Sunday, April 25, 2010

Arizona home values may depend on mindset of buyers

by Catherine Reagor - Apr. 25, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

The psychology of the metropolitan Phoenix housing market is at a crossroads.

Decades ago, the market was a mix of long-term and short-term buyers: People who saw a house as their home, and people who saw a house as a box of equity to cash in at the first good opportunity. Long-term homebuyers were the dominant segment.

But over the years, enticed by famously steady home appreciation, the short-term speculative segment grew. Nationally, people hung on to their homes for seven to 10 years. By 2000 in Phoenix, people were selling and moving up every three to five years.

In 2000, the psychology of the metro Phoenix housing market reached a tipping point, and the speculative segment took off. Years of steady appreciation on what were still considered affordable homes stoked demand. Arizonans jumped from one house to the next. And affordable prices and steady gains attracted thousands of buyers from California.

New banking practices created easy-to-obtain equity loans and low-down-payment mortgages that drove speculation even higher. Short-term buyers, including record numbers of investors, turned metropolitan Phoenix into the hottest home market in the U.S.

The bubble burst in 2008, and the market crashed. But the speculative segment still dominates the metro Phoenix market in the form of investors, from financial institutions
to small-time landlords, snapping up thousands of foreclosure homes with the expectation that a market recovery will lead to quick profit.

As Arizona leaders try to work out of the recession and chart a new course for the state's economy - one less susceptible to the boom-and-bust cycles, less dependent on growth and real estate - the psychology of the housing market will be a factor. Will speculation continue to drive the market? Or will people with longer-term goals take it back?

This is the story of how speculation came to dominate the market and what the prospects are going forward with a housing market based on homes for living or homes as equity.

The shift

The dominant shift from long- to short-term motivations in the metro Phoenix housing market began in the mid-1990s when, for the first time, new kinds of loans allowed homeowners to more easily tap the equity in their homes.

Lenders began packaging second mortgages as home-equity lines. Second mortgages had been considered risky for decades. But encouraged by steady appreciation in home values, consumer demand took the loans mainstream. Even the new name, "home equity loans," focused on the positive and not the added debt of a second mortgage.

Lenders sent out waves of mailers and phone solicitations offering low-interest home-equity loans. Rates on the second mortgages were often lower than those on homeowners' first mortgages.

Home values continued to climb. Homeowners tapped their equity to expand and renovate, even to buy other homes.

By 1999, some lenders were so bullish on metro Phoenix's growth and rising home values that they offered homeowners second mortgages for up to 125 percent of their home's value.

People from other parts of the country, particularly California where the average house cost twice as much, saw they could afford a new home in Phoenix and watch the value rise 15 percent to 30 percent in only five years.

Arizona's population swelled on speculation, jumping from 4.2 million to 6 million in 12 years. In 2005, metro Phoenix home sales hit an all-time high of 165,000.


Amid the shifting financial dynamics, the cast of homebuyers also changed.

Before the boom of 2004-06, investors accounted for about 20 percent of all homebuyers. New residents, first-time homebuyers and homeowners selling to move up accounted for more than 75 percent of the market.

Investors were clearly speculating. But now so were many more homebuyers. Some hopscotched through homes, tapping equity at each new address.

During the boom, more out-of-state speculators caught on to Phoenix's equity play and pushed it. These investors used new loans that allowed them to buy with little or no down payments. More metro Phoenix homeowners tapped their equity and joined in the buying spree.

Speculative, short-term goals drove the home market. Houses sold in hours, often amid multiple bids.

Home sales, building and prices shot past anyone's wildest expectations. In 2006, metro Phoenix led the nation for home-price appreciation. In one year, home prices climbed 50 percent.

Many metro Phoenix homeowners who didn't sell or buy other homes during the boom still cashed in, tapping their equity for trips, cars, TVs and furniture.

The result is well-documented. Metro Phoenix home prices flattened out in 2007 as home sales slowed. By the end of 2008, home prices and sales had both dropped more than 35 percent. By March 2009, the region's home prices had plummeted 50 percent.

Today, home sales are again running near record levels. But the dynamics are different.

Investors actually represent an even bigger share of the purchases - about 50 percent of current homes sales. But most are buying low-cost foreclosures. The dollar amounts may be lower, but speculative buyers dominate the market even more right now.

Many investors believe the low prices guarantee a good return when Phoenix's market comes back. They are willing to pay cash and wait.

Meanwhile, most Phoenix-area homeowners are stuck waiting for values to rebound.

People who bought during the market peak find themselves so far away from that rebound, so far underwater with their mortgage, that they cannot or do not want to wait. So they are walking away, putting more homes into the distressed foreclosure market for more investors to buy.

Back to ownership

The psychology of the Phoenix housing market can go either way as a recovery takes place.

Some buyers, including the high number of investors, will continue to count on Phoenix's rising values to flip houses for profit - houses as boxes of equity.

Phoenix has long attracted investors. But before the boom, many were typically landlords who planned to hold on to their properties for many years. Investors who bought foreclosures in the past 18 months may want to flip them quickly. But based on recent forecasts, they will have to hold on for at least a few years to make a profit.

"Today's smart investors aren't short-term housing speculators," said Tom Ruff, an analyst with real-estate data firm Information Market. "If they are, they're foolish and will lose money. There's no place for wild speculation in Phoenix's housing market now."

Other people, chastened by the devastation of the crash, may return to long-term goals - houses as homes. The question for metro Phoenix's future is how many. As many as 40 percent of all metro Phoenix homeowners are currently underwater, meaning they owe more on their mortgage than their house is worth.

That former large middle band of average homebuyers who used to dominate the Phoenix market is sitting or stuck on the sidelines for the time being. When that large segment of average buyers returns, their mind-set probably will determine the psychology of the overall market - speculation vs. longer-term goals.

Arizona leaders - perhaps more than in the past 15 years - are now thinking about economic stability, how to build a more reliable, sustainable economic base that will carry the state steadily into a global future.

The psychology of the metro Phoenix housing market will be a critical piece of that future.

The return of a more dominant long-term mind-set that sees houses as homes could help anchor a new economic model, a plan that looks beyond the next growth boom. A continued short-term, speculative view could maintain the larger boom-and-bust cycles that have characterized Phoenix's economy for the past 50 years.

"Nothing is inherently wrong with counting on your home appreciating, but a lot of people got carried away," said Jay Butler, director of realty studies at Arizona State University. "Valley homeowners created self-fulfilling Ponzi schemes on themselves by betting on rising home prices, tapping more equity and taking on more debt until everything collapsed."

Economists and housing-market watchers say the housing bust could signal the end to metro Phoenix's boomtown days.

That will depend on what people are thinking when they return to the housing market in significant numbers.

Arizona home values may depend on mindset of buyers

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