Monday, March 30, 2009

Tempt the Fate of Average Buyer

With Average Buyer's two year anniversary quickly approaching, I wanted to get an idea what type of content you would like to see going forward.

I have posted a poll on the right-hand sidebar to gauge interest levels. If the majority are only interested in Sac Metro RE topics, the posts will not be as frequent, as I am no longer actively looking to purchase a home (and data sources are drying up).

Now that our search is over, I am having difficulties staying on topic. Hence I am trying to figure out if these posts are agreeable or annoying.

Blogs that stay on topic and provide relevant content tend to develop the best community of readers (joined by a common interest). The community that developed around this blog has been a great comfort to me (other frustrated potential buyers and onlookers). Outside this narrow niche, we seem to have very different views, so I hesitate to subject you all to my inner monologue on other topics.

All this to say, I would really appreciate it if you would take a moment to answer the poll. Or leave comments on topics you would like to discuss.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Dearth of Data

When we moved back to Sacramento in the fall of 2006, I was all set to buy a home. But quickly realized, after seeing the differential between rents and home prices, that buying was not a financially viable option for us.

In my attempt to reign in my very strong nesting instinct, not able to trust the realtors I had met, I turned to the internet where I found publicly available data. In particular, the data provided by zip code was the most relevant, when trying to discern trends in areas of interest. Through the local RE blogs, I found links to two separate sources, DataQuick and Melissa Data. It was nice to have more than one source of this data, to confirm trends, and ferret out bias.

Unfortunately, the favorite of my two, DataQuick has now stopped providing data to the Sacramento Bee, by zip code on a monthly basis (I finally e-mailed the Bee to inquire when it didn't show up this month). The best I can find is their data by city, which doesn't appear to corroborate with their previous data by zip.

This is a very frustrating turn of events, as this source of data was one of the best on the local housing market.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Is Mix Affecting our Median?

There seems to be a dogma that has developed over the last year, that the mix of homes makes the median home price unreliable. The argument goes, high end homes aren't selling, which means the median is particularly low due to the mix of low end foreclosed homes.

I would imagine this is fairly accurate for coastal cities, like the S.F. Bay Area, L.A. and San Diego, where jumbo loans are regularly needed.

But I am not so sure how much this applies to Sactown and other central valley cities. For mix to matter, you have to have a lot of high end or very expensive homes. Currently, in ZipRealty, there are around 9013 SFH in the greater Sac Metro area listed for sale, less than 15% of those are listed for more than $550k.** Thus only 15% of homes would need a jumbo loan given my assumptions (below). While 15% is significant, it is not enough to drastically alter the median for Sacramento the way some suggest. Of course the mix argument can affect pricier local zip medians, where a larger percentage of jumbo loans are required.

As they say, all real estate is local.

**My assumption was that $521K is the selling price for a home listed at $550 or less, which allows someone to meet the conforming loan limit of $417k if they have 20% down payment. I don't know what the conforming loan limit is for Sac anymore, so I just used the standby.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Can You Hear Me Now?

When looking at a home, there are certain criteria many consider: home layout, location, school district, price, neighborhood etc.

Having moved into our new place, I was reminded of another criteria that is growing in importance.......cell phone reception. Our home in the D.C. area, as well as our rental in Serrano both had terrible cell phone and radio reception.

It's something you kinda learn to live with....but it can be a big inconvenience, especially for friends or family that are visiting (you have to go outside to make or receive calls). For example, it caused my cousin serious anxiety as he waited for a callback on a job offer. He just graduated UCD and was staying with us for several days.

We probably wouldn't even have a home line if it weren't for my work needs. In fact, quite a few of my friends and family members have gone cell only. It's a great way to save $$, but is only viable if you get good reception at your home.

Our new place is up on a small ridge, so we now get much better cell and radio reception. Just one more thing to love about our new place =)

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Bountiful Backyard

Rather busy this week preparing for a conference...but I wanted to comment on something I read in the WSJ related to psychological depression trends (emphasis mine):

"They are taking cash out of the bank in preparation for a long-haul bad time. A friend in Florida told me the local bank was out of hundred-dollar bills on Wednesday because a man had come in the day before and withdrawn $90,000. Five weeks ago, when I asked a Wall Street titan what one should do to be safe in the future, he took me aback with the concreteness of his advice, and its bottom-line nature. Everyone should try to own a house, he said, no matter how big or small, but it has to have some land, on which you should learn how to grow things. He also recommended gold coins, such as American Eagles. I went to the U.S. Mint Web site the next day, but there was a six-week wait due to high demand."

I was rather surprised to read this, as it is reflective of my thinking as well. We went for a bigger lot (smaller house), which will allow us to grow fruit trees and have a garden. I figure not only is it fresh produce, that is more or less organic, but its also not shipped from Chile, and is a good hedge against supply disruptions or massive price increases. Of course this all assumes we have a green enough thumb to keep things alive, and the weather cooperates. Little did I know, the foothills are a great place to have a backyard orchard. On the problematic side, I had forgotten about the whole, you need two trees for cross-pollination to we'll see how far we actually get with this endeavor.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Uncertain Health (Off-Topic)

We are facing a bit of a dilemma regarding our health care coverage....and I was curious to hear how others might view this trade-off.

Mr. BT has coverage (which changed recently), so that we don't pay any monthly premiums, BUT the annual deductible is high, $3,000 per person (up to $9,000 per family).

I could get Kaiser through work, which would run us around $2,600 a year.

We have average health for our ages (some allergies etc.). So it boils down to, we could be certain to pay $2,600 or potentially pay between $0 - $9,000 a year. I am very risk averse, so I lean toward Kaiser (which I have had good experiences with in the past). But Mr. BT is leaning the other way.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

More Market Mayhem?

Okay, so perhaps I am a little naive, or maybe just bucking the tide of mainstream thought (again =). But I will ask the question, why can't we let the big financial institutions fail (albeit in an orderly fashion)?

The major argument for not doing this.... It would throw our financial system into a panic.

Well it seems to me, our markets are currently in a market conditions are now just as bad as they were shortly after Lehman failed back in September. The stock markets are back to 1997 levels.... I'm not sure how much worse things can get.

The other would wipe out shareholder value.

Some of these banks are trading for pennies on the dollar. Their value is largely wiped out at this moment. Hopefully individual investors are well diversified, so they won't feel the effects as much. (I recently heard a story of a very wealthy woman living off the dividends of a financial stock....very bad retirement strategy.)

Why can't we add a little fuel the the already hotly burning fire in the hopes that it would burn itself out more quickly? The analogies taking off a band aid quickly versus slowly.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Irony

Seems Sacramento is now being used as a beacon of hope....we made the NY Times.

"In inland areas of California, for instance, sales are surging now that prices have fallen sharply. But most of the sellers are not individuals but rather banks that foreclosed on homeowners who could not or would not pay their mortgages."

On the Move

High transaction costs greatly reduce the overall efficiency of the housing market. One reason we never moved to a cheaper rental was the cost and hassle associated with moving. Landlords & apartment managers know this, and use it to their advantage. Unless you are young or with few earthly possessions, no matter where you move, to a rental or a home, it’s hard to avoid some costs. I consider our move, relatively low cost by most standards (given how much stuff we have).

Moving truck for two separate weekends (Sunday for the house, Saturday for the garage): $120
Cleaning costs associated with rental home move-out: house $120, carpet $300, misc $50
Sandwiches and pizza for our family movers (aunt, uncle, brother, father, and friend): $75
Utilities one-time charges: $66
Additional rent: $600 (we allowed for a little over a week of overlap to make it more manageable).

So it cost approximately $1300 for a family of 4, living in a larger than average home to move. I should report, that there was no obvious damage to any of our things (the bottom of an IKEA dresser drawer was a bit busted up, not unexpected for press board). I am not counting some of the time we had to take off work (approximately 20 hours or so for the whole process).

I don’t count the $300 or so my husband dropped on our 67’ Dodge Charger to get it running, so it could be driven to the new house as opposed to towed. (He went to rebuild the carburetor and sheared off some of the screw heads, so he bought a new one.)

I should also note, in some ways, it was like Christmas in February, as we opened all the boxes we hadn’t unpacked while in the rental.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Market Stress Update - Back Where We Started

As of this week, NODs are back to the same peak levels prior to the enactment of legislation in California. The number of foreclosures has dipped slightly, but not in a very meaningful way.

This data still suggests to me that Folsom prices will have more downward pressure compared to El Dorado Hills. Looking at the ratio of REOs on, compared to total foreclosures (gathered from, only 26% of REOs are listed for Folsom, compared to around 52% for EDH. In other words, there is 74% REO shadow inventory in Folsom, and 48% in El Dorado Hills. Some of this is likely due to processing lags, but 75% seems awfully high to me.

Separately, the ratio of all foreclosures to total MLS listings is very high in Folsom, around 54%, compared to 28% in El Dorado Hills.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Fool Me Once Shame on You, Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me

When we bought our first home in the D.C. area, we muddled through the process, with many misgivings. We were highly reliant on the recommendations and advise of others. Internet searches for things like "closing costs" were incredibly generic, or specific to certain loans or regions. Hell, I didn't even know that realtor commissions were negotiable.

In any case, we learned many lessons from that experience, and hope some of the first-timers will not repeat our mistakes. Many of these items have been discussed on this blog over the last two years, but I wanted to put together a compilation (for easy reference on the side bar), now that we have officially purchased a home for the second time.

Consider all costs. Don't just look at the sale price of the home, but consider all the money you will spend to make the house what you want (remodeling/repairs etc.). I know this may seem basic to some, but it wasn't something that really occurred to us when we bought our first home. It's also a big reason we bought a new home here in CA, as opposed to a foreclosure. Buying a home that needs tons of repairs or remodeling requires a big chunk of cash or credit. With tighter lending standards and credit, it's more important than ever to make sure you properly account for these costs ahead of time. Having owned a home before, we were able to walk through homes and estimate these costs more accurately. The first time, we relied heavily on an inspector who was recommended by our realtor. It was a huge waste of $400. For example, a couple months after closing we found an exterior wall in our home was rotted due to moist soil against it.

When considering all costs, don't forget to account for taxes, and any homeowner dues. One of the reasons some developments seem so much cheaper than others, the extra fees and taxes. And of course, there are big variations in monthly costs, such as utility bills.

Shop around for homeowners insurance. Some of the quotes we received this time around were 2x higher than the policy we chose. We checked the CA insurance commissioners survey to get a feel for who had lower rates, then went to J.D. Powers to make sure the company was well rated.
The second time round, we were also much more cautious about the people we worked with. The first time, we went with a realtor based on a recommendation, and then used all the services he recommended (appraisers, loan officers, inspectors etc.). While this can be very helpful in some situations, there are also major pitfalls, say if kickback are paid.

Find out what items are negotiable, and what are usual and customary for your area. This applies to both the closing costs and items in the home. It seems in California homes rarely come with a fridge or washer/dryer. Whereas back East, they stay with the home. Window furnishings, hot tubs, etc. all tend to be negotiable.....If you are expecting something to be there when you move in (or not to be there, in one case for us...debris in the yard), make sure it's in the contract (a good realtor should be able to help with this). Closing costs add up quickly, so negotiating those away is always a plus. But in some cases it may be to your advantage to go the other way....for instance we offered to pay for more closing costs, in exchange for price concessions from the bank (which lowers our taxes).

In the hustle and bustle of offer and counteroffer on a home, don't ignore the financing aspects. Pay attention to interest rates, and educate yourself. We didn't fully understand the whole points/origination fee etc., or how brokers made their money. The Mortgage Professor has many good resources on this topic.

Please feel free to make other suggestions.....this is in no way an exhaustive list. Just what I can think of off the top of my head today.