Bubble Talk: 4 Things Every Investor Needs to Know About the Housing Market

The housing market may not be headed for meltdown, but you should be ready for obstacles in the future.

U.S. News & World Report

What Every Investor Needs to Know About the Housing Market

Closeup of a man calculating payments for a home.

Plan ahead and be prepared for future changes to interest rates and housing in general.(Getty Images)

Despite the sometimes dramatic headlines, the risk of the U.S. experiencing another housing bubble like what happened during the Great Recession is decidedly low in the current economy. In fact, a repeat of the 2008 to 2009 housing meltdown would require a number of different factors to once again come together. Individual markets aren’t immune to bubble speculation, but there are few indicators currently present at a national level that have the potential to crater the entire housing market.

That said, let’s indulge the “bubble believers” for a moment by taking a look at the major factors that contributed to the last housing crisis and draw comparisons with what we see in today’s market.

Subprime Mortgage Market

At the root of another housing collapse would be the widespread availability of easy-to-secure mortgages to almost everyone. To steal a line from the film “The Big Short”, “The whole housing market [would have to be] propped up on these bad loans” – again. While it’s certainly possible this scenario could repeat sometime in the future, it is not presently a factor in today’s economy.

  • Then: In 2005, the annual origination volume (the value of all the new loans created) of subprime loans (the riskiest types of loans, due to the low credit score of the borrower) was more than $620 billion.
  • Now: In 2015, there were just $56 billion in new subprime originations, representing a 91 percent decline in the volume of overall subprime loans. Subprime loans now make up only about 5 percent of all mortgages, whereas they captured over 20 percent of the entire mortgage market in 2005.

Source: Inside Mortgage Finance; Equifax

New Home Frenzy

In the years leading up the crisis, mortgages were being handed out like candy, and as a result the rates of homeownership skyrocketed. People weren’t renting, they were buying and subsequently production peaked in an attempt to keep pace with demand.

  • Then: In 2005, there were 1.28 million new single-family home sales, the highest figure on record in the 52 years the U.S. Census Bureau has tracked the category. Much of this was fueled by speculative demand from investors and an aggressive lending environment.
  • Now: In 2015, there were 500,000 new single-family home sales, a 61 percent drop from the peak and also 30 percent less than the average of the previous 51 years of census data. In 1968, there were roughly the same number of new home sales (490,000) as there were in 2015. Despite having added 121 million people, the current demand for single-family homes is similar to a bygone era with a much smaller population base.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Following the housing crash, there was not only a surplus of single-family homes flooding the market with supply, but mortgage lending also tightened dramatically, thereby limiting buyer demand and laying to rest concerns over a national housing market crash. So what, if anything, should concern investors about today’s housing market?

Local Bubbles

While many markets like Denver and Dallas have rebounded surprisingly well from the recession due to organic housing demand (demand that is caused by employment and population growth), there are several markets that have rebounded at an even stronger rate without the benefit of these economic fundamentals.

A good example of this inorganic rebound is the downtown Miami condo market, where demand from Latin American investors drove condo prices through the roof and sparked a construction frenzy – adding 8,000 condo units to the downtown area over the course of the past three years.

As the U.S. Dollar strengthened and the pool of foreign buyers dwindled over the last 18 months, the Miami market was left vulnerable and is now feeling the pain. There are nearly 3,400 condo units available today, and with slower sales, that equates to nearly 2 1/2 years’ worth of inventory. That supply overhang has already begun to impact values with downtown condo prices, down 6 percent in the first half of 2016.

Understanding local market dynamics and demand are essential for investors to avoid potential pitfalls like the Miami condo bubble. It’s also important to understand that while some economically solid markets (Austin, San Francisco, etc.) may be experiencing unsustainable price appreciation, because they are not adding new inventory at a rate exceeding organic demand, prices are more likely to flatten than outright decline.

Rising Interest Rates

Despite the topic’s prevalence during the past 23 Federal Reserve press conferences, the Fed has only raised interest rates one quarter of 1 percent. The truth is that the economy is still spongy and soft from relatively slow GDP growth, somewhat misleading employment gains that don’t account for underemployed workers, shaky personal savings rates and a challenging credit environment.

The Fed is cognizant that rising rates might stall the modest ongoing economic revival. But rates will rise at some point – and you should be prepared.

There are two ways rising interest rates can impact you as an investor: how it can affect homeownership and how it affects your ability to finance your rental portfolio. If everything stays the same as it is now but rates go up one percent (100 basis points), even fewer people may be able to qualify for a mortgage because of the cost implications.

If taken at face value, an interest rate hike would be advantageous for rental property owners since a decline in homeownership would funnel more renters into the market, driving rental rates up and vacancy rates down.

That said, the reality in most U.S. housing markets isn’t quite as dramatic since most would still be deemed affordable despite an uptick in rates.

Where it becomes sticky in a rising interest rate environment is if you own a financed rental property or are purchasing a financed property and the loan matures in the next several years. In this scenario, there is the potential for yield compression (lower returns), negative cash flow, or even defaulting on your loan.

To mitigate these risks, your two options are to either refinance or pay off the loan in full. If refinancing, understand that increased rates will drive your loan payment up, further eating into your property yield. This can be offset by a number of tactics like increasing rent or reducing other expenses, but there is no guarantee of the availability or effectiveness of these options.

As an investor, you have to be very cautious and aware of what your exit opportunities are when selling a property following an interest rate increase. If you sell to another investor relying on financing, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to sell at a price that makes sense since the buyer is most likely stuck with the same terms you are. A more attractive option may be to find a cash buyer who likes the property or sell it as an unoccupied property in the traditional residential housing market.

The truth is that everyone likes to speculate about the future of the real estate market and speculation about a new housing bubble makes for good media fodder. Don’t get caught up in the noise of another housing bubble. Instead, think in more practical terms – what’s your investment strategy, do you understand your risks and do you have a contingency plan?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Investability Real Estate Inc. or any other Altisource entity. The foregoing content is not intended to constitute, and in fact does not constitute financial, investment, tax or legal advice by the author, Investability, Altisource or any other entity. All investment decisions carry inherent risk, and no Altisource entity shall have any liability with respect to any investment decision made based on the foregoing content.

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