Are Bay Area Home Prices Going Up Again? What's Going On Here?

We’ve seen some seriously conflicting housing headlines recently…

The data looks bad:

Case-Shiller: Home Prices Continued to Fall in January

Case-Shiller March Breakdown for San Francisco Bay Area

RadarLogic: Housing Bottom Still Out of Sight

Existing Home Sales Slowed in February

Just How Weak Is The Demand For New Housing?

The median price of Bay Area homes sold in February continued to decline.

Realtors: Bay Area Home Sales and Prices Fell in January

But anecdotal evidence is building that the housing market is catching fire again:

Bidding Wars Erupt as U.S. Supply of Homes for Sale Falls – Bloomberg

Buyers compete for short supply of homes in Bay Area – Mercury News

Peter Giovannotto is smack in the middle of a major shift in the Bay Area housing market.

The Peninsula real estate agent recently had a modest Palo Alto ranch-style home draw 38 offers and sell in eight days for nearly a half-million dollars more than the asking price, all par for the course in Palo Alto’s overheated real estate market.

“We started at $1.2 million and ended up selling for $1.65 million,” he said.

The Bay Area’s Hottest Housing Market

Are There Really Buyers? Yes, There Are!

So which is it? Are things getting better? Or worse?

The answer is both, if you consider the situation in the proper context.

First off, all of the data points are backwards-looking. For example, Tuesday’s Case-Shiller report includes data from November, December, and January. And homes sales and price data for January or February involves homes that went “pending” at the end of 2011 – a full three or four months ago.

Home prices are driven by Supply and Demand. Not enough homes for sale relative to demand for in a zip code, town, or given street and prices go up. Or, if there simply isn’t enough demand to soak up local supply, Sellers end up lowering prices to compete for Buyers. This Winter was probably the low-point of Demand relative to Supply.

Starting in March or so, we’ve started to see Demand pick up, relative to the still tiny Supply of homes for sale. The result: the bidding wars that we are starting to hear about. And while each zip code and block are different, it’s safe to predict that home prices have indeed bottomed (for now), and will begin rising slightly this Spring.

But that’s not the end of the story…

A Bottom, Not The Bottom

In order to decide if this is “the” bottom for housing prices that we’ve all been waiting for, we have to put where we are at in proper context. We know that Supply and Demand has shifted once again to favor Demand – but is that shift real? Or just a statistical blip?

After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that artificial forces caused home prices to rise before resuming their slide.

Remember all of the foreclosure moratoriums, loan modification programs, and homebuyer tax credits? They brought temporary (and fake) home price increases in the middle of a larger decline.

Consider this “head and shoulders” chart I put together in 2010:

 Are Bay Area Home Prices Going Up Again? What's Going On Here?

Bay Area Home Prices have continued to decline, as predicted, along that dotted line. Here is the most recent Case-Shiller chart:

 Are Bay Area Home Prices Going Up Again? What's Going On Here?

So is the the real bottom or another head-fake? To answer that, we have to look at the larger issues at play. On the Supply side, we have an enormous shadow inventory of homes that should be for sale but are not. These include all of the would-be foreclosures and short sales that are currently in some sort of loan mod (of which most will re-default) or holding out hope for a principal reduction. These also include all of the Sellers who want to move or downsize, but haven’t been able to at today’s prices, and all of the new homes and condos in the pipeline to be built and sold.

Is there really enough Demand to soak up all of this Supply in the coming years? Even without tax credits and if interest rates go up again or employment remains weak?

Some believe there will be. Notably, Bill McBride of Calculated Risk:

There are several reasons I think that house prices are close to a bottom. First prices are close to normal looking at the price-to-rent ratio and real prices (especially if prices fall another 4% to 5% NSA between the November Case-Shiller report and the March report). Second the large decline in listed inventory means less downward pressure on house prices, and third, I think that several policy initiatives will lessen the pressure from distressed sales (the probable mortgage settlement, the HARP refinance program, and more).

Of course these are national price indexes and there will be significant variability across the country. Areas with a large backlog of distressed properties – especially some states with a judicial foreclosure process – will probably see further price declines.

And this doesn’t mean prices will increase significantly any time soon. Usually towards the end of a housing bust, nominal prices mostly move sideways for a few years, and real prices (adjusted for inflation) could even decline for another 2 or 3 years.

But most homeowners and home buyers focus on nominal prices and there is reasonable chance that the bottom is here.

To which I responded:

While this logic is sound from an economic perspective, I worry that McBride has fallen into the same traps that ensnare too many economists: ignoring both the artificial forces driving the data and the social mood bubbling beneath it.

Most of the fundamental problems we had back at the peak of the bubble still exist today:

  • Home prices were out of line with incomes……. CHECK
  • Hoards of homeowners were living paycheck-to-paycheck……… CHECK
  • Too many people were reliant on home equity and credit cards to support their lifestyles……. CHECK
  • Too many people were stretching to live in homes they really can’t afford…… CHECK
  • If home prices fell further, more homeowners would give up…… CHECK
  • There was no mobility. Nobody had the equity to upgrade, downsize, or move to a new town to take a new job….. CHECK
  • The market is dominated by investors…….. CHECK
  • Millions of people who shouldn’t own homes somehow did….. CHECK
  • There are millions of bad loans on bank balance sheets and losses needed to be recognized….. CHECK

Nothing has really been fixed.

The Grand Illusion

Today we are at a crossroads. Most of the fundamental problems that existed during the housing bubble and bust still exist today. They haven’t been solved, but simply kicked down the road.

We are extending and pretending that everything is okay, hoping the illusion will last until the day when things actually are okay again. If the illusion holds, Bill will be right and we may indeed see home prices rise from here. But if the illusion begins to break down and fundamentals rear their ugly heads, prices could continue to fall again.

Personally, I expect Bay Area home prices to strengthen this Spring and Summer. Not because Demand is booming (though the newspapers will report it that way), but because there simply isn’t anything for sale. Supply is SO low, that it won’t take much Demand to see prices start to rise.

But by the Fall and Winter, I would expect Supply to grow again. I expect we will see a lot more short sales coming to market – mostly HAMP rejects and people who finally give up waiting for a principal reduction. And by the beginning of 2013, after four full years of cutting back, I expect more foreclosures will finally start to hit the market. I don’t expect an outright flood of Supply and collapse of home prices, but I do expect 2013 will look more like 2011 than 2012.

In Five Reasons Why Home Prices Aren’t Bottoming Yet I wrote:

I believe that Uncle Sam will continue doing everything it can to spark Demand while restricting Supply. The result will be most likely the next couple of years being very similar to the last couple of years – with national home prices down another 10% or so. It will be a continued slow, muddled, death-by-a-thousand-cuts process.

IF the job market continues to improve and IF somehow Uncle Sam can convince the millions of underwater homeowners not to walk away despite even lower prices, I wouldn’t expect anything dramatic to happen. Maybe prices drift lower another 10-15% over the next 2-3 years before setting down at roughly where they should be relative to historic incomes, then flatten or even begin to rise.

However, if underwater homeowners start walking away in greater numbers, things could get ugly fast.

In the near-term, we can watch how low the housing Supply is this Spring and Bill McBride will probably be right that prices could stabilize into the Summer and Fall. But beyond that, the willingness of underwater homeowners to hold on, and the willingness of today’s 20-and-30-something’s to buy homes will determine what happens with home prices. Social mood will be driving this train – and that something that economic models have a very hard time predicting.

Beware the bottom-callers who will be out in droves this Spring and Summer. There is still a lot of this story to be written.

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About Greg Fielding

I am a longtime real estate agent who has pretty much seen it all during the housing boom as bust. With experience in selling high-end property and low-end foreclosures, raw land, short sales, development work, apartment buildings, and working with investors, I bring a well-rounded perspective to my work.I also have started to do some paid real estate consulting. If you have questions or just need some good real estate advice, book an appointment at addition to selling real estate, my insights have been featured in The New York Times, The Big Picture, and regularly on I have also done consulting work with ForeclosureRadar.Starting my career, in 2003, I have sold homes throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties, specializing in Danville, Alamo, Blackhawk, San Ramon, Dublin, Pleasanton, Walnut Creek, Lafayette, and Orinda. I live in Danville with my three kids.

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8 thoughts on “Are Bay Area Home Prices Going Up Again? What's Going On Here?

  1. Aston

    Spot on. Love how you pointed out the second shoulder on the Case-Shiller graph.

    I’d also add that I trust hard data over anecdotal evidence any day of the week. The realtor associations have got this marketing tactic down to a science: they know that if they produce enough noise in the media, you’ll be distracted from reading articles that present actual data.

  2. Tom Stone

    The timing of the price bottoms will be different in different areas of Sonoma County and will also differ among price tiers, I do think prices will stabilize late this fall or next spring for homes in the $1MM and under ranges. I do not expect much appreciation over the next decade except among really exceptional properties and by stabilizing I do not mean flatlining but no more than 5% movement in inflation adjusted dollars.

  3. ginsucutlery

    Thank you for this – thank you! My wife and I have been patiently waiting out the housing bubble – determined to only buy a home we can afford and that is not a financial mistake (to the extent one can ever be sure of that).

    It is very hard to continue to be patient in the current environment with some many housing bulls touting a turnaround. The situation is quite volatile – similar to a stock market with extremely low volume – yes prices can move quickly, but what is it telling you?

    It is obvious to me that some markets are still overpriced, and jumping in now is not yet wise. I think CR has a more national view in his discussions (though I know he follows some CA markets personally), and some areas may well have hit bottom – but only because they corrected enough!

  4. Greg FieldingGreg Fielding Post author

    some areas may well have hit bottom – but only because they corrected enough!

    Totally true. No reason to wait any longer to buy a home in Modesto. Every town and neighborhood has had a different experience.

  5. Tom Stone

    There are a couple of very nice estates here in the $1.5MM-$2MM range that are priced hundreds of thousands of dollars less than it would cost to replicate them. 11571 Green Valley rd 95472 is priced at least $250k less than reproduction cost. There are 11 properties in that price range near sebastopol and only 5 are worth a serious look. In some cases this is due to the price, in others the quality.

  6. Jackie

    curious what you think about the situation in Mountain House. My husband and I bought in Fremont CA in the 1st time home buyer bubble (April 2010) and we just sold at a loss from that. Now we are looking at Mountain House and wondering whether to wait it out. I know things have bottomed in Modesto/Stockton, but I’m not sure about the Mountain House area—they seem a little inflated to me right now and I’m thinking of waiting until the fall….. your opinions would be appreciated

  7. Greg FieldingGreg Fielding Post author

    I wouldn’t be so sure that things have bottomed out in Stockton, Modesto, or Mountain House. Those places all continue to have some of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation, combined with massive unemployment. If you found a great place where you would happily live for 10 years, then there is nothing wrong with buying. But there is certainly no reason to rush into anything.

  8. Ting

    Hi Greg, do you think prices will go down in the Oakland area in fall/winter 2012 and in 2013 or will it continue to rise? I am looking to buy in this area and it’s ridiculous how much prices have risen in just the last quarter or two and there is hardly anything on the market! I’d appreciate your thoughts!

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