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Investor Interest Remains High During 3 Year Low

Southland February Home Sales At 3-year Low; Investor Interest High

La Jolla, CA—Southern California’s housing market remained sluggish in February despite relatively strong demand from investors and others paying cash for homes. Prices appeared fairly flat as many potential home buyers stayed on the sidelines and waited – whether for a sign values have bottomed, job security has improved or credit has loosened, a real estate information service reported.

Last month 14,369 new and resale houses and condos sold in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Ventura, San Bernardino and Orange counties. That was down 0.6 percent from 14,458 in January, and down 6.4 percent from 15,359 in February 2010, according to DataQuick Information Systems of San Diego.

A small change in sales – up or down – between January and February is normal for the season. On average, sales have risen 0.6 percent between those two months since 1988, when DataQuick’s statistics begin.

The total number of homes sold last month was the lowest for a February since 2008, when 10,777 sold, and the second-lowest since 1995, when 12,459 sold. Last month’s sales fell 19.5 percent short of the Southland’s average February sales tally – 17,848 – since 1988.

The 847 newly built homes sold in the region last month marked the second-lowest level on record for a February, behind 842 sales in February 2009. Builders continue to struggle to compete with prices on resale homes, especially distressed properties.

Last month’s distressed sales – the combination of sales of foreclosed homes and “short sales” – accounted for well over half of the resale market.

Foreclosure resales – properties foreclosed on in the prior 12 months – made up 37.1 percent of resales last month, up from 36.8 percent in January but down from 42.4 percent a year ago. Over the past year foreclosure resales hit a low of 32.8 percent last June but since then they’ve trended higher. Foreclosure resales peaked at 56.7 percent in February 2009.

Short sales – transactions where the sale price fell short of what was owed on the property – made up an estimated 19.8 percent of Southland resales last month. That was up from an estimated 19.7 percent in January, 18.4 percent a year earlier, and 12.0 percent two years ago.

The abundance of distressed homes for sale continues to attract unusually high levels of investor and cash-only buyers.

Absentee buyers – mostly investors and some second-home purchasers – bought a record 26.1 percent of the Southland homes sold in February, paying a median $198,000. Since 2000, absentee buyers have purchased a monthly average of 16.2 percent of all homes sold. (Absentee data go back to 2000.)

Buyers who paid cash accounted for a record 31.7 percent of February home sales, paying a median $200,000. That was up from 30.4 in January and 30.1 percent a year earlier. The February cash level was the highest for any month in DataQuick’s statistics back to 1988. The 10-year monthly average for the percentage of Southland homes purchased with cash is 13.1 percent. Cash purchases are where there was no indication in the public record that a corresponding purchase loan was recorded.

“The January and February sales data can be interesting, but we always caution that historically they’ve been a poor barometer for the rest of the year. What the past two months do tell us is that lots of people have bet, often with cash, that housing at today’s prices will prove a solid investment,” said John Walsh, DataQuick president.

“This spring we’ll see an infusion into the market of more traditional buyers, who aren’t necessarily purchasing with an investor mindset. If the stars line up right – low prices, low mortgage rates, available credit, higher job growth and higher consumer confidence – we could see sales shoot back up to more normal levels. There’s pent-up demand out there. Lots of people have been waiting for the right time to buy. But they’ve got to feel more confident in their jobs, they’ve got to qualify for a loan and, for some, they need to be convinced prices are at or near bottom. One group will still be stuck on the sidelines, though: Those who owe significantly more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.”

The median price paid for a Southland home last month was $275,000, up 1.9 percent from $270,000 in January, and unchanged from $275,000 in February 2010. In January this year, the median fell slightly (-0.6%) from a year earlier, marking the first year-over-year decline since October 2009.

The median’s low point for the current real estate cycle was $247,000 in April 2009, while the high point was $505,000 in mid 2007. The peak-to-trough drop was due to a decline in home values as well as a shift in sales toward low-cost homes, especially inland foreclosures.

At the county level last month, the overall median sale price fell on a year-over-year basis in four counties and was unchanged in two. Declines from a year ago were logged in Orange (-1.7 percent), Riverside (-1.0 percent), San Diego (-4.3 percent), and Ventura (-1.4 percent) counties, while the median was the same as a year ago in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

The median paid for the largest home-type category – resale single-family detached houses – fell year-over-year last month in Orange (-3.1 percent), San Diego (-3.1 percent) and Ventura (-9.6 percent) counties. The other three counties recorded annual gains ranging from 2.6 percent in Los Angeles and Riverside counties to 3.6 percent in San Bernardino County.

Government-insured FHA loans, a popular low-down-payment choice among first-time buyers, accounted for 32.2 percent of all mortgages used to purchase homes in February. That was the lowest level since August 2008, when 26.8 percent of purchase loans were FHA. Last month’s FHA level was down from 33.2 percent in January and 36.8 percent in February 2010. Two years ago FHA loans made up 36.9 percent of the purchase loan market, while three years ago it was just 6.5 percent.

Last month 18.1 percent of all sales were for $500,000 or more, down from a revised 18.3 percent in January and down from 18.5 percent a year earlier. The low point for $500,000-plus sales was in January 2009, when only 13.6 percent of sales crossed that threshold. Over the past decade, a monthly average of 26.8 percent of homes sold for $500,000 or more.

Viewed differently, Southland zip codes in the top one-third of the housing market, based on historical prices, accounted for 34.6 percent of total sales last month. That was up from 33.4 percent in January and up from 32.7 percent a year ago. Over the last decade, those higher-end areas contributed a monthly average of 37.1 percent of regional sales. Their contribution to overall sales hit a low of 26.2 percent in January 2009.

High-end sales still suffer from tight credit policies. Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) and so-called jumbo home loans have been relatively difficult to get ever since August 2007, when the credit crunch hit.

Last month ARMs represented 7.8 percent of Southland purchase loans, up from 7.0 percent in January and 4.1 percent a year ago. Last month’s figure was the highest since August 2008, when it was 10.5 percent. Over the past decade, a monthly average of about 38 percent of purchase loans were ARMs.

Jumbo loans, mortgages above the old conforming limit of $417,000, accounted for 15.6 percent of last month’s purchase lending, up from 15.2 percent in January and 14.8 percent a year earlier. However, in the months leading up to the credit crisis that struck in August 2007, jumbos accounted for 40 percent of the market.

Last month the percentage of Southland homes that was flipped – bought and re-sold on the open market within a six-month period – was 3.2 percent. That was up from a “flipping” rate of 3.1 percent in January but down from 3.4 percent a year earlier. Flipping varied last month from as little as 2.4 percent in Ventura County to as much as 3.8 percent in San Diego County.

DataQuick Information Systems monitors real estate activity nationwide and provides information to consumers, educational institutions, public agencies, lending institutions, title companies and industry analysts.

The typical monthly mortgage payment that Southland buyers committed themselves to paying was $1,174 last month, up from $1,128 in January and down from $1,180 in February 2010. Adjusted for inflation, current payments are 48.1 percent below typical payments in the spring of 1989, the peak of the prior real estate cycle. They are 57.4 percent below the current cycle’s peak in July 2007.

Indicators of market distress continue to move in different directions. Foreclosure activity remains high by historical standards but is lower than peak levels reached over the last two years. Financing with multiple mortgages is very low, and down payment sizes are stable, DataQuick reported