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Shrinking supply of homes for sale has upended market dynamics

The stock of homes listed for purchase has fallen significantly from last summer, in turn raising prices and homeowners' equity stakes and reducing total sales.

July 29, 2012|By Kenneth R. Harney

WASHINGTON — Though many home shoppers who assume they are still in a buyer's market find it hard to believe, one of the sobering fundamentals shaping real estate this summer is shrinking inventory: The supply of houses for sale has fallen significantly in most areas compared with a year earlier, sometimes dramatically so. And that is having important side effects by raising prices and homeowners' equity stakes and reducing total sales.

In major metropolitan markets from the mid-Atlantic to the West Coast, the stock of homes listed for purchase has dropped by sometimes extraordinary amounts — 50% or more below year-earlier levels in several areas of California, according to industry studies.

In Los Angeles, available inventory is 49% lower than it was last summer, San Diego by 53%, reports Redfin, a national online realty brokerage. In Seattle, listings are off 41%. In Washington and its nearby suburbs, listings are down 28%.

According to the National Assn. of Realtors, the total number of houses listed for sale across the country in June was 24% lower than a year earlier. The dearth of listings is often more intense in the lower- to mid-price ranges, less so in the upper brackets.

Just south of San Francisco, Redfin agent Brad Le says inventory in Silicon Valley is down so drastically — and demand so strong — that the bidding wars are spinning off the charts.

"We're not just talking about 10 or 15" offers, he says, "but sometimes 40 and 50."

Some buyers are inserting escalation clauses into their contracts to keep pace with counter-bids, and waiving financing contingencies, inspections and even agreeing to increase their down payments to counter any differences between the accepted sale price and the appraised value. One modest, 1,700-square-foot house recently was listed at $879,000. It drew more than 50 competing offers and sold to an all-cash buyer for $1,050,000 in less than a month.

Silicon Valley is in its own special economic niche, but inventories have declined nationwide. Online real estate and mortgage data firm Zillow reports that some of the steepest declines are in places hit the hardest during the bust, and where sizable percentages of owners still are underwater on their mortgages. In Phoenix and Miami, for example, 55% and 46% of owners, respectively, have negative equity.

Both cities have seen significant drops in inventory, and both are experiencing strong appreciation in home prices. Phoenix prices are up 14.7% for the year and Miami by 9.7%, according to data from research firm CoreLogic.

What's behind the widespread declines in listings?

Analysts say negative equity plays a major role — it discourages people who might otherwise want to sell from doing so. They don't want to take a big loss, especially in a slowly improving price environment. So they sit tight rather than list. Banks with large stocks of pre-foreclosure and foreclosed properties are doing the same, creating a so-called "shadow inventory" of houses estimated to total 1.5 million units.

Where's this all headed?

Stan Humphries, chief economist for Zillow, says the likely trend is for more of the same: Constricted supplies will lead to price increases, especially in segments of local markets where demand is strongest. Longer term, price increases will gradually rewind the cycle, increasing owners' equities and convincing more of them to list and sell. This, in turn, should put a brake on price increases, especially under today's super-strict mortgage underwriting and appraisal practices.

Bottom line for anyone looking to list or purchase any time soon: Though conditions vary by location and price segment, lower supplies of houses available for sale are changing market dynamics — putting sellers in stronger positions than they've been in years.

kenharney@earthlink.net

Distributed by Washington Post Writers Group.

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