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When will housing come back in California? Five experts offer their views

Foreclosures in the state are still high. Sales of new homes are at historic lows. And millions of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages. So what's the outlook for 2011 and beyond?

January 01, 2011|By Alejandro Lazo, Los Angeles Times
  • In Mission Crest, 373 homes  nearly 40% of those in the housing development  had been lost at one point to foreclosure, the San Bernardino County assessor's office said. About 100 lots had been left graded and bare.
In Mission Crest, 373 homes nearly 40% of those in the housing development… (Katie Falkenberg, For The…)

As housing recoveries go, this one is in need of a cure.

Homeownership — and the buying and selling of residences — is an economic keystone that carries overwhelming weight in Californians' personal sense of financial well-being.

But the momentum of the state's housing rebound has faltered, with sales falling and prices softening despite bargain-basement interest rates. Foreclosures in California are still high. Sales of new homes are at historic lows. The construction sector is in the doldrums. And millions of the state's homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their properties are worth.

Real estate historically has helped give a boost to economies exiting a recession, but the severity of this bust is nearly unprecedented: Californians have lost $1.73 trillion worth of equity in their homes since prices peaked in 2007, according to Moody's Economy.com.

Although California's housing market free-fall ended in spring 2009, the weakness after the expiration of federal tax credits for buyers last year has called into question the sustainability of the recovery.

The Times asked five California experts for their take on the state of real estate and what they think is needed to get the housing market moving again. They range from the pessimism of a foreclosure specialist to the decidedly more upbeat view of a Realtor association economist.

• Richard Green, director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, predicts home prices will remain flat in 2011.

California's recovery will hinge on location, said Green, who held professorships at several universities and worked as a principal economist at Freddie Mac before becoming director of the Lusk center.

"Draw a line from El Centro up to Sacramento and think of all the towns up and down that line. Unless we have hyperinflation in general in the economy — prices going up a lot — I would guess that in my lifetime we will not see a return to the prices that we had at the peak," Green said.

"Now, places like La Jolla, Malibu, Laguna, Huntington Beach, Atherton, Palo Alto, the city of San Francisco, Marin County, those are places where within the next five years I could easily imagine prices returning to their peak."

"The markets in the Central Valley were much more bubbly than the markets on the coast," he said. "You have very few people who make a lot of money in these places."

"Whereas a place like Silicon Valley, or a place like West Los Angeles, there is a critical mass of very high-income people.… That means you have a large number of people who can afford to spend in the neighborhood of $1 million on a house, and these are desirable places."

"The more a property is a commodity that you can easily substitute for something else, the less the chance it will ever come back to its peak. The rarer a property is, the more likely it's going to come back quickly."

• Leslie Appleton-Young, chief economist for the California Assn. of Realtors, predicts home prices will rise 2% in 2011.

There are few professionals who would like more to see the housing market bounce back to the heady days of old than Realtors. Real estate agents made a killing when the housing market soared and then took a pounding when it tanked.

During the boom years, Appleton-Young said, she espoused the theory that rising prices mattered more than making solid loans. That theory appeared correct as long as values kept rising.

"What happened this time was prices plummeted and everyone was in trouble," she said.

These days, the economist sees little chance of the market returning to its previous heights anytime soon.

"We are in a very slow-moving recovery with prices stabilized at the moderate and low end," Appleton-Young said. "We are still seeing price attrition and price softening at the upper ends of the market."

2011 will be lackluster, she said, but that does not mean California is not improving.

"We are almost two years into a price recovery. The problem is not to look at 2007 as the normal market that you are moving back up to, because it wasn't a normal market. We are back in an underwriting environment that actually makes sense."

"You are seeing prices recovering throughout the state," she added. "It is just going to take time."

• Bruce Norris, president of Norris Group in Riverside, expects home prices to fall 5% in 2011.

The real estate slump has been good to Norris, an investor in foreclosed homes. But he believes the market is being artificially boosted by government programs and is set to fall further this year.

"We are in an artificial recovery," Norris said. "It's government controlled and manipulated. We have extremely favorable interest rates that we really should not have, based on our debt. We have supported real estate with tax rebates, and we have prevented inventory from showing up by allowing people to be two and three years behind on their mortgages."

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