- George Bailey,
"It's a Wonderful Life"
The most expensive home ever sold in America occurred over the weekend in "The Hamptons," Long Island's playground for the one percent. Just a week before that a Greenwich, Conn. estate sold for $120 million. At the same time, the percentage of America's first-time home buyers is at its lowest level since 2008. What does that say about homeownership in the United States? American income inequality is taking on an even uglier caste as it impacts the real estate market. The recovery in housing over the past two years has been highly unusual. This time around, it has been led largely by institutional investors, hedge funds, private equity firms and wealthy individuals. These astute investors, flush with the cash they had made in the recovery of the financial markets, took advantage of the 35 percent decline in housing prices and the new rental demand of 5 million foreclosed homeowners who were forced to find a new place to live.
These entities spent more than $20 billion to buy up over 200,000 homes which they rented or resold (flipped) as the housing market climbed. All-cash sales have become so prevalent that in the first quarter of 2014 almost 43 percent of all residential property sales were transacted in this way. That's up from 38 percent in the previous quarter.
At this point the big money has been made and the institutions are winding down their purchases. Wealthy individuals, second-home buyers and the occasional owner-occupant buyer, who have the cash, are entering the market.
Thanks to the Fed's tapering, mortgage rates have climbed, while stricter credit standards following the crash have shut out the rest of us from any hope of tapping the mortgage market.
As the American middle-class disappears, so too will homeownership at an accelerating pace and what's worse, there is little hope for the future. Consider, for example, those young, first-time home buyers. Rest assured that "the kids are not okay." Struggling with high college debt, low-paying jobs (if any) and high monthly rents, the younger generation has little chance of cobbling together the money needed for the 10-20 percent down payment required to purchase a home, even if they could get a bank loan. The reality is that the only borrowers most banks will lend to are those who don't really need to borrow in the first place.
Sure, prices have appreciated and in several locales, mainly along the nation's east and west coasts, sales of $1 million homes have spiked 7.8 percent over the past year. But at the same time, there has been a 7.5 percent drop in overall home buying during that same period.
One wonders who these new, all-cash buyers are going to sell these properties to in the years to come. By definition, there is only one percent of the population that can afford to buy or borrow. How many jumbo loans can banks make before borrowing dries up? Evidently, U. S. lenders are seeing the handwriting on the wall and are cutting jobs in their mortgage lending divisions in advance of further downside.
Clearly, the housing market is stalling and even Janet Yellen, the Chairwoman of the Federal Reserve Bank, worries that "the flattening out in housing activity could prove more protracted than currently expected, rather than resuming its earlier pace of recovery." As my readers know, almost all of the country's income gains from 2009 to 2012 flowed to the top one percent of earners. It is becoming clear that the same thing has happened in the real estate market. That leaves 99 percent of us who will either remain property-less or who will live in our present abode for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately for America, as housing falls prey to the growing trend of income inequality in this country, the future prospects for all of us continue to dim, especially among our young.
Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management.