While the Bay Area housing market has had its ups and downs much of this year, a couple of segments of the market remained resilient through much of 2011. In previous columns, I’ve talked about the strong rebound in the luxury market from Silicon Valley up through Marin. But one other sector has also played an important role in keeping the overall real estate market going: the investment segment.
According to DataQuick, the La Jolla-based real estate information service, absentee buyers – real estate investors for the most part – bought one out of every five single-family homes and condos in August. Buyers paying cash accounted for more than a quarter of sales. And short sales – those transactions where a home sells for less than the homeowner owes on the mortgage – added up to another 20 percent of sales.
The trend has caught the attention of the local news media with the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury both running long articles on the topic in recent weeks.
In her article, Chronicle reporter Carolyn Said noted that, “Real-estate investors have become a potent force in a moribund housing market…” She went on to say that, “despite record low interest rates, many consumers simply don’t have enough confidence in their economic outlook to buy houses. Investors have kept prices from falling further…”
Today’s market is extremely attractive to investors. Record low mortgage interest rates, coupled with very favorable asking prices for distressed properties and other entry level homes, mean that rental income can easily cover the expenses for a new landlord owner. And given the volatility in the stock market and with other investments, real estate is looking like a better and better alternative.
While not everyone would agree, I think real estate investors are playing an important role in our market. When they buy, they’re often upgrading properties that in many cases are badly in need of maintenance. They’re helping to clear out the supply of vacant, bank-owned properties that can be a blight on neighborhoods. And in general, they’re reducing the huge inventory of distressed properties that serve to keep all home prices down.
“The market would be quite a bit sicker were it not for investors snapping up a lot of the properties,” Andrew LePage, an analyst at DataQuick, told the Chronicle. “They account for a meaningful portion of the demand. To the extent to which there’s at least a temporary floor under this market, they’ve helped to build it.”
However, real estate investors – many of whom are paying all cash for entry-level properties – are making it hard for some first-time buyers and others to compete for those homes. Given the choice, it’s understandable that a seller would opt for a cash offer that’s likely to close quickly rather than take their chance that a buyer can secure mortgage financing.
Unlike past investors, today’s new landlords are generally not expecting to quickly flip a home for a profit, according to the Chronicle story. Instead, they see are seeking reasonable returns by simply owning and managing a rental property.
Realtors who work with these buyers say that many are first-time investors who like the long-term potential of investing in real estate over other investment vehicles. With prices and interest rates this low, they reason, there may never be a better time to jump in.
As we head toward the end of 2011 and the new year, I suspect more “average” buyers will come to the same conclusion.