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And yet, we fret

Buyers worry. Sellers wonder. Experts scoff. But housing hasn't run out of steam.

June 27, 2004|Allison B. Cohen | Special to The Times

Ask economic and real estate experts about the notion of a current Southern California real estate market "bubble" and some just laugh.

"What bubble?" asked John Karevoll, an analyst with DataQuick Information Systems. "I don't believe in bubbles."

Dick Purvis, regional director with Re/Max, echoes the sentiment. "I don't think there is such a thing as a real estate bubble."

Nevertheless, while most experts make light of the notion of a bubble, many Southern California home shoppers, owners and sellers fear they are in one right now and it's got to burst soon.

"People are nervous how long this market can go on," said Jerry Berns, of Re/Max on the Boulevard in Encino. "I don't have answers for them. I just say get on the merry-go-round."

What's pushing the panic button is the inching up of interest rates. Just the move from 5.96%, the national average for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage in April, to 6.37% in June, according to HSH Associates, Financial Publishers, has provoked anxiety.

Sellers wonder whether now is the time to put their homes on the market, before rising interest rates push some buyers out. They agonize over whether they have waited too long and missed the peak. And buyers worry they've bought at the height of the market.

Take Kathleen Kovatch, 30, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Seattle, where she was a lead program manager at RealNetworks.

Kovatch suffered through the dot-com bust -- going from riches to rags overnight. Burned then, she fears she could be a victim again, this time of the real estate market. She called her recent home purchase a "surreal experience."

"Initially, I thought, 'I am not going to play this crazy L.A. game,' " she said. But because she felt her $2,400 rent was going to waste and she wanted to lower her income taxes, she jumped in.

After looking for a month, she recently paid $690,000 for an 800-square-foot home in Mar Vista.

Vying with five other buyers and being competitive, she went for broke, offering $41,000 over the asking price, and got the house.

"I am a businessperson," said Kovatch, who works in digital entertainment for Sony. "I wanted to win. But I felt guilty enabling the insanity of this real estate market.... This was not a good business transaction."

Kovatch financed her home with an interest-only 5.3% fixed loan that converts to an adjustable-rate mortgage in five years. Who knows where the market or interest rates will be in five years? she asked.

Like Kovatch, many buyers and sellers remember the mid-1990s: The median price for a Southern California home fell 16.7% from a peak of $189,000 in June 1991 to the low point in the market, January 1996, when the median was $157,000. Los Angeles County took an even harder hit. The median price for homes in the county peaked in May 1989 at $203,000 and then bottomed out in February 1995 at $158,000, a 22.2% decline.

Because of a sluggish economy, aerospace job losses and military-base closures, some homeowners suddenly found themselves unable to make their mortgage payments. As values dropped, many others found themselves owing more on their homes than they were worth. As a result, Southern California foreclosures -- grimmest during the first quarter of 1996 -- reached 30,529, more than four times the current quarterly average. By the close of 1996, a total of 109,123 homes were in foreclosure.

Those who fear a bubble point to the rapid run-up in appreciation, a hint of a speculative market (when buyers purchase and resell quickly for a profit), rising interest rates (especially worrisome for those with adjustable-rate mortgages), people owning homes that they probably can't afford should there be an economic downturn and little inventory with strong demand.

Although creative financing by banks and mortgage lenders and historically low interest rates have helped many break into the housing market, some say these tactics could come back to haunt them.

"The lowering of interest rates was, in the short term, a good thing," said Ed Leamer, UCLA Anderson Forecast director. "The Fed got concerned with a deflation animal lurking around the corner."

But they "made a major mistake as far as I am concerned," he added, because by keeping interest rates low, they created a situation that can't be sustained.

Financing breaks and low rates have contributed to the new median-home record of $396,000 for Southern California recorded in May, according to La Jolla-based DataQuick. The region has had double-digit appreciation for 30 consecutive months. And in May, prices rose at their fastest pace in the 16 years the company has been compiling data.

As prices rise, fewer can afford homes. In Los Angeles County, for instance, the California Assn. of Realtors' housing affordability index, which measures the percentage of households that can afford a median-priced home, dropped nine percentage points -- 29% to 20% -- from April 2003 to April 2004.

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