record low mortgage rates and held back distressed activity goosed housing sales and price up using year over year comparisons.

I feel like I have to qualify myself as NOT being a housing bear (a distressed housing apologist) but I still can’t figure out the math: flat to falling incomes, high unemployment, rising taxes and tight credit = housing recovery? What’s missing? (memories of my contrarian sentiment feels the same as 2006, just not nearly so dire).

Distressed sales have been held out of the mix as RealtyTrac’s report shows in my distressed housing timeline:

  • 2008-2010 – Heavy foreclosure volume as a result of the fallout from the tanking economy and housing market
  • 2010 (fall) – Robo-signing scandal combined with huge backlogs in judicial states causes a sharp decline in distressed sales entering the market in 2011.
  • 2012 (1Q) Major servicer agreement with state attorneys general as distressed volume drops to its lowest crisis level.
  • 2012 Calculated Risk and other respected sources call the bottom (and they may be right) but doesn’t factor in the distressed sale phenomenon. “Bottom” does not equal “recovery” but rather it’s a step on the way to recovery.
  • 2012 (2Q) Distressed sales begin to rise again. By adding lower priced distressed sales in the mix, housing prices stabilize or slip next year nationally (I see Manhattan rising with low distressed exposure and limited inventory).

Foreclosure levels need to resume their elevated levels or we simply don’t create a real, sustainable housing market recovery. We won’t see a tsunami like 2010 as short sales continue at their high levels and the courts are still backlogged, but I believe we will see a more distressed activity in the next few years than we did during the 2012 lull and that will offset rising prices .

Call me crazy.



Q3 2012 U.S. Foreclosure & Short Sales Report [RealtyTrac]

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[NYTimes] What Could Disappear Interactive Charts

December 4, 2012 | 10:00 am | |

I’ve been remiss in not presenting the now week old interactive web page on the New York Times site called, alarmingly, What Could Disappear.

These maps are based on elevation data from the U.S. Geological Survey and tidal level data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Maps show the extent of potential flooding relative to local high tide. The 25-foot sea level rise is based on a 2012 study in the journal Science…

I think Sandy brought this conversation front and center in NYC. The Bloomberg administration brought this issue up last year.

While we are talking hundreds of years for an ominous 25 foot increase in sea levels, it’s a wake up call for cities located in low lying areas. How does this impact the future of real estate in these areas?



What Could Disappear [New York Times]

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Valuing the Light in Your Condo or Co-op

December 3, 2012 | 11:05 am | | Favorites |

Jhoanna Robledo over at New York Magazine squeezes light from my proverbial turnip and the result is a very cool graphic on one way to value light in an apartment in her piece “What’s the Price of Light?” The topic of view have been recently explored and floor level.

Light is perhaps the most subjective of the view-floor level-light trio but this is the logic our firm has used for years (based on the “paired sales” theory that isn’t very practical in an appraiser’s daily life) but I feel it’s a good starting point, and of course it depends on the nuances of each situation.

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Central Park Views Before and After One57

December 3, 2012 | 9:00 am | |

A lot is being made about the value of views these days.

The law of supply and demand is also in force. “If you look at the number of buildings that have a view of Central Park and you look at the shoreline of Manhattan,” Mr. Miller said, “the waterfront is a lot bigger. There’s a much more exclusive nature to having a park view.”

You can be on a very high floor and still lose a significant part of your view amenity as the following photos indicate. Views are nearly always discussed in the context of what is gained rather than what is lost. In NYC, no view is ever guaranteed. These were taken by one of my appraisers from the same spot from a high floor on a building across the street looking directly north over Central Park before and after One57 topped out.

Before

After

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Besides Being Your Personal Responsibility, It Just Feels Good To Vote #Election2012

November 6, 2012 | 12:41 pm | |

I cast my vote this morning and it just felt good. My wife and 3 oldest kids are all voting today. It represents the basic premise of our democracy and what our soldiers have fought and died for. Don’t give %%$#% excuses, just do it.

Check out Nate Silver’s blog FiveThirtyEight (my statistician hero) for updates. By the way, Nate Silver isn’t a witch.

As an added bonus, you’ll get a badge on foursquare by checking into a polling location – that should cure widespread voter apathy immediately, right?