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Keepin' It Real Estate: Just How Hot Is the Housing Market?


Getting to the "bottom" of the housing market.

It seems that with each passing month, the data gods deliver more and more evidence that the woe begotten US housing market may finally be emerging from its years-long doldrums.

Existing home sales: Up.
New home sales: Up.
Pending home sales: Up.
Home prices: Down, but at a slower pace.

Even a relic from the booming housing markets of yesteryear has reappeared: Bidding wars.

To be sure, multiple-offer situations are concentrated in lower priced markets, but some sales are simply mind-boggling. Here's a sampling of just how out-of-whack supply and demand truly are in some of this country's real estate markets:

Costa Mesa, California: Home gets a whopping 68 offers and sells for nearly $100,000 over asking (list price of $399,000, sale price of $495,000).

Manatee County, Florida: Home gets 27 bids, list price $124,000.

Phoenix, Arizona: Home gets 11 offers, sells for 50% above list price (listed at $70,000, sold over $110,000).

Even Canada is getting into the act: A bidding war in Vancouver drove one home up to $1.1 million -- almost $300,000 above its asking price.

Talk to most real estate professionals and it's the same story: Cash-flush investors and first-time home buyers armed with a federal tax credit, low interest rates, and 3% down-payment loans courtesy of the Federal Housing Administration are bidding up properties with reckless abandon.

So it's settled then -- we're at the bottom, right?

Unfortunately, probably not.

Before we get too excited about these bidding wars indicating a bottom for the broad housing market, it's important to consider that these situations are heavily concentrated in areas where home prices are low. The trend is far from prevalent in mid-tier and high-end markets.

Lower priced homes are typically easier for investors to flip into juicy returns and require a smaller cash outlay, which opens the playing field to those without deep pockets. Further, cheap homes attract first-time buyers, who can be more easily swayed into bidding above list by commission-hungry Realtors.

In addition, big banks like Wells Fargo (WFC), Bank of America (BAC), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), and Citigroup (C) are still holding back the majority of their foreclosure inventory from the market. This is partly due to the "soft moratoria" ordered by the White House along with banks being reticent to take big losses on homes that have tumbled in value. This is keeping supply low, frustrating would-be buyers into bidding aggressively with so little inventory to choose from.

Meanwhile, as readers of this column should know all too well, higher-end markets continue to struggle, as jumbo mortgages remain a chore to qualify for and down-payment money is nigh impossible to scrounge together for all but the most qualified buyers.

This dichotomy in the marketplace means now more than ever, anyone considering buying a home should live by the over-used adage that real estate is always local. Markets adjacent to one another, separated by nothing more than a school district line, could be headed in opposite directions -- and it may be that the "good" area is far riskier than the "bad" one.
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