Let’s continue the saga of Bob and Betty, our hypothetical first-time home buyers who were introduced in the first of a series of articles I’ll be writing.
We met at 9am sharp on Saturday morning at my broker’s office in downtown Palo Alto. Though it’s easier to view homes with clients during open house times, I prefer to do first time tours when nobody else is around.
I had an ambitious tour planned: 12 homes in 4 towns along the 101 corridor. Always exhausting for everybody involved — every time I do this I have more liking for the part of the Redfin business model where clients do this bit themselves! — but nonetheless an important part of the whole process.
While driving, I pointed out important things about the neighborhoods we were in: The typical types of homes, the price ranges, which school district it belonged to, whether it was unincorporated or not, whether it was in a flood zone, where the nearest parks and public services were. I asked them to comment on what they liked and didn’t like in each neighborhood.
At each home we went through the same process, slowly at the first couple of homes, and then more quickly. “What did you like? What did you not like? What did you think of that kitchen? Do you like skylights? Fireplaces?”
By the 5th home I’m usually able to “get it” about what clients are looking for, and with this new knowledge, I crossed out 3 of the remaining 7 homes we had to see.
Suitably tired, we pulled back up to the office around 1pm to review what we had seen, what they had liked, and what they had not liked. I explained the next bit of the process: getting pre-approved. I’m happy to spend a few hours as a sort of “interview” with prospective buying clients, but before I invest too much more, I need them to put some skin in the game too by getting pre-approved. I generally find that if they’re not ready to dig up their financial records and go talk to a mortgage broker, then most likely they’re not ready quite yet to buy a home.
Betty was quite excited about three of the homes we had seen, but it was clear that Bob was losing interest pretty quickly. “Yeah…but nine hundred thousand dollars?” was his most common refrain.
We pressed in on that. Bob had been doing his homework the last week and pulled out all the discouraging figures he had found. Housing starts are down. Interest rates are up. Affordability is down. Condo developments in Las Vegas and Miami are being cancelled. How in the world could prices stay where they are here?
Prices in the Bay Area are indeed a pretty head-scratching discussion topic as they continue to defy gravity, pessimism, and seemingly the laws of economics year after year. I told them bluntly that neither I nor anybody else could guarantee anything about prices here. It is indeed possible that prices could collapse…by 40%…overnight…immediately after they bought a place. Possible? Yes. Probable? No.
I pulled up my secret weapon, Google Earth, on the flat screen wall monitor in the conference room. I zoomed in on the Peninsula and asked two questions: 1) How much land is technically available to build on? 2) How much land is actually available to build on.
The answer to the first question is: tons! From the Bay going west pretty much to Highway 280, nearly every square inch of land is already filled in. From the 280 west to the ocean, there are only a smattering of towns, like Half Moon Bay, Pescadero, and La Honda. The mountains make it difficult to build in that area, but we could certainly fit several hundred thousand more homes there.
However…it ain’t gonna happen! Most of that land is owned and/or protected by Federal, State, County, or City governments, private trusts, conservatorships, parks, and so forth, and not much building is going on.
If you can’t go West, then you have to use the Manhattan strategy: go up. Again, that ain’t gonna happen. San Francisco and San Jose have modest but growing skylines of high-rise buildings, but in between it’s rare to find any structure taller than 8 or 10 stories, and for the most part it’s only up to 3 stories tall. Those zoning restrictions aren’t going to be changing any time soon.
Essentially, 50% of the classic economic supply/demand equation is pretty much fixed, so the real question is what will happen with demand?
Again, at least for the short and medium term, the answer to that is pretty clear: demand is, and will likely remain, robust. Google and other local tech companies are doing well. Venture capitalists are pulling out their wallets again. Start-up nirvana 2.0 is here. Immigrants from across the country, and indeed the whole world, continue to move here.
So, could prices fall by 40% overnight? Absolutely! But in the only scenario I can come up with in which that happens — a scenario which involves an earthquake, a terrorist attack, and bankruptcies of the top 5 tech employers in the area…all within 3 months of eachother — falling equity may not even make the top 10 list of concerns for many people.
We parted company, and they promised to get back to me within a few days about whether they were ready to proceed. I had my doubts, mostly about Bob.
Sure enough, a few days later I got a phone call from him. “We’ve decided to wait it out,” he said. “We’re just a bit nervous about these prices, and we’re not in a big hurry to buy.”
We agreed to keep in touch every few weeks and see how things developed.
Welcome to real estate in the Bay Area. Prices are high, and you need a certain amount of faith and intestinal fortitude to dive in for the first time.
Tags: Buy vs. rent, Buyer and seller tips, Choosing an agent, For buyers, Google Earth, Home buying, Previewing homes, Real estate, Redfin
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