The Overstated COVID-19 Blame on Urban Density in Favor of Suburban Living

May 20, 2020 | 1:06 pm | Explainer |


[NYC.gov]

One of the pieces of conventional wisdom we have picked up during the COVID-19 crisis is that high-density residential living will be less favored. The city to suburban migration pattern is already beginning in New York City and could last several years. The rising number of suburban single-family rental inquiries from the city has provided the initial evidence of a trend. City residents seem to be looking to test drive the suburbs and commute to their city job when “shelter in place rules begin to ease.”

Unfair Reputation?

New York City has developed a national reputation as a hotbed of Coronavirus infection because of our higher density. We live a lot closer together than a sprawling suburb in Dallas and have a greater dependency on public transportation such as the subway and buses instead of driving cars. I live in Fairfield County, Connecticut, a bedroom suburb of New York City with a county-wide COVID-19 ratio of 1068 deaths per its 943,332 population. Dallas County, Texas, had 153 deaths per its 2.636 million people. My county has a wildly higher death rate than a county that contains an urban core like Dallas.

Is the city to suburban trend sustainable?

New Yorkers buy into the urban to the suburban narrative, so I believe the push to the outlying NYC metro suburbs could be quite significant in the near term. While the outbound migration began a few years ago, it is not clear whether the trend can continue for more than a few years. The pattern could ultimately be different from what is currently expected including:

  • A boost for second-home markets: There might be an influx of demand to areas the Hudson Valley, Northern Connecticut The Hamptons, and the North Fork, to name a few. Consumers made begin to view a second home as an equal asset to the primary home to have similar quality options. This potential trend would be contrarian to other significant economic downturns as second-homes are not considered “second-priority.”

  • And because the implications of the SALT tax will remain in place on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis, Florida and Texas can make a compelling pitch to New York City couples with small children cooped up in 1,000 square foot 2-bedroom apartments right now. They are realizing they aren’t as tethered to their work location as they once thought – and schooling via Zoom is not all it’s cracked up to be.

I think that the high-density lifestyle of New York City is what makes living there so great. I’ve lived in or around New York City since the mid-80s. Before we moved to the city, my dad used to proclaim:

Where else can you buy strawberries at 3 am in the morning?!?!?

Placing strawberries aside, I remain skeptical that the urban to suburban outbound migration can be sustained long term. We saw the same outbound pattern after 9/11 and then an inbound return only a few years later.

Density is not the only reason

Urban density is just one reason for the high COVID-19 infection rate that is driving outbound migration. It is not the reason. Other factors influencing the disparity in the infection rate include neighborhood characteristics such as wealth, commute time, and the concentration of multi-generational households.

The map above confirms the argument that it’s not all about density – the highest infection rates are in the “suburban-like” areas of the city including Staten Island and the outer reaches of Brooklyn and Queens. Manhattan, home for many of the tall commercial and residential towers the city is famous for, has the lowest infection rate.

These Manhattan results might help maintain the enthusiasm for that occasional 3 am strawberry run to the corner market.

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Median sales price can be subject to skew by consumer behavior more than math

May 12, 2020 | 11:19 am | Explainer |

Here’s an updated excerpt from my Housing Note newsletter dated October 28, 2016, digging into the median sales price. You can subscribe to Housing Notes and other housing resources for free.


I wrote about the median sales price a decade ago, and the message still holds. A couple of years ago, I whipped up a table that shows how median sales price can perform in a changing housing market. The median sales price is the default price trend indicator of real estate because it eliminates the extreme highs and lows of a data and merely represents the middle number. However, it is also subject to skew by consumer behavior that can overpower the math. So I always provide two to three price trend indicators depending on the quality of available information (average sales price, median sales price, median sales price) for all of the reports in my Elliman Report Series. The relationship between median and average sales price can also tell a story.

Click on the graphic below to expand.

medianexplained

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Contract Data Is Pending Data Is Lagging Data

April 29, 2020 | 11:50 am | Explainer |

In our post-Coronavirus world, it is clear that market conditions and our understanding of the future are subject to change every day. In my prior post Establishing the COVID-19 Demarcation Line: From ‘Hanks To Banks’, data that falls after the line represents a different market.

So how do we determine what data falls in after the demarcation line? It’s not as straightforward as it sounds.

Throughout my career, I have seen brokerage firms publish pending/contract reports, touting pending trends as more reliable than reports based on closings. I don’t look at them as better or worse, just a different way to look at the market. The simplistic, uninformed argument for pending sales is that contract dates occur before closing dates, so they are more current. Incidentally, contract prices are not readily shared. I get all of this. Yet I have seen the failure rate of contracts be as high as 40% – in other words, many contracts might not close whereas closing reports are solely based on successful transactions. Still, pending sale trends are useful as long as the reader understands their shortcomings. I plan to develop one someday.

Closing data and contract/pending data lags the “meeting of the minds.

Meeting of the minds (also referred to as mutual agreement, mutual assent, or consensus ad idem) is a phrase in contract law used to describe the intentions of the parties forming the contract. In particular, it refers to the situation where there is a common understanding in the formation of the contract.

While we know that closing dates lag the “meeting of the minds,” we also need to understand that signed contract dates are lagging indicators, often by 2-4 weeks. During this crisis, I’m speculating the failure rate will be high initially, and the time lag will be on the longer end rather than, the shorter end of this 2-4 week range.

Here’s why contract dates are a lagging indicator and not necessarily more insightful than closing data:

1) The “meeting of the minds” occurs when buyers and sellers negotiate price and terms, usually facilitated by a real estate agent or broker.

2) The price and terms are handed off to transaction attorneys who work together to craft language agreeable to both parties.

3) The contract is signed by both parties and often indicated as such in an MLS-type system.

4) In some markets or marketing periods, especially when a market is cooling, many contracts never close, so their initial inclusion makes pending trends reports suspect.

If there is a four week signed contract lag from the meeting of the minds, and considering the March 15 demarcation line for post-Coronavirus, that means that with us being six weeks into the crisis, we are only able to see two weeks worth of post-Coronavirus data. And even with that reality and current shelter in place rules, many current contracts might have been older deals that were facilitated by the buyer who had already inspected the home in January/February – we are seeing some of that now.

In other words, relevant data on the new market remains extremely limited.

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