It was bound to happen.  Back in 3rd Qtr of 2005 we went on TV and said this market is getting ready to hit some bumps in the road.  We looked at the data and determined the Boom was over and it was simply a matter of time before the market reacted.  In reality we started noticing signs in the 2nd Qtr of 2005, but everyone was busy rushing around trying to get their construction deals put together and finalized.  We began pulling our investors out of projects in early 2005.  We risked some commission dollars by doing so, but we just didn’t feel good about what was to come. 

We took a lot of heat back then.  We heard things like “You can’t stop this market, it’s on fire” and “It’s a runaway train” etc.  Most of us learned growing up that nothing goes up forever, but back then it was that herd mentality.  It was quite common to go to a cocktail party and hear stories of average people flipping home after home and making $100,000 per deal.  They were buying as many as they could, without a true end user in mind. 

Median Sale Prices 2009-2010 Sothwest Florida Single Family Homes
SW Florida Real Estate Prices Single Family Homes

We all know what happened to those days.  Just as nothing goes up forever, nothing goes down forever either.  If you read these articles regularly you know we’ve been predicting that about March or April of 2010 we could see prices actually rise over year ago prices and the headlines we would read would be quite different than what we’ve seen over the past 5 years. Well, Official numbers were just released this past week, and guess what?  Prices are up 9% over last year.  It’s not a miracle.  If you’re unemotional and study the numbers you could see it coming. 

We’re not rocket scientists.  Most Realtors have a good pulse on the market and can tell you what’s really going on.  And just because the headlines read one thing, there can be many submarkets reacting quite differently or bucking the trend.  You’ve heard that all real estate is local, and that’s true.  Even in the Boom market some properties didn’t fare as well as others, and in the down market, some didn’t do as poorly either.  Full time Realtors are on the front lines and see trends as they develop.  Sometimes it’s beneficial to step back and analyze the numbers, and others it’s great to be right in the race and see what’s happening in real time.  Sometimes it’s great to do both. 

Where will the market go from here?  That’s a good question.  Some speculate that the Home Buyer Tax Credit Expiration April 30 will have a negative impact, but we’re not so sure in SW Florida.  Many of our buyers are scooping up bargains and don’t qualify for the credit anyway.  We think home sales should continue their torrid pace as long as we have bargain inventory.  2009 set an all-time record and 2010 sales have surpassed 2009 sales.  Our prices are artificially low, in many cases half or reproduction costs.  This is why you see so few building permits being pulled. 

Because we are not seeing building activity, it is limiting employment in our area, which was so heavily dependent on the building and real estate industries along with related services.  We don’t believe prices will shoot back up wildly until we create more jobs, and we may not create more building jobs until prices shoot back up.  So it’s the old chicken and the egg theory.  We think we’re going to have to find other employment opportunities to help lift our entire economy back up so we’re not so reliant on the building industry.  Once we do that, the building industry will take care of itself.  We would caution governments not to add impact fees and other costs that price jobs out of the market.  We need to be more competitive, not anti-competitive. 

And finally, resist the urge to follow the herd.  The herd is usually on right for a brief period of time, and usually at the tail end of the curve.  Our market is Hot, and prices rose last month.  We point out that even though the herd considers 2005 the Boom, there is more opportunity in the air now than there was in 2005.  Misery was in the air, just few people realized it back then, and today opportunity is in the air, and the herd will realize it only after prices rise substantially in a few years.

This is the time of year agents are busy selling properties.  If you look at the last two years, historically you will see that sales begin to build each month heading into summer.  The last two years are fairly typical as to how our local market works.  April and May closed sales are results of deals put together in March.  There is typically about a one month lag from contract to closing.  Some closings occur in the same month, and some take longer, especially short sales. 

We think everyone who possibly can buy is attempting to right now for several reasons.  Interest rates are headed higher.  The Treasury Department’s phase-out of buying mortgage backed securities on FNMA and Freddie Mac expires this month.  The last time this happened rates shot up about ¾% in a week or so, so we’re keeping our eye on rates in April and what if anything the government does when they shoot back up. 

We also have the Home Buyer tax credit in place for sales through April 30.  Buyers have a few months after that to actually close these sales, but essentially it allows first time home buyers a credit of up to $8,000 and repeat home buyers a credit up to $6,500.  This is real money, and buyers are acting to receive this money. 

Single Family Home Sales by Month Lee County Florida
Single Family Home Sales by Month Lee County Florida

Additionally, inventory in certain price ranges is drying up, and prices are low.  Buyers from near and far and reaching to scoop up these bargains.  Because these homes are so far below replacement cost, these prices won’t last once the economy improves and builders start building again.  Many of these homes are 40-50% below cost, so there’s a built-in profit for buyers willing to buy now and hold until market improves. 

We know why the market is Hot, but let’s go behind the scenes and explain some things that are affecting the market many people might not know about.   The first major obstacle is appraisals.  Appraisals have been coming up short up to 30% of the time as appraisers not familiar with the neighborhoods are using comparables that are not the best for the subject property.  They are not taking the time to discern if the two neighborhoods are similar, or if the comparables condition is similar.  We’ve seen appraisers use comparables from other neighborhoods that just don’t measure up while ignoring a good comp 2 doors down that closed last week.  We’ve also seen appraisers only use the foreclosures, but they don’t tell the whole picture.  The foreclosures can need lots of work and be in poor condition, and if the appraiser wants to use them as a comp, they need to research its actual condition when property sold. 

The next big issue is we often have multiple offers on each property, and buyers are bidding against each other.  Cash is king, and buyers wishing to finance have a hard time competing with cash buyers.  The seller doesn’t have to worry whether the buyer will get financing when a cash buyer is involved, nor worry about a bad appraisal.  Many of these properties are selling well over asking price, and many buyers are frustrated no matter what they do they can’t land a property.

We also have out of town buyers who believe they can bargain down these homes, and wonder why they lose home after home when the sellers accept someone else’s offer.  Many buyers have said they don’t pay full sticker price, and yet they’re downright frustrated when the seller accepts another buyer’s offer.  Agents I speak with say they are educating buyers right upfront about our market, but buyers often times have to try for themselves.  A buyer can find out the hard way and miss out on their first 6 choices or take their agent’s advice and have a chance at getting choices 1-3.  Even if you offer $10,000 over asking price all cash, there’s no guarantee you’ll get the home, but at least your chances are better.  It pays to study each submarket and determine how each home fits in that puzzle. 

Lastly, title can be an issue.  If you’re buying a foreclosed home, it’s not uncommon for a title issue to creep up and extend the closing out.  Banks don’t always complete the full title process until a contract is secured, and that’s when it could be discovered some outstanding liens, or homeowner associations trying to collect more than the law allows to issue an estoppel letter.  We’ve even experienced a home that needed to be re-foreclosed as it wasn’t done properly the first time. 

If our market wasn’t so challenging, we’d see even higher sales reported.  This market is more complex than ever, but at least it keeps people on their toes and moving.  That’s often little solace to those caught up in a deal when things are going wrong, but I guess it beats having a dead market.  There’s nothing dead about the SW Florida real estate market.