Linkage in Income, Home Prices Shifts: Survey Finds Some Homes Underpriced
Home prices in some of the nation's hardest-hit metro areas have fallen far below pre-bubble levels, stirring concerns that properties in those markets are undervalued.
In a recent analysis, real-estate firm Zillow Inc. studied the correlation between home prices and annual incomes over the 15-year period that ended in 2000, before home prices began to surge.
For decades, price-to-income levels have moved in tandem, with a specific housing market's prices rising or falling in line with local residents' incomes. Many economists say that makes the price-to-income ratio a good gauge for determining whether housing is undervalued or overvalued for a given market.
Zillow found property prices in one-third of nearly 130 housing markets across the nation were undervalued, when compared with residents' current income and the pre-bubble trend.
"At a broad level, it is helpful to understand that if people in certain markets paid three times their average income in housing before the bubble, those markets are probably going to get back to that level," said Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow.
The analysis underscores a broader point: While the nation's housing markets largely fell and rose together during the housing boom and bust, they aren't likely to hit bottom and begin recovery at the same time or pace. The Zillow analysis shows that many markets still appear to be overvalued.
For the U.S. as a whole, home prices were around 2.9 times incomes from 1985 to 2000. But during the housing boom, values increased at a much faster rate than incomes. The price-to-income ratio peaked at around 5.1 in 2005. Home prices have since fallen so that on average, nationally, prices are around 3.3 times incomes, or about 14% above the historical trend.
Of course, prices have fallen much faster in certain markets. In Las Vegas, home prices are now 25% below their historic price-to-income trend of 2.7. During the housing bubble, that ratio more than doubled to 5.6. Home prices have been falling for the past five years, and by March, prices were just 2.1 times household incomes.
Home prices are undervalued by 35% in Detroit; by 18% in Modesto, Calif.; and 13% in Fort Myers, Fla.
"Values dropped so far that there are just great bargains," said Dan Elsea, president of brokerage services for Real Estate One in the Detroit area. For years, layoffs in the automobile sector contributed to a "total freeze on activity," he said. But over the past six months, as the industry has recovered, "you have this dam burst of people saying, 'We're ready to buy.'"
Elsewhere, prices are so low that more investors are scooping up foreclosed properties and renting them out. Since March, Ron Leis, a real-estate agent in Sacramento, Calif., has spent about $500,000 to buy four foreclosed properties that have been converted to rentals. Investors can cover their monthly costs and make an 8% to 12% profit "pretty easily," he said. "We haven't seen that in 20 years."
Prices have fallen in some markets that didn't see a big runup in home prices, such as Rochester, N.Y., and Dallas, leaving them slightly below their historic price-to-income levels.
Housing also has grown more affordable thanks to mortgage rates,falling to near their lowest levels since the 1950s. Last week, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 4.32%, according to a survey by Freddie Mac.
Aaron Holley hadn't even thought about buying a home until he looked into consolidating his student-loan debts and saw how interest rates and home prices had fallen. "I never actually thought there was going to be the possibility of me owning a home in the state of California," said Mr. Holley, 29, who last month bought a three-bedroom home in Santa Rosa, Calif., for $260,000. He locked in a 4.38% fixed rate on a 30-year mortgage.
Zillow's report shows that home prices in Santa Rosa are around 4.9 times area incomes, down from a peak of 9.4 in 2005 and back to levels not seen since 1999. Prices are still higher than the 1985-2000 average of 4.1 times incomes. The prospect that home prices will decline further "bothers me a little bit," says Mr. Holley, who works as a concept artist for a videogame company. "But at the same time, I feel like I got a good deal."
Some of the most overvalued housing markets, according to the Zillow analysis, include Virginia Beach, Va.; Honolulu; and Charleston, S.C. In Virginia Beach, Va., for example, prices would have to fall by 50% to hit their traditional relationship to incomes.
Other areas where price-to-income levels show that housing is still overvalued, such as Washington, D.C., may not see prices fall further due to structural changes in the economy. Second-home markets that have more out-of-market homebuyers also tend to have more volatile price-to-income levels.