Home prices have finally hit a wall on the West Coast
Slow sales and supply spikes indicate that homebuyers are regaining the upper hand
By Jeff Andrews Oct 16, 2018, 3:30pm EDT
Home sellers have had it easy over the last few years. Housing demand has risen along with the improving economy, and home builders have struggled to build at a pace that keeps up with that demand. The result was a shortage of housing inventory that allowed sellers to sit back and let buyers bid up the price of their home.
But data from the last two months suggests that the housing market is entering a new stage, especially on the West Coast, where home prices have risen beyond most people’s capacity to pay. Instead of bidding wars, houses are sitting on the market longer, and price cuts are becoming more common. Buyers are starting to regain the upper hand.
“If we’re right, nationally, we’ve already entered the early stages of a buyer’s market,” writes Rick Palacios Jr. director of research at John Burns Real Estate Consulting. “Should supply levels cross above five months we’ll be watching for flat [or] possibly declining resale prices in some markets, especially where affordability is already very stretched.”
Housing supply constraints have been a primary factor in driving prices up, but there are signs this is changing. Data from the National Association of Realtors shows that “months of supply”—a leading indicator of housing supply that divides the number of active listings by the pace of sales—has ticked up year-over-year in the last few months after years of declines.
But real estate experts often say there’s no such thing as a national housing market—new homes for sale in New York, for example, don’t mean anything for people who live in San Francisco—and the spikes in supply are most pronounced on the West Coast.
Some of the biggest jumps are in markets that have been red hot over the last 5 years, namely the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Denver. Active real estate listings in September were up by a whopping 113 percent year-over-year in San Jose, 81 percent in Denver, 47 percent in Seattle, 33 percent in San Francisco, 34 percent in San Diego, and 12 percent in Los Angeles.
But the trend isn’t limited to the largest markets, as smaller cities across California, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon have seen jumps as well. Of the 30 markets that showed the highest spikes in active listings in September, 19 are in those four states.
While the number of active listings has risen, home sales have fallen dramatically across the U.S., as inventory woes and affordability constraints continue to drag down the market as a whole. But as with supply spikes, home sales are falling by double digits in some markets on the West Coast. In September, home sales were down 24 percent year-over-year in Seattle, 16 percent in San Jose, 16 percent in Los Angeles, and 13 percent in San Diego.
The combination of more homes on the market but fewer sales means that despite surging demand for housing, homes are sitting on the market. And given the affordability crisis sweeping across America, especially on the West Coast, this points to only one thing: Home prices have outpaced wages in these markets and people simply can’t afford to buy.
In Southern California, the year-over-year rate of home price appreciation—meaning the rate at which home prices are going up—began to decline in the spring and has continued to do so into the fall. Northern California was a little later to respond, but San Jose and San Francisco registered their first year-over-year declines in September.
“This is a sign of weakening demand relative to supply, particularly when you see multiple months of decelerating [home price appreciation],” said Daren Blomquist of ATTOM Data Solutions, a real estate data provider. Blomquist noted that data in some of the smaller markets can be volatile from month to month.
Another wild card in this dynamic is rising interest rates, which are once again approaching 5 percent. Rising rates were cited as a possible cause of last week’s stock market selloff, and the housing market is particularly sensitive it. When interest rates rise, monthly mortgage payments go up.
For markets where home prices have already hit their ceiling, rising rates will likely cause home prices to drop just because something will have to give for people to be able to buy a home. Unfortunately for home buyers, the price drop won’t result in lower payments, just that they will pay less on the principal of their mortgage and more on interest. Regardless of where rates go, though, home prices on the West Coast markets where supply is up and sales are lagging appear to have nowhere to go but down.