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Keepin' It Real Estate: Foreclosure Wheel Keeps on Turning


Getting to the "bottom" of the housing market.

Despite herculean efforts to stop the foreclosure juggernaut, Americans are still losing their homes at near-record pace.

According to RealtyTrac, a firm that sells default data, foreclosure filings rose in February to nearly 300,000, up 6% from the month before. This figure is the third highest for any month since the housing market turned south in 2005.

As property values fall, more borrowers are finding themselves underwater - owing more on their homes than they're worth. This, coupled with job losses, means homeowners are missing payments at an alarming pace.

Sky-high foreclosures are even more astounding when myriad loan-modification efforts and short-term foreclosure moratoriums enacted by big lenders like Fannie Mae (FNM), Freddie Mac (FRE), JPMorgan (JPM) and Bank of America (BAC) have been taken into account.

And while President Obama's hotly debated $275 billion housing-relief package is barely a month old, its becoming clear that no cleverly worded press release or inspiring oratory can reverse the trend that's firmly in place: Housing supply remains elevated, with buyers sitting on the sidelines awaiting better deals. Prices, as a result, will keep falling for the foreseeable future.

In fact, Rick Sharga, executive vice president at RealtyTrac, told Bloomberg he believes the country's biggest lenders have yet to list over 700,000 bank-owned homes.

This "phantom supply," as its known in the real-estate world, paints a bleak picture for the housing market in the near term. Even though strong sales activity in distressed markets is pushing aggregate inventory data back towards historical norms, phantom supply is patiently waiting to punish those bold enough to prematurely call a bottom.

Further, well-to-do areas, formerly immune from home price declines, are starting to follow their more bubbly counterparts over the proverbial cliff. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, 15 homes had sold for over $5 million by this time last year. This year: Just one.

Many of the most distressed markets are in their last gap of depreciation. And while material appreciation is simply fantasy, high-end markets will pick up where they left off and keep broad measures of property values under pressure.

But as this dynamic plays out -- and the depreciation torch is passed from the "subprime" people to those who are "prime" -- opportunities will emerge in markets that stabilize first. Just as housing prices overshot to the upside, they will likewise overshoot to the downside.

The opportunities are currently few and far between. But with each day that passes, the world of possibilities grows, if only ever so slightly.
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