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Keepin' It Real Estate: Capitulation Now!

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Getting to the "bottom" of the housing market.

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Finally, housing is starting to act like a market searching for a bottom.

Well, sort of.

In former boom states like California, Arizona and Florida, distressed sales are driving the local real-estate markets. After a near-complete evaporation of buying activity last year, buyers have been brought off the sidelines by continued price declines, a glut of homes for sale, and low interest rates. Comparisons with last year are easy: Some areas are seeing activity up more than 300% year-over-year.

Many contend this is a healthy development, as prices return to more affordable levels and latent demand sops up overhanging supply. The bottom, they argue, is nigh.

However, even in areas seeing strong buying activity, median home prices continue to tumble. Banks and private sellers alike are finding the only way to guarantee a sale is to list the house below the market. This constant undercutting is pushing prices down, sometimes well below affordability levels derived from median income data.

This trend is not indicative of the capitulation most market watchers believe must happen before prices can truly bottom.

Capitulation is a concept more often reserved for equity-market analysis than for housing. Since real estate is vastly more fragmented and localized than stocks, housing trends take months, even years to develop, while equities can reverse course in a manner of days, if not hours.

Still, drilling down into individual transactions, evidence of capitulation in certain markets is becoming evident. Sellers, after 4 years of price declines, are finally throwing in the towel.

Homebuilders are becoming desperate: Toll Brothers (TOL) is trying to lure in buyers with 3.99% interest rates through a partnership with Wells Fargo (WFC). Centex (CTX) did them one better by offering rates as low as 3.25% (that rise to 4.50% after 2 years) and Pulte Homes (PHM) also offers a 3.99% fixed rate option for qualified buyers.

Banks like JPMorgan (JPM), Bank of America (BAC) and Citigroup (C), desperate to shed their growing inventory of foreclosed homes, are beginning to accept bids 10, 15 or even 20% below their asking prices.

And its not just banks. Just in the past few weeks, private sellers have started to jump at low-ball offers. Better to take less cash now than be constantly priced out of the market, chasing it all the way down.

Although this type of sale is still very much the exception rather than the rule, it's an indication that sellers are becoming despondent, willing to accept any reasonable price to rid themselves of what could be months of headaches, upkeep expenses and deteriorating market conditions.

To be clear: This analysis is by no means a call that housing has bottomed, or is even remotely close to a bottom. It's merely evidence that certain areas are closer to stabilization that others, and these signs -- which may look like capitulation -- should be viewed as a positive development in a market deeply in need of hope.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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