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Keepin it Real Estate: The Stabilization Fallacy


Getting to the "bottom" of the housing market.


Despite recent reports to the contrary, the impending stabilization of the housing market is a myth. While declines in certain markets are coming to an end, real estate, in general, is still in freefall.

Last November, amidst a great deal of media fanfare, Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE) enacted a temporary foreclosure moratorium, angling to give renewed loan modification efforts a chance to work. All the major financial news outlets jumped on the story, loudly proclaiming the mortgage giants were doing their part to give the housing market a chance to lick its wounds.

Then last week, without so much as a nod from the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg or CNBC, the foreclosure ban was quietly lifted, right on schedule. A nod to the Washington Independent and Calculated Risk for picking up the story.

This is a not-insignificant development in the round of bottom-calling that's gripped the world of real-estate punditry and prognostication.

Two datapoints are to blame for this misplaced optimism: A month-over-month increase in February new home sales, and one in existing home sales. In addition to rising transactions in the most depressed markets, many cite the eagerness of big banks like JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Citigroup (C) and Wells Fargo (WFC) to get foreclosed properties off their books a a sign supply is quickly being eaten through.

Meanwhile, reality tells a very different story.

In yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle, Carolyn Said revealed a phenomenon familiar to real-estate insiders, but little appreciated by the financial world at large: phantom supply. Also known as "shadow inventory," phantom supply represents homes banks have repossessed, but have yet to sell. In other words, it's the pipeline of foreclosures still to come on the market.

According to data from RealtyTrac, a foreclosure monitoring service, banks are selling less than half the homes they take back from borrowers. This analysis is echoed by courthouse auction results, which show the vast majority of foreclosures are delayed, rather than being taken back by banks. Even fewer are being sold to third parties, which means asking prices are still too high.

Couple banks' unwillingness to take back, market and sell properties with Fannie and Freddie's recent lifting of their foreclosure ban, and improving housing data could prove to be short-lived. As one well-informed California real estate broker and Minyan writes, "There is a huge logjam [of foreclosures]. With Fannie and Freddie's recent announcement, the logjam may be coming undone."

To be sure, being negative on the housing market is beating a very, very dead horse. However, with the spin experts at the National Association of Realtors flooding the market with ads -- and with media cries of "stabilization" -- prospective homebuyers should be skeptical of anyone who says the best deals will pass them by if they don't act now.

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