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REAL ESTATE

Uneven strides in home prices

December 30, 2009|Alejandro Lazo

San Francisco and Tampa, Fla., sit at opposite corners of the country and at opposite ends of the housing recovery.

As home prices are picking up nationally, the San Francisco Bay Area has shown improvement for seven consecutive months and posted the strongest gains in home prices in October out of 20 metropolitan regions, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index, a closely watched national measure of home prices, which was released Tuesday.

A moderate building pace and less aggressive lending during the boom years have helped the Bay Area gain ground, experts said, and some developers are buying up land and preparing building plans there.

At the other end of the spectrum lies Tampa, where home prices in October showed the steepest drop. The decline reflects a metropolitan area ravaged by the fallout of overbuilding and an economy that was heavily reliant on the building industry.

The stark differences between the two areas reflect the progression of the housing recovery: Clear winners and losers are emerging, even as concerns are growing that all regions could stumble anew next year as government support expires and foreclosures put pressure on prices.

"You are not going to see an overall tide increase which will lift all boats," said Cameron Findlay, chief economist at LendingTree. "What I think you are going to see is regionalized pockets of improvement."

The index of home prices in 20 metropolitan areas inched up 0.4% in October, but the relatively flat performance indicated that the housing recovery is faced with a chilly winter slowdown. Eleven cities posted gains on a month-over-month basis, eight cities recorded declines, and one was unchanged.

All 20 cities continued to show improvement on a year-over-year basis, with annual price declines moderating. The index was down 7.3% in October compared with October 2008 and was off 29% from its July 2006 peak.

San Francisco posted the strongest October price increase: 1.7%. UC Berkeley economist Kenneth Rosen said the Bay Area numbers have improved as bank-owned properties have increasingly made up a smaller percentage of housing stock for sale.

"We had a lower percentage of foreclosures," Rosen said. "We didn't have as much building, first of all, and we didn't have as much of the aggressive lending."

Unemployment in the Bay Area remains high, with San Francisco's jobless rate hitting 9.7% in November, but the dearth of housing stock has helped prices regain momentum, said Richard Gollis, principal at real estate consulting firm Concord Group.

"San Francisco has not delivered enough housing relative to its job base over the last 10 years," he said. "You started to see some stabilization in San Francisco because you saw such a jobs-housing imbalance."

As a result, developers are buying land for future opportunities, Gollis said.

"You are starting to see developer and capital-market interest in the Bay Area," he said.

Home prices in the Southland, which sustained one of the nation's biggest declines, have also risen, propelled by buyers eager to snatch up deals on deeply discounted foreclosure properties. Los Angeles was up 0.7% and San Diego, 1.1%.

"You might have thought that California would be one of the worst-performing states," said Robert J. Shiller, a Yale University economist and co-creator of the index. "But on the other hand, Californians have learned to think like real speculators over the years, and speculators know you buy when the news is still bad and market timing means you don't wait until the market starts going up."

Gus Faucher, director of macroeconomics at Moody's Economy.com, cautioned that though California's bigger metropolitan areas have improved, places such as the Inland Empire and the Central Valley are likely to continue to see trouble.

"It is the outlying areas that remain a problem," Faucher said.

On the other side of the country, Tampa-area home prices dropped 1.2% in October.

Sean Snaith, an economics professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, said the Tampa area exemplified the woes experienced by the whole southern half of the state, which saw the market for single-family homes and condominiums, in particular, skyrocket as speculators looked to flip properties for fast and easy profits.

Now, many of those investors have walked away from their deposits, and the market is flooded with properties in foreclosure. The area's unemployment rate stood at 12.3% in November.

"You have a lot of developments that have a ghost-town feel to them, and the situation has just been compounded with the credit crisis and the lack of availability of mortgage lending," Snaith said.

Similar to Tampa, Las Vegas is paying the price for its affair with overbuilding during the boom years. Las Vegas remains the one major metropolitan area in the country that has shown no sign of improvement this year, the index showed.

On a macro level, many experts worry that once certain policies and programs wind down -- among them low interest rates, tax incentives for buyers and an increased accessibility of mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration -- the housing market could again falter next year.

"All in all, this report should be described as flat," said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at Standard & Poor's. "Coming after a series of solid gains, these data are likely to spark worries that home prices are about to take a second dip."

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alejandro.lazo@latimes.com

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