The rapidly climbing price of Seattle homes could be the symptom of a real-estate bubble, or proof of its strong economy. The arguments, pro and con.
I knew Phoenix was in a housing bubble in the mid-2000s when my barber told me she was buying rental properties using subprime loans.
Affording the mortgages would be a stretch, she said, but they were sure to quickly gain in value and she could sell them at a profit in a year or even less.
Residential real-estate prices had doubled there in just a few years, even with ongoing construction.
Phoenix is one of the lowest-income major metropolitan areas in the nation, so the gains were not being propelled by a strong underlying economy. Housing, to a large degree, was the economy.
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Flipping was rampant, the dominant conversation I heard every morning at the gym. Washington Mutual had opened offices all over and even set up a table at the annual home tour in my historic neighborhood, handing out WaMu tchotchkes.
The local experts were sanguine. In fact, millions of people across the country were buying at the worst time, near the top. They were like my barber.
This was my Joe Kennedy moment.
In the late 1920s, the future president’s father knew it was time to get out of the market when he started receiving stock tips from shoeshine boys. His fortune survived the crash of 1929.
As a result, I became one of the journalists who “called” the bubble and crash. My warnings in the newspaper were not well received in a city whose economy is based on real estate and boosterism. That’s a big reason why I ended up here.
Fast-forward to today.
Seattle home prices have risen a startling 74 percent in the past five years. As of June, the median price of a single-family house was a record $666,500. An uninhabitable dump in West Seattle can command a handsome $427,000 after a bidding war, as my colleague Mike Rosenberg reported this past week.
Nor is the boom confined to the most desirable parts of the city and Eastside. Median prices shot up 36 percent last year in Burien/Normandy Park and 28 percent in a section of Renton.
Seattle ranked 10th among 402 metros in price growth in May. Among major metros, it was second only to Portland.
Washington topped all states in price growth for three months before falling to second place behind Oregon in May, compared with a year earlier.
Commercial and multifamily real estate is hot, too. For example, 65 major buildings are under construction in and near downtown Seattle.
So am I ready to call it?
The biggest ingredient of a true bubble appears to be missing here: large numbers of speculators betting on continued high price appreciation, and many of them overextended.
Instead, all-cash offers are common. At a time when fewer Americans are buying homes, ownership is coveted in Seattle. The problem is that even qualified buyers have trouble finding a house.
Also, mortgage underwriting standards are much tougher than before. WaMu and its toxic siblings are history.
Part of the big price increases is no doubt psychology. But mostly, fundamentals are at work.
Seattle enjoys a robust and diverse economy, with major headquarters companies, a thriving technology sector, and higher than average incomes and wages. Employment and population growth have been strong. It’s a desirable place.
Last week, a report said we ranked first in the nation for software engineers’ pay, adjusted for living costs. Compared with San Francisco and Silicon Valley, Seattle is affordable, at least for those with the top jobs.
As buyers, they face a tough market. Yet the price increases are a blessing for homeowners, many of whom have lived here a long time and, like most Americans, have most of their wealth tied up in their houses.
The Seattle area has limited land. Many places are resistant to greater densities. Also, homebuilding remains subdued.
Permits for new single-unit private housing units totaled 838 in May for the entire Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area. That’s half the level of the pre-recession peak and low by historic standards.
Not only is little spec construction happening, builders aren’t yet responding to demand signals.
This is a national phenomenon. Total housing starts are exceptionally low for this point in an expansion.
Homebuilders were badly mauled in the recession. Since then, they have been cautious because fewer people are forming households. Private residential fixed investment is lower than at any time since the measurement began in the late 1940s.
Some of Seattle’s froth would disappear if Chinese buyers exited the market.
Nationally, foreign buyers of U.S. property have declined over the past year. Even so, Chinese continue to buy, and lean toward the most expensive homes, although Beijing has tightened controls on moving money offshore.
Higher interest rates might make a difference, too. But the Fed is stuck with a fragile national and world economy, so any move to raise rates is in the distance.
A shock would end the party fast. Recession, tech-bubble pops, South China Sea conflict, election-season surprise, earthquake, volcano — pick your poison.
The best realistic outcome is a moderation of price increases. Long term, more inventory is needed to meet demand.
And even this won’t quickly address affordability for a large segment of the population, those in lower-paying jobs. Next Sunday, I’ll discuss this challenge and some potential responses.