How the Housing Market Fared in 2011 & What’s in Store for the New Year

A housing economist recently noted that all the real estate market really needs to right itself is six straight months with no surprises. All the ingredients for a turnaround are there – record low interest rates, outstanding affordability, and very attractive home prices. But economic and political headwinds at home and abroad kept the market from really gaining much momentum this year.

To be sure, 2011 was anything but predictable. On top of the tepid economic recovery here in the U.S., there was one crisis after another around the world – the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami, the “Arab Spring” uprising, a spike in oil prices, political standoffs on Capital Hill, the debt limit ceiling and downgrade of U.S. debt, and most recently the sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone and the subsequent stock market volatility here at home.

But there was reason for encouragement for our local housing market. Colorado’s real estate market did show some positive signs of rebounding this year despite skittish consumer confidence and the sluggish economy.

Existing home sales in the Denver Metro Area in October – the most recent figures available – jumped 12 percent in October a year ago, according to Metrolist. Through the first 10 months of this year sales were up fractionally compared to the same period in 2010.

The median sale price for a single-family home was $226,021 in October, down 1.8 percent from the same month last year, while the median price for a condo rose 1.2 percent to $125,000, Metrolist reported.

Distressed home sales

One of the reasons for the increased number of sales but lower median prices overall is that entry-level homes and distressed properties continue to be the lion’s share of transactions in many areas as bargain hunters rush to take advantage of attractive prices and low interest rates.

One trend we’ve noticed of late is a drop in the number of bank-owned properties that are listed for sale and an increase in short sales. The reason may be that government regulations and controversies over “robo-signing” have kept more foreclosures from coming on the market. As banks put the robo-signing debacle behind them, we may see more REO properties released in 2012.

While the release of additional distressed properties could keep prices of all homes down in 2012, we suspect that strong demand by investors for these homes will probably keep prices from falling much further. We’ve seen multiple offers for many bank-owned properties, sometimes all cash offers, as investors snap up what they believe to be great bargains.

At the other end of the spectrum, the luxury market has remained fairly stable through much of 2011 in the Denver Metro Area. While the number of million-dollar sales did drop sharply in October from the same period last year, overall this year sales edged higher. Through the first 10 months of the year there were 460 transactions in excess of $1 million versus 455 a year ago, according to a report by Chicago Title Co.

Non-distressed mid-market

Homes that fell somewhere between distressed and luxury properties – the bulk of the market here in Colorado – probably were the most challenged in 2011. One big reason for the softness is that we didn’t see very many move-up buyers trading their entry-level homes for larger, more expensive properties as they have traditionally done in the past.

Equity homeowners stayed on the sidelines, perhaps due to a lack of confidence in the housing market and the economy in general. They may have been frightened away by doom and gloom news headlines about the housing market, or maybe fear over whether they might lose their job should the economy stumble again.

This uncertainty and lack of confidence, I suspect, will continue to some degree into 2012 until there is more positive improvement in the economy.

But as we approach the new year there are glimmers of hope that the housing recovery could finally gain some traction.

Gradually we’re seeing fewer distressed sales and more “normal” transactions. Additionally, the high-end market remained fairly strong this year, which is a good omen for the entire market.

In the past, luxury homebuyers – the so-called smart money – are often the first to declare a market bottom and jump back in because they have the means to do so once they are convinced the time is right. The other segments eventually follow.

The inventory of available homes on the market continues to shrink rapidly. In fact, the inventory of unsold homes in the Denver Metro Area fell to its lowest level of the year in October, down 33 percent from a year ago, Metrolist data showed.

Buyers are far more active right now and that, coupled with tight inventories, is helping to firm up pricing while getting serious buyers to be a little more realistic when making offers–especially in the entry-level arena. Properties priced correctly and that show well are getting a tremendous amount of traffic as well as multiple offers in some cases.

Additionally, we are finally seeing many banks starting to process short sales in a more streamlined fashion, allowing us quicker short sale approvals.

Finally, the news media are starting to join the chorus suggesting a turnaround is near and that now is the time to get back into the housing market. A recent Fortune magazine article declared, “Forget stocks. Don’t bet on gold. After four years of plunging home prices, the most attractive asset class in America is housing.” And The Wall Street Journal followed with a headline declaring, “It’s Time to buy that House.”

So will 2012 usher in a steady, predictable economic recovery at long last or another wild rollercoaster ride of economic and political surprises? Only time will tell how it all plays out. Fasten your seat belts!



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