In April, Facebook Inc. picked Nasdaq over the New York Stock Exchange for its initial public offering, or IPO, as it is know in the financial world.
The selection of a stock exchange was globally watched and the decision dissected for wider import by the world’s tech community. In Northern California’s Silicon Valley, home to the Menlo Park-based social networking company, everything Facebook does is carefully watched, even in the real estate sector.
Or, should we say, especially in the real estate sector, because an IPO like Facebook’s produces plenty of instant multimillionaires when employee stock options suddenly have trading value. And those multimillionaires will need a place to live, somewhere in Silicon Valley, in driving distance to the corporate headquarters.
For example, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg last year bought a $7 million house in Palo Alto, Calif., and his company hadn’t even transformed into a public company.
It should be noted $7 million is not an outlandish price for a home in Palo Alto, where in February the median price for a home was just under $2 million. Palo Alto wasn’t even the cream of the crop. In February, 10 homes sold in nearby Atherton with a median price of $5.2 million; three homes sold in Portola Valley with a median price of $4.125 million; and nine homes sold in Los Altos Hills with a median price of $2.85 million.
So, the big question is: Will there be a Facebook effect on the local real estate market when the company becomes publicly traded? I checked in with two veteran Silicon Valley brokers to get their opinions.
Their views were mixed and nontech.
Yes, they think there will be some benefit, but after some tough years during the heart of the recession, Silicon Valley residential prices were already moving in the right direction so it would be naive to attribute any correction solely to Facebook.
Silicon Valley, the famed high-tech corridor stretching south of San Francisco to San Jose, is unique in that the financial movement of a singular company can have an unusual market impact on real estate values. It’s not that Facebook’s employees were not in the housing market already, either as homeowners or renters, but that an IPO would instantly change the capital status of those same employees, who might then want to improve their living standards.
"We do watch this kind of thing because technology is our employment base and it really drives the Silicon Valley housing market," said Suzanne Yost, president of the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors, and a Realtor with Alain Pinel Realtors in Los Gatos. "When we see a company succeed, we know that it is going to help the employees as well as the investors. That adds to the health of the housing market."
Well, has the Facebook effect began to kick in?
There are two ways to look at that: the direct and indirect effect, Yost said.
As far as newly minted millionaires, the market hasn’t seen that yet, Yost said. "What I expect we will see, as per what happened with prior IPOs, is that people will cash in their stock options and buy property, particularly the young workers."
The indirect effect is something else, Yost said. "The Facebook IPO phenomenon has already led to increased consumer confidence and a lower employment rate. What we are seeing is: People are afraid they are going to miss the market and are getting in."
Chris Isaacson, chairman of the Silicon Valley Associations of Realtors and a Realtor with Coldwell Banker in Woodside, operates in the pricey markets of Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and Woodside.
When Mountain View, Calif.-based Google went public in 2004, there was also expectation that the housing market would take off, but that was in the midst of a booming housing market before the recession, and in actuality the market "just continued to do well," Isaacson said. "With Facebook, there is going to be a lock-up period, and a lot of young people may end up staying in San Francisco and taking the bus to work — we have a great commuter bus system. We caution: The buzz may be more fiction than actual."
Having thrown up a caution flag against irrational exuberance, Isaacson added, "There is going to be money generated locally, and some of that has already been the case. There have been people working at Facebook who were able to sell stock for some time now and have been buying houses."
As in 2004 with Google, it might be hard to see the IPO effect because the Silicon Valley market has already been improving since the dark days of the recession.
"Prices came down across the board during the recession, but in varying degrees," Isaacson said. "In the lower end of Menlo Park where there was a lot of speculative buying and rental housing, prices declined around 30 percent. Most Silicon Valley homeowners, however, experienced a decline of about 10 percent to 20 percent at the worst. Now, it feels like it is back to where it was at peak."
If anything, there is a problem with lack of inventory in Silicon Valley.
In February 2011, the total inventory for Silicon Valley was 980 single-family homes, with closed sales at 171, Yost said. "In February 2012, total inventory was 698 homes, with total closed sales at 204 homes. In February 2011, the average days on the market was 86; a year later it was 61."
Even those numbers are a bit misleading.
"The stats tell a story, but you have dig deeper," Yost said. "Houses that come on the market at fair market value are selling in the first 10 days and getting multiple offers. If you look at the median days on the market, that is driven higher by a group of homes that have been for sale a very long time because the sellers aren’t realistic about the prices."
Indeed, selling price per square foot in February 2012 was $588, down 5.8 percent from February the year before.
Here’s a couple of interesting data points for February: Palo Alto reported 24 closed sales with an average 39 days on the market and a median price of $1.95 million; Menlo Park also reported 24 closed sales with an average 39 days on the market and a median price of $765,000.
"The market here had troubles really only at the start of 2008, which was much later than everywhere else," Isaacson said. "Things were humming along quite nicely through the summer of 2008 until the Lehman Brothers collapse. 2009 was a year when a lot of people were trying to understand what happened. Last year was quite good, and this year is going to (be) better."
That’s something you might want to read about on Facebook.