Editor’s note: Forget the housing experts who’ve made our heads spin with real estate market forecasts. It’s time for a fresh set of eyes and a new set of skills to tell us whether this housing market is going to bust. In this three-part series, we sought out some alternative sources for predicting the housing market. We opted for a deck of tarot cards, the Taoist zodiac and a consumer focus group. (See Part 1: Tarot reader predicts slowing, but no crash and Part 2: Is it my time to buy?)
The American dream of home ownership isn’t just alive and well. It’s kicking.
For years, we have been asking the experts, economists and trade industry gurus. Not getting a straight answer, we decided to ask every day consumers–John and Jane Doe–during an Inman News focus group of architects, executive assistants, project managers and several other white-collar workers.
The diverse collection of renters and homeowners reached a surprising consensus: Housing prices may be high, interest rates may be poised to rise and it may seem difficult to buy a house with only one income, but no one is worried much about the housing market. And renters believe – or rather, know – they’ll join the ranks of homeowners at some point.
And the most powerful theme? People love home ownership.
Nine of the 11 people said home ownership is the American dream. Or, as one person put it: “Absolutely.”
Higher prices have not caused anyone to lose faith in home ownership. The homeowners love the fact that their home’s value is increasing, but the renters are not thrilled. Still, most seemed to view it as the price of admission into the home-ownership club.
However, the group was about evenly split on whether housing prices have leveled off or whether they’d continue their dramatic ascent. A few said interest rates at 9 percent would have a slowing effect on the market; almost all agreed that 10 percent rates would definitely impact the market.
The dream of home ownership, after all, is one that’s difficult to shake despite the costs. It tantalizes and lures, no matter how long it may take to achieve it.
Fickbohm doesn’t see an end to California’s home-price appreciation, especially given the location and the weather.
“It’s stalling a bit,” he said. “It’s like an escalator. It might slow down a bit, but it’s still going up.”
He and his wife have owned their house since 1972, and the only thing he said he would’ve done differently is buy earlier.
“I would have bought as soon as I could,” Fickbohm said.
Even so, he knows he’s lucky to have bought the house when he did. Otherwise “I could not afford to buy the house now.”
Cadambi is now looking to buy a place of his own, and doesn’t worry about talk of a supposed housing bubble. His family has been in real estate for years and has ridden the ups and downs over the years. Interest rates may impact the market, he said, but he remembers people still buying houses with rates at 13 percent.
“It just has never collapsed,” Cadambi said.
As an architect, Cadambi wants to own his own home, seeing it as a potential “sketchpad.” He doesn’t have to design it from scratch, but he wants a place where he can put his own mark.
He also doesn’t want to rent any longer, calling himself the “low end of the totem poll.” He and two others rent a three-bedroom apartment in San Francisco for $2,400 total, or $800 apiece. If one person leaves, however, he and the other roommate are stuck making up the difference, not the landlord.
Thompson is looking to buy a house in San Francisco, but is dismayed by the neighborhoods she can afford to buy in and by how much sellers want for houses.
“It’s an abomination that somebody is selling something put together with toothpicks, bubble gum and tape and they want $2 million for it,” she said.
Still, she believes “you do what you have to do” to reach that home-ownership goal.
While at her previous job, Thompson planned to buy a house in San Francisco, knowing it was a good way to invest her money. Then she lost her job, which put the dream of a little house in the city out of reach.
But she’s determined she can still afford that dream despite the high housing prices.
“Sticker shock is over,” Thompson said.
Zhu doesn’t believe her condo, which she bought about 18 months ago, will lose money for one simple reason: location, location, location.
“The location’s not going anywhere unless there’s an earthquake and the whole hill goes down,” she said.
As a homeowner, Zhu is thrilled by the rapid appreciation in housing prices. But as someone who’s looking to buy a house with her fiancé at some point, Zhu is less enthusiastic about the price of housing.
“If I ever want to upgrade, there’s no way,” Zhu said.
Like many renters, Felock would like to see an opening, something – anything – that would let her get in on the housing party.
“I would love to see the market go bust, just a little bit, just to be able to get into the market,” she said.
The bottom line about the current housing market is that it’s difficult to purchase a home on only one income, she said. Even if a person earns $100,000 a year, the median priced home selling for half a million dollars is barely within reach.
Last year, McGilbra helped a woman buy a house for $450,000 that is now valued at $630,000. Buying a house further out in the suburbs, letting the value appreciate, reselling and then using the profit to buy a house somewhere else is one strategy for dealing with the cost of housing. But she sees some signs of that type of appreciation slowing.
“I think here in Northern California, the market is correcting itself,” McGilbra said.
She owns homes in Houston and Florida, but not in the Bay Area, where she now lives. She’s unsure of whether she wants to invest the amount of money it would take, and instead views her other homes as her investment in home ownership. For now, she enjoys the flexibility of renting, and watches as housing prices continue to escalate in outlying areas.
Mullin isn’t worried about the housing market declining, but he believes there may be some leveling out in prices.
“I think maybe there might be a kind of correction in the market,” he said.
Mullin’s wife keeps a constant eye on the market to see the price of homes comparable to theirs.
Mullin has benefited from the Bay Area’s rapid price appreciation, with his house nearly quadrupling in value. But he said he might have bought differently if he had to do it over again.
Rather than buy a house simply because it was visually appealing, he thinks he would have looked more closely at the house’s potential to appreciate in value. Given the rapid increases in prices, it’s a smart investment strategy, in his view.
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Braddy wants to be a homeowner, and plans to be one someday. But it’s not going to happen soon.
“Maybe by the time I’m 40,” the 29-year-old said.
For now, however, he finds that home ownership just isn’t a possibility on one income.
“I would need to get a wife, get another job,” he said. “For me, it’s just not affordable.”
And he’s not willing to trim other activities in order to afford a house. He also talked about the “headaches” involved in keeping up your own home.
But he witnessed his sister’s recent home-buying experience, and is familiar with home ownership’s lure.
“She’s, like, in heaven,” he said.
Cobb believes that it’s almost impossible to buy a house on one income. Plus, she has other expenses that many people don’t have. She’s a single mother saving to help put her son through college and paying for college courses herself.
Cobb isn’t buying a house anytime soon.
“I’m pretty much having to wait until something turns around,” she said.
What that is, she doesn’t know, but she knows that she’ll be a homeowner – someday. After all, owning her own home is something she wants and is determined to have.
For Brown, home-price appreciation means a good return on one’s money.
“It isn’t about home ownership now–it’s an investment,” Brown said.
But it’s a pricey investment to get started.
“Even if you can afford to shell out two grand a month, do you want to use up 75, 80 percent of your income (on housing) and not be able to afford to do other things?” Brown said.
Despite the cost, Brown is now looking to become a homeowner. In his search, he’s having to balance what he can afford with things like where he’d like to live.
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