Analyst says real estate market falls into 3 types

Nation's Housing

May 27, 2006|By KENNETH HARNEY

Could the real estate action be shifting to the heartland - the vast swath of middle America that never really was touched by the hyperinflationary housing boom?

That's what a new statistical analysis of housing price cycles in 100 major metropolitan areas suggests could be over the horizon.

The study's author, Christopher L. Cagan, director of research and analytics for First American Real Estate Solutions, examined historical housing price movements and concluded that metropolitan real estate markets can be classified into three distinct behavioral categories:

Linear markets, where booms and busts virtually never occur.

Prices plod along, year in and year out, gaining modestly. Local changes in economic growth may nudge prices up or down, but the moves rarely are dramatic.

Much of the middle American heartland fits in this category. Examples include Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis; Houston; San Antonio; Memphis, Tenn.; Atlanta; Cincinnati; Des Moines, Iowa; and Louisville, Ky.

Cyclic markets. These are the shooting stars of housing booms, and generally they are along the East and West coasts, where household incomes are higher and land for new construction is in short supply.

Such markets include most of California from the San Francisco Bay area south, much of Florida, metropolitan Washington and Baltimore, New York and much of New England.

When conditions are ripe - as they have been recently - annual housing gains in these areas can exceed 20 percent to 30 percent at the cyclical peak. Typically, however, the local booms burn themselves out by pushing prices to unaffordable levels.

Some "cyclic" markets experience jolting corrections that knock prices down by 15 percent to 25 percent, as occurred in Southern California in the early 1990s after a multiyear boom.

Other markets' corrections may be less severe; appreciation rates dwindle to the low single digits or go flat for awhile, then begin the upward cycle all over again.

Hybrid markets. These are areas that have linear, slow-growth characteristics for periods, followed by periods of moderate "cyclic"-style appreciation. They never boom quite like Florida or California, but they also never need to correct like the more volatile markets either.

Cagan includes Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit and Phoenix in this category.

In Cagan's analysis, the balance of the decade will offer significant investment opportunities for "linear" real estate markets - at least those with expanding employment bases and moderate housing prices.

Most of the "cyclic" markets "are at, or have already passed, the peak" of their cycles, he says. Absent unseen economic shocks, the shooting-star markets aren't likely to crash or burn. They're just not likely to see anywhere near the price growth they've gotten used to in the recent past.

On the other hand, according to Cagan, "linear" markets - especially in Texas, Colorado and the energy belt areas of the Southwest - appear to be poised for above-average price increases and home building.

"Texas is the real beneficiary" of the energy crunch squeezing the rest of the country, said Cagan. Not only is job growth strong, but housing prices are relatively moderate and affordable.

"Look at the median home prices in Dallas and Houston. Property there looks cheap" from the perspective of California or Washington, D.C., or New York, said Cagan, whose research firm is headquartered in Santa Ana, Calif. - one of the flashiest shooting star markets.

Equally important: The major heartland markets are nowhere near their home price growth limits, based on Cagan's examination of household incomes. Beyond that, in Cagan's view, many of the heartland metropolitan areas "are basically very nice places to live and work. They've got good schools, lots of parks and open space, plus you can afford to buy a home with a median income."

Those qualities could accelerate population movements: Families and companies in high-cost, high-tax "cyclic" markets might consider relocating to more affordable interior areas of the country with solid local economies and pleasant living environments. There is anecdotal evidence that some of that is already under way.

Cagan believes federal tax policies could support the trend as well. He envisions homeowners in equity-fattened but high-cost "cyclic" markets cashing in their appreciation gains and putting their $500,000 tax-free exclusions into real estate in more moderately priced markets.

Bottom line here: Understand where you are in the market cycle and adapt. Slower appreciation shouldn't hurt "cyclic" markets; to the contrary, it should eventually allow incomes to catch up to home prices. Improved affordability will help get the new cycle rolling again.

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