Welcome to the age of short-term homebuying -- try not to panic.
According to a national survey from Chase, roughly 75% of homebuyers don’t plan to stay in their homes long-term. Chase suggests that such trends indicate that “today’s consumer is always searching for the next best thing” and that “digital is also changing the way Americans search for homes.”
“With more options and endless information at the consumer’s fingertips, it’s changing the way people look at major purchase decisions,” says Sean Grzebin, head of retail mortgage banking for Chase. “While homebuyers are using technology to find their next home, more than 70% still rely heavily on a mortgage professional.”
While this all sounds like a great introduction to a very iffy quick-money seminar at your local airport's largest hotel, there's actually a far more realistic explanation for this recent phenomenon. Look at some of the other data from that survey: 66% of homeowners expecting their home’s value to increase over the next five years, 38% have used or are considering using a home equity line of credit in the next five years, with 58% putting it towards home improvements.
This isn't some technological precipice or some indication that homebuyers are eternal nomads plagued with a fear of missing out. As housing data firm RealtyTrac recently discovered, 179,778 U.S. single family homes and condos were flipped in 2015. For RealtyTrac's purposes, a home flip means that a property -- usually a rehabilitated property -- is sold for the second time within a 12-month period (typically for a profit) based on publicly recorded sales deed data.
That 5.5% flip share is up from 5.3% 2014, making it the first annual increase in the share of homes flipped following four consecutive years of decreases. In fact, the share of homes flipped in 2015 increased from the previous year in 83 of 110 U.S. metro areas (75%) that RealtyTrac's report examined.
“As confidence in the housing recovery spreads, more real estate investors and would-be real estate investors are hopping on the home flipping bandwagon,” sayas Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at RealtyTrac. “Not only is the share of home flips on the rise again, but we also see the flipping trend trickling down to smaller investors who are completing fewer flips per year.”
This is not necessarily good news. Though the 5.5% share of flipped homes is still well below the 8.2% peak in 2005, the people doing the flipping are generally not as financially sound. There were 110,008 investors or businesses that completed at least one home flip in 2015, the highest number of home flippers since 130,603 did so in 2007. The peak in the number of active home flippers was in 2005, with 259,192. There were 1.63 home flips per investor in 2015, the lowest ratio of flips per investor since 2008.
“More inexperienced home flippers with a smaller financial cushion could be a sign of an over-speculative market, but the data indicates that flippers in 2015 continued to operate within relatively conservative margins,” Blomquist says. “Homes flipped in 2015 were on average purchased at a 26% discount below estimated market value and re-sold by the flipper at a 5% premium above estimated market value.”
The National Association of Realtors has taken notice after existing home sales dropped 7.1% between January and February. Though those sales are still 2.2% higher than they were at the same time last year, National Association of Realtors chief economist Lawrence Yun noted that weakness in the market wasn't due solely to bad weather on the East Coast, but to “a supply and affordability problem.”
“Finding the right property at an affordable price is burdening many potential buyers," he says.
While confidence in the economy has been shaken by market volatility and fears surrounding the upcoming presidential elections, the median existing home price just keeps climbing. In February, that price hit $210,800, up 4.4% from February 2015 to finish the fourth-consecutive year of year-over-year gains. However, total housing inventory at the end of February increased sat at 1.88 million existing homes, which is 1.1% lower than a year ago. That's a 4.4-month of unsold inventory, which isn't great when the ideal is a six-month supply.
You can thank flippers for this. All-cash sales accounted for one in every four housing transactions in February. Meanwhile, individual investors accounted for roughly one in every five home sales that month. Some 64% of those investors paid cash for their homes. That's evident in the share of distressed homes – those in foreclosure or short sales – which made up 10% of all houses in February and was the highest such percentage since may of last year.
Flippers aren't necessarily putting these homes in the hands of buyers, either. First-time homebuyers made up just 30% of all sales in February.
"Investor sales have trended surprisingly higher in recent months after falling to as low as 12% of sales in August 2015," Yun says. "Now that there are fewer distressed homes available, it appears there's been a shift towards investors purchasing lower-priced homes and turning them into rentals. Already facing affordability issues, this competition at the entry-level market only adds to the roadblocks slowing first-time buyers."
Unfortunately, this means that not all areas of the U.S. are seeing the same benefits of flipping, either. The share of homes flipped in 2015 was above 2005 levels in Pittsburgh (19% above 2005 levels); Memphis (18%); Buffalo, N.Y. (12%); San Diego (4%); Seattle (4%); Birmingham, Ala. (4%); and Cleveland (3%). As RealtyTrac discovered, this doesn't mean that home sellers in these cities are necessarily happy about that development. Matthew Gardner, chief economist at Windermere Real Estate, covers the Seattle market and saw the number of homes flipped in 2015 fall from 2014 despite being above 2005 levels.
“When home flipping numbers go up, it is usually an indication that the housing market is in trouble,” he told RealtyTrac. “The problem with a rise in home flipping is that these sales artificially inflate home prices, making housing even less affordable for buyers and increasing the risk of a bubble. I’m happy to see that the percentage of home flipping sales in Seattle does not exceed the national average and that they’re down from a year ago.”
Other cities may not be as fortunate. Metro areas with the biggest year-over-year increase in share of flips included Lakeland, Fla. (up 50%); New Haven, Conn. (up 45%); Jacksonville, Fla., (up 41%); Homosassa Springs, Fla. (up 40%); and Akron, Ohio (up 37%). The Miami metro area had the most homes flipped of any market nationwide in 2015, with 10,658, representing 8.6% of all Miami-area home sales for the year and up 4% as a share of all sales from 2014.
In fact, the state-by-state list of flip leaders reads like a who's-who of the last housing crisis. Nevada (8.8%); Florida (up 8%); Alabama (7.4%); Arizona (7.1%); and Tennessee (6.9%). Among 110 metro areas with at least 250 flips in 2015, those with the highest percentage of all home sales were Memphis (11.1%); Fresno, Calif. (9.2%); Las Vegas (9.2%); Tampa (9.2%); and Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach, Fla. (9.1%). In these areas, advances in homebuying technology and the emergence of buyers who treat homes like a 23-year-old treats parties should be greeted with healthy skepticism, not fanfare.
“Finding the right property at an affordable price is burdening many potential buyers." NAR's Yun says. "The overall demand for buying is still solid entering the busy spring season, but home prices and rents outpacing wages and anxiety about the health of the economy are holding back a segment of would-be buyers.”
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.