At condoflip.com the website's headline reads "Bubbles Are for Bathtubs." These brave words are intended to assure would-be amateur real estate speculators that there is no excess air in the housing market and that, if they buy now, they will reap profits shortly thereafter. Well, yes, if they wait long enough.
In the meantime bubbles are for bathtubs because the champagne pop has gone out of the market for condos and stand-alone homes. In the San Diego area, where prices have been running wild for years, attendees at a recent rock concert were given fliers promising a free car if they bought a condo.
In Las Vegas builders are throwing in swimming pools, granite counter tops and passes to golf courses to induce people to buy a house. In Maryland, house shoppers are being offered free fireplaces, hardwood floors and forty-two-inch plasma televisions sets. Centex, a major home builder in Dallas, has decided to ape the automobile industry with employee discount prices, which, let's hope, work out better in housing than they have at General Motors.
As the market continues to loosen up, the incentives dangled in front of shoppers grow more varied. In some places they take the form of developers paying closing costs, providing finished basements or even season tickets to professional football games.
Buyers' remorse is afflicting people who signed up for a new house just before the pop. In May an Alexandria, Virginia, couple bought a $796,000 townhouse that was still under construction. Imagine their consternation on finding out that even before they had moved in other houses in their development were selling for $100,000 less than they had paid. "We blithely stepped into the contract, thinking it would hold its value," the homeowner told the Washington Post, "but that's not the case. I knew on a theoretical basis that it might go up and it might go down, but now I know it on a practical level."
That a house should lose almost 15 percent of its value in just a few months is not surprising. The Post reports that the number of houses for sale in that area has more than doubled in the past year. But this situation is not unusual. Reports from around the country indicate that inventory is piling up.
Then there is the housing that has not yet reached the market. It is estimated that no less than 47,000 condos in the Washington, DC, area are in the pipeline and will come on the market in the next three years. Reacting to the abundance of unsold houses, the rate of new construction everywhere is slowing.
When too many dollars are chasing too few houses, prices go up; when too few dollars are chasing too many houses, prices go down. But how far down is anybody's guess. Some people are expecting that 10 percent or more of recently purchased condos will be going into default and will have to be repossessed. If anything like that were to occur across the board, we would see a lot of distress and a lot more houses on the market.
Adding to the uncertainty are future mortgage rates. They have been going up for the past year and at their present level, somewhere around 6.5 percent, the experts tell us they are already biting into sales. There is so much voodoo thinking about interest rates, there is no way of predicting how people will react.
Some people, if they can afford it, will take their homes off the market if they cannot get the price they have fixed in their noodles. For millions who do not regularly feed their savings accounts--and that apparently is most Americans--the equity they have in their house is about the only asset they really have. Presumably, those who need to sell will hold out for a high price as long as they can.
Housing drives prosperity the way automobile sales once did. If this market merely plateaus for a while, we will have survived one more bad scare. Otherwise, hold your breath.