NY Times Article on the Austin Real Estate Market: A Backcountry City with Manna from Heaven?

21 02 2008
Lady Bird Lake

This goes to show you, not all news is bad. But as John Stewart aptly stated [referring to mainstream reporting] last night in a humorous interview with Larry King, “at this point, unfortunately, you have to judge each piece of [news] material. There are very few [news] organizations left that have a credibility savings account that they can draw on anymore.”

So while this piece comes as a breath of fresh air in the long chain of doom and gloom national market reports, I caution readers from reading too much into the headlines [both positive and negative] simply because the national media says it’s so. If you are buying or selling in Austin, study the market and more importantly the neighborhood and street in which you are looking, then make your assertions about the market.

That being said, I did agree with much of what the article had to say, minus the characterization of Austin as a backcountry city. It has its quirks, no doubt. But for a city that doubles in population every 15 to 20 years and has the number 1 projected GMP growth for the entire US [32% over the next  5 years],backcountry it is not. The secret is out, Austin continues to be a destination. 

Here’s the NY Times article:

February 15, 2008
Some Cities are Spared the Slide in Housing 
By Clifford Kraus and Ron Nixon
Correction Appended

AUSTIN, Tex. — The real estate market these days is a tale of two Americas, and one of them is not doing too badly.

In the America of big-city housing markets, especially on the coasts and in the struggling industrial Midwest, the huge run-up in values in recent years has given way to big drops in prices and sales volume. Millions of people owe more than their houses are worth. 

But in the other America, specifically in cities like Austin; Grand Forks, N.D.; Yakima, Wash.; and Salem, Ore., the available evidence suggests the real estate market is holding up. Prices there never boomed as crazily as they did in the big cities, and now, even though volume is down almost everywhere, prices in many of these towns are firm or rising.

Consider the experience of one Austin resident, Dan Clark. Forced by a job change to put his house here on the market, he wondered whether he would get anything like the $385,000 he paid for it a year ago. He was floored when the second potential buyer to look at the place snapped it up for $429,000. “Manna from heaven,” he said.

Many people are aware that a handful of big-city markets, like Manhattan and San Francisco, have largely resisted the real estate slide. It is less widely known that the same thing is true in scores of smaller markets.

“I would call them backcountry cities,” said Robert J. Shiller, an economist at Yale University and an expert on real estate markets who predicted the bursting of both the housing and stock market bubbles of recent years. “They are just going through normal growth, and they are out of the bubble picture.”

In figures released on Thursday covering 150 metropolitan areas, the National Association of Realtors said that median home prices were falling in 77 markets — but rising in 73.

Real estate statistics must be interpreted with caution, especially when sales volumes are declining, as they are all over the country. But an analysis by The New York Times of three distinct data sets — mortgage data from the government, sales figures from the Realtors’ group and courthouse records from a company called DataQuick — produced a list of 17 metropolitan areas where all three sources of information agree that prices were still rising as of late last year, the most recent figures available.

For another 43 cities, two data sets, from the Realtors and the government, suggested that prices were still rising late in the year. DataQuick could provide no information on those cities.

How long the situation will last is anyone’s guess. One possibility is that the smaller cities are just lagging behind the big ones in seeing prices fall. And if the economy weakens drastically, all bets are off. But for now, buyers in these towns seem to feel they are getting a lot of house for the money; sellers and brokers are realizing that they have, so far, dodged a bullet.

“When I read about the national real estate market, I feel fortunate I am in Austin,” said Shara Parker, a real estate agent who is happy she turned down a chance four years ago to relocate to Las Vegas, which was booming then and is sinking now. “Our highs are not as high and our lows are not as low.”

Economists say small and medium cities, especially those where land availability is not a constraint on growth, have done better than the nation as a whole because they have followed more traditional economic patterns. New-home prices in most of these places still reflect, more or less, the cost of the labor and materials used to build the houses, in addition to a profit margin.

“There are a lot of places where you didn’t have flipping of real estate,” said Steve Dennis, a business professor at the University of North Dakota. “Since you didn’t have the price appreciation, you don’t have the price correction.”

Generally, the markets that are showing strength do not have the bulging housing inventories of larger cities, because there was relatively little speculative building during the early part of this decade. Most of the towns have only modest exposure to the subprime loan crisis. And falling mortgage rates are buoying these markets.

Typically, their local economies are still producing new jobs and healthy income growth because of factors like rising crop prices (as in Bismarck, N.D.) or local oil booms (Midland, Tex.) or an influx of second-home buyers (Sun Valley, Idaho).

“In 2008, I see momentum growing in Middle America for prices to stabilize and increase, given the historic mortgage rates,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the Realtors. But he added, “If we go into a recession, it’s possible some markets will reverse themselves.”

Austin is a good example of a real estate market that was slow and steady for years and now appears to be taking off. Austin’s high-tech industries are attracting well-heeled buyers from cities where real estate is far more expensive.

Sales prices for existing homes barely moved from 2001 to 2005, when the markets in a handful of superstar cities were on fire. But last year, the median price for a single family home rose 6.4 percent, to $185,000. It was the second consecutive strong year.

“I have to calm my buyer clients down,” said Mark Minchew, an Austin Realtor, “so they don’t pay too much.”

The fly in the ointment for these cities is declining sales volumes, which prompt some experts to argue that median prices are presenting an unduly rosy picture. If fewer houses sell, but the ones that do sell are at the high end of the range, that can skew median prices.

“In the markets that are doing better, lots of people are not selling their houses, so you don’t see the prices going down because they are not selling for a lower price,” said Todd Sinai, a real estate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “The market is doing a lot worse than what the median prices would show.”

Still, in many of the cities where prices are strongest, local Realtors contend that volume drop-offs have been modest, just a few percentage points.

Mr. Clark is one Austin home seller with a happy tale. When a recruiter called him late last year with an enticing executive health care job in Fort Worth, Mr. Clark thought twice about trying to sell a house he had bought only a year before.

“I was concerned after my relocation package ran out I would have to carry either two mortgages or a mortgage and apartment rent,” he recalled. Instead he sold the house for a profit, and only $10,000 below his asking price. “A weight was taken off our shoulders,” he said.

Photo courtesy of: Hamron

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3 responses

21 02 2008
Ron Holland

From Wolf Laurel in NC mountains – Just because Austin has missed the housing recession bullet so far doesn’t mean it will continue to do so. I believe Merrill Lynch is correct about the arrival of recession in the United States. The housing downturn is negatively impacting property sales in second home communities in Florida. This is also slowing sales in NC mountain resorts that depend on Florida buyers.

Still the downturn in prices and building of inventories is starting to attract second home buyers from Florida looking for cool temperatures in our mountains. Also the dramatic decline in the dollar combined with weakness in American real estate markets are beginning to interest some bargain hunting European investors.

26 02 2008
Lake Blue Ridge Property

Floridians love to vacation and buy second homes in GA and the Carolinas as you said for the change of weather. I think we will always have this type of sale. I think people are just being cautious right now.

It sounds like Austin TX is a nice place to live and has avoided this housing bubble so far.

27 02 2008
jgroves

Thanks for the comments! It’s always interesting to hear how our local market compares to other markets across the US. I hope you’ll share your perspective with me and my readers again in the future.

As for the point that you both echoed from the NY Times article Austin has dodged a bullet so far. But don’t be confused. We have been affected, albeit in a much more tolerable way than other places. Total sales volume has slowed relative to the previous two years, but prices remain firm and continue to moderately appreciate in many neighborhoods throughout the city.

While our local market isn’t invincible, the quality of life in Austin and strong local economy has been and continues to be a good buffer.

-Jason

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