Real Data SF – July 2013 Newsletter: Of Bubbles and Froth

The other day I was talking to a business-savvy fellow who has been looking to get into the real estate market since 2009. Back then, he recounted, everyone thought he was crazy to want to buy something. Ultimately he didn’t. Recently I introduced him to some clients of mine who were looking to partner up with someone on a “fixer” project. Surveying the $1 million prices “fixers” seem to be going for, he used the words “bubble” and “frothy” to describe what’s going on in SF right now.

Is he right? Let’s leave aside the question of whether we should consider homes “investments,” as we do stocks. (In general, I don’t think we should: click here for U.S. long-term home appreciation stats prior to the housing recovery.) Instead, let’s simply focus on whether, after 18 months of breath-taking price increases here in SF, we are already in a new housing market bubble.

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The View From Space: 2010

The View From Space

The View from Space – 2010

Ken Rosen is a smart guy.  He’s the co-chair of the Fisher Center of Real Estate and Urban Economics at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and the investment adviser of choice to some of the biggest players in real estate, from banks to insurance companies to REITS. Ken might not be able to appraise your house, but he could tell you how each sector of the real estate economy has fared anywhere in the country, and probably in many parts of the world.

Once or twice a year I spend the day in a windowless hotel conference room listening to Ken and some of the biggest heads in the real estate biz expounding on the state of real estate. These guys (and they are mostly guys) look at real estate through the lens of global macro-economics and finances.  Want to know where interest rates are going?  They study yield curves on T-Bills and monetary policy in the capitals of Europe.  This is “the view from space.”

I reported on Ken’s predictions from November of 2008 here. (Remember, we were already in deep doo-doo, though things got worse through the first quarter of 2009.)  Before moving into his predictions for 2010 and beyond, I thought it would be useful to see how well he did on on his forecasts for 2009:

The Ken Rosen Scorecard for 2009

  • Chance of a deep recession: 70%. Bingo.
  • S&P 500 at year-end under a deep recession: 850. Actual:  1115.   Woops (but who said the market was rational?)
  • The dollar: “Will continue to do well.” Nope, it lost ground.

Not a great batting average you say?  Truth is, I’m cherry-picking here.  Overall, Rosen’s message in November 08 was that things were improving, but that there would be volatiility and a long, slow recovery in housing.  Notwithstanding our brush with death in March  — Rosen put the chance of a deep recession at 5% — his prediction on that aspect of the market seems to be holding up well.  As for the dollar, given the gaping chasm that faced the global markets in the early months of 2009 – led by crashing and burning US financial institutions – the dollar’s decline shouldn’t be a surprise.

And as for the stock market and its amazing recovery, given what still seems to be looming on the horizon, I just can’t figure that one out at all.

Rosen’s Predictions for 2010

In terms of the shape of the recovery, Rosen estimates the chances of a “broken W”  — read fragile recovery – at 65%.  This is where I’m putting my money folks.

He estimates the chances of a more robust recovery at 25%, and that of a long , Japanese-style recession at 10%.

Expect a slow, fragile recovery, a bottoming out of the housing market, and rising long-term rates.

Estimates for the Stock Market, Year End 2010

S&P  1150; Dow 11,000

Advice for the Home-Buyer:

If there’s any good news here, it’s that Rosen thinks that the sector will come back fastest is single family housing.

Here’s the takeaway quote:

“Take advantage of the windfall tax credit and low interest rates if you’ve got a good job”

Rosen thinks that prices have bottomed (I’m not so sure).  But it does appear that

REO’s (properties taken back by the banks) have declined as a percentage of all sales, and that should help to stabilize prices.

From a socio-economic perspective, housing affordability has increased significantly due to low interest rates and price declines, and that can only be viewed as good if you believe that widespread home-ownership is a public “good.” (I do.)

What could go wrong?

In a moment of brilliant serendipity, Rosen’s co-chair at the Fisher School, Bob Edelstein — no small brain himself —  happened to sit next to me at lunch.  In the next 30 minutes we covered everything from wine to Waziristan.  His outlook was not as sanguine as Rosen’s.  We didn’t get into details, but my impression was that Edelstein was more concerned than Rosen about a jobless recovery coupled with higher interest rates driven by enormous deficits.

Once again, the magic eight ball says:  “Ask again later.”

Ask again later

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Focus on Cole Valley

Noe Valley has its 24th Street shops and cutesy cafés. Cole Valley has, well, its Cole Street shops and cutesy cafés. The two neighborhoods have been engaged in a friendly battle for the hearts of San Francisco homeowners for as long as I can remember.

After doing a guest post on Noe Valley price trends at theFrontSteps a few weeks ago, Alex, tFS’s friendly editor, suggested that I do a side-by-side comparison of sales trends in Cole Valley and Noe Valley.

Great idea, I thought! Trouble is, Cole Valley sits within a tiny subdistrict of the MLS  (see the pink area below?) and as a result, there very few transactions from month to month.


That makes data crunching hard.  Maybe even meaningless. Check out the white bars in this chart (click). They represent the number of single-family home sales per month back to January 2003.  (Number of sales is tracked on the right side of the chart; percentage change from “high” is tracked on the left side.)


You can see that there are many months where only one or two houses sold. There are some months where there were no sales at all. It’s tough to extrapolate monthly sales trends under those circumstances and dangerous to assume that an “all-time high” is meaningful when it’s based on only one or two data points.

So instead of running percentage changes off of median monthly values, as I had done for Noe Valley, I ran the percentage changes off the “95th Percentile” value of all sales occurring between January 2003 and April 2009. The 95th Percentile value represents a “high”, while excluding the potentially aberrational top 5% of sales.  Aren’t you glad you asked? (Special thanks to my wife, Nina, who looks over my shoulder at a lot of my statistical analyses — she’s the one with the one with the PhD in data-crunching.)

After looking at this chart, I sort of threw up my hands.  With only 179 sales in over 6 years, it’s not sensible in my view to draw conclusions about monthly trends in Cole Valley, let alone to compare them to Noe Valley, where the “core” area alone — Subdistrict 5C — had over 900 sales during the same period.

So I re-ran the numbers and calculated medians based on annual sales.  The second chart (click) shows the results.


I think this is much easier to understand.  Again, with so few sales, one should be careful about drawing any conclusions, and with only 5 sales in 2009 so far, I think it’s too early to conclude that the apparent drop in median prices for 2009 will continue to be accurate.  Rather, I’d say that Cole Valley seems to have been holding up pretty well.

Stay tuned.  I can’t help myself.  Coming up, Cole Valley and Noe Valley go head to head.

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