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There’s always something to howl about

Brett Arends from the Wall Street Journal on Zillow’s morning gloom report: “All this bearish news makes me bullish.”

Our friends at Zillow.com have figured out the secret to getting news coverage: Bad news:

Home values in the United States fell faster in the first quarter of 2011 than they have in any quarter since 2008, when the housing market experienced its worst performance, according to Zillow’s first quarter Real Estate Market Reports(1). The Zillow Home Value Index(2) fell 3 percent from the fourth quarter of 2010 to the first quarter of 2011, and declined 8.2 percent year-over-year to $169,600. Home values have fallen 29.5 percent since they peaked in June 2006.

Negative equity reached a new high mark with 28.4 percent of single-family homeowners with mortgages underwater at the end of the first quarter, up from 27 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010. A homeowner is in negative equity when they owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth.

Meanwhile, foreclosures(3) rose throughout the first quarter as banks unfroze moratoriums and allowed foreclosures to resume. Foreclosures had fallen in late 2010 due to the slew of moratoriums brought about by the “robo-signing” controversy. In March, one out of every 1,000 homes in the country was lost to foreclosure.

With substantial home value declines, as well as increasing negative equity and foreclosures, Zillow forecasts show it is unlikely that home values will reach a bottom in 2011. First quarter data has prompted Zillow to revise its forecast, now predicting a bottom in 2012, at the earliest.

“Home value declines are currently equal to those we experienced during the darkest days of the housing recession. With accelerating declines during the first quarter, it is unreasonable to expect home values to return to stability by the end of 2011,” said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Stan Humphries. “We did expect substantial payback from the homebuyer tax credits, which buoyed the housing market last year, but underlying demand post-tax credit, as well as rising foreclosures and high negative equity rates, make it almost certain that we won’t see a bottom in home values until 2012 or later.”

My own take is that we are at or near the knee in the curve: While supplies of fire-sale-priced homes may be abundant, resale prices are by now so low as to make cash-rich investors completely nuts. In Phoenix in April, our values were up for the homes we track. Doesn’t mean we’ve turned the corner, but big drops from here seem unlikely to me.

Meanwhile, here’s a bullish rejoinder to Zillow from the Wall Street Journal:

Remember Japan’s “zombie banks”? These were the financial institutions that haunted that country’s economic recovery after the 1990 crash. They staggered on with huge losses they could never repay — the walking dead.

Here in America we have “zombie homeowners.” Millions of them. According to Zillow, a record 16.3 million families are upside-down on their home loans. Sixteen million! And many are a long way upside-down. Their homes may never be worth as much as their mortgage. But they are hemorrhaging cash to pay the nut every month.

Recovery? What recovery? This looks a bit like a depression to me.

What does this mean?

All the misery makes me think of a great French general, Ferdinand Foch. He’s the one who defended Paris at the Battle of the Marne in World War I. During the darkest hour of the fighting, he is supposed to have looked around him and said:

“Hard pressed on my right. My center is yielding. Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent — I attack!”

In other words, when it comes to distressed housing, I’m finding it hard not to be a contrarian bull.

Why? Am I crazy?

Well, maybe. But I’m a medium-bull for all the reasons everyone else is gloomy.

First, prices in many areas are now cheap. They have corrected a long way since the bubble began to burst five years ago. Of course, it depends on where you are. I’m still skeptical of the real-estate markets that have held up best — prime stuff like Manhattan, San Francisco or Beverly Hills. It’s hard to get a deal there.

But in the places that have fallen the furthest, there are deals aplenty. Zillow found only four metro areas in America that have leveled out, or risen, lately. Notably, two of those are in stricken Florida — Fort Myers and Sarasota. Have they fallen so far they’ve hit bottom? Maybe.

Look at this chart. It shows Miami real-estate prices, adjusted for inflation, over the past quarter-century, using Case-Shiller data. The picture is pretty remarkable. The gigantic bubble has been completely wiped out. We’re back to prices seen in the 1980s — when “Miami Vice” was on the air.

The second reason: There are tons of foreclosures and short sales on the market. And there are plenty more sitting in the wings. Banks are holding back big shadow inventories of homes. And that means you can get a great deal. They have to sell. You don’t have to buy. You hold all the cards. Remember, the name of the game isn’t “let’s make a deal.” It’s “take it or leave it.”

Third, in many places rental yields are terrific. It’s cheaper to own than to rent. There have been some forced sales in my building in Miami. Based on my math, the latest buyers have bought condominium units for six times gross annual rents, and maybe 12 times net rents. We’re talking net yields of 7% or more. And rents are rising, because so many former owners are now renters.

The fourth reason I’m bullish is that you can get a very cheap mortgage. Thirty-year conforming loans are going as low as 4.3%. Throw in the tax break on the interest, and you are talking cheap finance. See latest weekly mortgage-rate update.

The fifth reason is that, as painful as this collapse has been, real estate has historically proven to offer very good long-term protection against inflation. Returns have typically averaged about 1% or 2% above inflation. At a time when everyone has been piling into gold, commodities and TIPS bonds to protect themselves against the possibility of inflation, it seems odd that the most popular and successful hedge, namely real estate, goes a-begging.

Thirty-year TIPS bonds are yielding just 1.6% over inflation, and shorter-term bonds offer even lower returns. Short-term TIPS are actually offering negative real yields. How holding TIPS may actually make you poorer.

The sixth reason I’m bullish is perverse, but I’m sticking by it. Everyone else is bearish. You cannot find a real-estate bull anywhere. No one wants to own this asset. No one wants to talk about it. No one wants to hear about it. Everyone seems to agree it’s just going down, down, down — forever.

They said much the same about stocks in 1987, 2002 and 2009; Treasury bonds in 1982; and gold in 2000. I cannot prove this is capitulation, but it sure smells something like it.

As ever, if you aren’t disciplined and patient, this probably isn’t for you.

I have absolutely no idea when real estate is going to hit rock bottom. It may take several years. I suspect it will do so in different markets at different times. But there are good homes out there going really cheap. If you hunt down the bargains, you’re disciplined about price, you get the right financing, and you hold on for five years or more, you’ll probably do pretty well from here.

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  • 5 comments

    5 Comments so far

    1. Thomas A B Johnson May 10th, 2011 6:51 am

      1. Zillow is trying to raise money for their IPO.
      2. Zillow’s money is held by the Wall St. Banksters.
      3. Wall St. Banksters hate residential real estate-they can’t trade it and they can’t analyze it without leaving Manhattan. Their idea of far away is a trip to Washington DC to bribe the SEC.
      4. Zillow needs to cash out and they will do what their patrons require.

      Meanwhile, let’s go sell someone a screaming deal that will out perform a bloated fee laden mutual fund.

    2. Al Lorenz May 10th, 2011 1:35 pm

      The rental market is strong, and seems to be something of a footing for housing prices. In my market, vacation rental prices are strong and that is a foundation for investors that is putting something of a floor on prices. I’m closer to the WSJ than Zillow on all of this. Certainly, time will tell.

    3. Greg Swann May 11th, 2011 11:23 am

      Phoenix in real life:

    4. Greg Swann May 11th, 2011 11:31 am

      > In my market, vacation rental prices are strong and that is a foundation for investors that is putting something of a floor on prices.

      This is where I live, most of the time. I have more investors who want to buy houses than I have houses that I think are worth investing in. It’s not that fun of a problem to have…

    5. Jon Kolsky June 29th, 2011 2:38 pm

      Zillow fools the public with lack of transparency,zillow even allows “fake people” to be their top contributors? Zillow needs reform and transparency before I will use them.