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Keepin' It Real Estate: A Tale of Two Markets

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Getting to the "bottom" of the housing market.

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Increasingly, US real estate is becoming a tale of 2 markets.

In low-income neighborhoods, overbuilt suburbs, and other areas besieged by foreclosures, home sales are through the roof.

Data released this week by MDA Dataquick, a real-estate information service, show December 2008 sales in Southern California's hard-hit Riverside and San Bernardino counties up a whopping 300% from a year ago. Southern California as a whole has seen transactions spike more than 50%, while pockets of the San Francisco Bay Area are showing similarly robust numbers.

Prices, however, continue to plunge.

Foreclosure sales are driving distressed markets, and since repossessions disproportionately affect lower-priced homes, data are being skewed downward. Record-low interest rates, bottom-fishing investors and relentless marketing efforts by the National Association of Realtors are all spurring renewed buying activity.

Lenders are so overrun with new business that Wells Fargo (WFC), which plans to cut over 10,000 jobs as it absorbs recently purchased Wachovia, is hiring hundreds of temporary workers to handle mortgage applications, according to MortgageDaily.com.

Meanwhile, buyers are on strike in high-end markets, and supply is creeping towards materially unhealthy levels.

Jumbo loans -- those not guaranteed by the government via Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE) -- are nigh impossible to get, leaving would-be buyers of expensive homes in the lurch. Transactions are down in some of California's -- and indeed the country's -- most prestigious markets, leaving a host of recently minted real estate millionaires wondering if they're next to get stuck in the subprime slime.

Conventional wisdom among real-estate professionals is that these well-to-do areas are in "wait-and-see" mode. This attitude, while comforting to the rich, is dangerously naïve.

Transparent, real-time sales data is carefully concealed from the buying public by the country's real-estate brokers; it tells a very different story. In these illiquid high-end markets, inventory is building, forced sales are on the rise, and prices are starting to head south.

And contrary to popular belief, value drops aren't just taking place in far-off exurbs where palatial Toll Brothers (TOL) McMansions litter flattened hilltops. Established neighborhoods -- many close to job centers with top schools -- are seeing home prices fall for the first time in decades.

These high-priced markets, particularly because of the troubles in the jumbo loan market, have become dangerously illiquid. In many neighborhoods, just a handful of homes are currently listed for sale. If one seller gets antsy, loses his job or otherwise jumps at a low-ball offer, the entire market can gap down. The new, lower price sets the bar at which potential buyers begin their negotiations, putting sellers at the whims of their skittish neighbors.

Due to dramatic appreciation during the boom, many wealthy homeowners are sitting on huge equity cushions. While not something they often complain about, this could encourage quick sales, as sellers don't need to hold out for the absolute highest price like their poorer, more levered neighbors on the other side of the tracks.

All this adds up to an increasingly bifurcated market. The most distressed areas are currently going through the final, violent throws of a real-estate collapse for the ages. The process could still take months to run its course and some communities, sadly, may never recover.

Previously strong areas, on the other hand, are just now beginning to feel the pinch. Many, after decades of unfettered appreciation, have a very, very long way to fall.
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