March 06, 2004

million dollar starter homes?

I read this article in the LA Times today and immediately got depressed. Well, more depressed. Yesterdayís bill-paying stint led to last nightís entry. This, however, sucks more. Not that itís exactly news. Middle class families cannot buy houses in our local real estate market. For example:

Kristin and Jayce Murphy, after looking for a year and bidding on four homes, have decided to stay in their Fairfax area rental and wait it out.

The coupleís household income of about $100,000 annually is too high for them to receive FHA help but not high enough for them to buy a satisfactory home at today's prices. Their decision to give up came after realizing they were putting offers on homes they felt were subpar.

"We were really settling," said Kristin Murphy, 38, nonprofit project manager at KCRW-FM. "We would say to ourselves, 'Gee that house is only $350,000 for 700 square feet and one bedroom and one bath.' "

Such luxury, huh?

It's insane. Houses are getting ten, twenty, even thirty bids the second they hit the market. Buyers canít complain about basic problems, like cracks in the foundation or they'll lose the house. And the only buyers who are winning this race are the ones who can plunk down hard cash with no contingencies, which means if you already own a house you have to sell it before you even look for a new one, which is an enormous gamble because the housing prices are going up 25% per year. And with so few houses on the market, it can take a long time to find the right one. At which point the selfsame house is worth more but your down payment is the same because you already sold your place. Which means youíre priced out of the market because you sold your house so you could get into the market. A real catch 22, no? Starter homes, according to this article Ė and I would concur based on my own research Ė will cost you $700K to 800K, and thatís today. Next year? $900K to a cool million if this keeps up.

Conventional wisdom says wait until the market cools down because it always does. But thereís no reason to think this is a bubble. There are more people immigrating to California every year (definitely including this gridlocked city), and how can you build new houses without tearing down buildings? You canít. So itís a simple equation. A flood of buyers, too few houses available, prices go up. And up. And up.

All of which should be fine with me. I mean, we own our house. And thank god for that. We bought it three years ago, in the proverbial nick of time. As it was, we had to compromise. If weíd waited another year, we couldnít have found a compromise we could live with. Three years later, our humble house wedged between ugly-ass apartment buildings in an up-and-coming but convenient neighborhood with nearby restaurants and malls and such? Has doubled in value. In three years. What kind of investment does that? But we canít cash out because we still have to live in this city. When we bought the place, we expected to stay here, oh, three years and then move on. Well, guess what? We canít move on. Because the market is so insane, weíd need an extra hundred thou or maybe two or we end up with something thatís an equal compromise. Another starter home. And whatís the point of that?

So Iím looking around me tonight and liking my house. Itís not everything we want. Well, the neighbors arenít everything weíd want. The house, though smallish, is awfully pretty. And thereís a Whole Foods nearby. And oh, hell, itís not that bad. Could be worse. Itís justÖ itís a good first house. I donít want it to also be a last house. Not unless we buy land somewhere better and put the house on a truck, cart it to a more desirable block. And weíd have to be able to afford the land. Not gonna happen, not unless something changes.

But thatís just me and us and our myopic view of the world. The bigger picture is worse. I realize that home owning isnít the be-all and end-all, and I have plenty of friends who donít own. Hell, I grew up in a rambling, sunny rent controlled apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, and nobody owned back then. But itís very difficult to create a nest egg without property of your own. With a house, youíre paying in every year for thirty years and then youíre done and you have a place to live as you grow old or you can cash out and have a real source of income for your last years (my grandmother did this and itís supporting her in a nursing home right now). Itís a security blanket. Itís a safety net. Itís your house.

Itís bad enough that working class folk canít do this. Now middle class folk canít. You rent, you have nothing. When a hundred thousand a year isnít a big enough income to buy more than a closet, thereís something seriously wrong. Worse, when the housing prices go up and up like this, rental prices follow suit. If youíre not lucky enough to have rent control, you might be priced out of your own home in a few years. Thatís scary. The gap between rich and poor is now a gap between rich and middle class. Itís a strange world. A mad, sad, bad world.

Posted by Tamar at March 6, 2004 08:42 PM

and here in NYC, that million dollars will buy you a 600-square-foot apartment in Lower Manhattan; even in the "affordable" neighborhood where I live, 2-bedrooms are more like $600K. So we scramble for rentals that haven't caught up.

did it look this daunting to our parents? I don't think so.

Posted by: Chris at March 7, 2004 05:38 AM

What you say is true, mostly. But not entirely. There are places where you can trade up without losing out. But they all have compromises...some of them major. Like no Whole Foods nearby. Like no walking anywhere other than the neighbor's house. Like hellishly long commutes to the West Side. That sort of thing. But they do exist. It's just a question of what you're willing to give up.

TC, realtor not-wannabe

Posted by: Tiny Coconut at March 7, 2004 02:43 PM

Heh. TC, don't you know you're not supposed to let on that you know the drawbacks of an area you want to entice someone to live in? Though honestly, it's something we're toying with. The trade off might well be worth it.

Chris, yeah. Manhattan real estate has been notoriously crazy for a long time, but there are still the boroughs and Jersey. Well, parts of Jersey. I looked at a realtor site in Montclair today and we could get a nice Colonial with lots of rooms for at least a hundred thou less than our place is worth. So rates here aren't slowing down as much as they have there. Or, well, at all. And it's not just the LA basin; if you read the article, the wannabe buyers talk about looking in far flung areas.

Posted by: Tamar at March 7, 2004 10:04 PM

We're trying to convince my sister-in-law and her family to move closer to home from CT. Down here in "the south" where things haven't quite caught up, they could get several acres and a very nice,large two-story for the value of their teensy house on a postage stamp lot near Hartford. Of course, the trade off there is that you'd have to be willing to move to the relative boonies of SC. Which, understandably, many people aren't willing to do....

Even here, though, as far behind the big cities as we are, we're starting to see the signs.

Posted by: Jenn at March 12, 2004 07:02 AM

what the fuck is this thing?

Posted by: jake at May 3, 2004 06:56 AM

You people are paying to live in over populated broke down dirty ass cities. I can find diversity and culture all over the states and I don't have to be in any major cities to find these things. I live in the south only ten minutes from the emerald coast and the cost of living is cheap. I could easily have a four bedroom home with a reasonable amount of land for around 200k and I could still afford a nice new car and support my two children as the trends change. My family income is only 80k and we have a very nice 1,200 sq. ft. townhouse right in the middle of the southern paradise. You folks need to move away from the west coast and leave the violence and bums behind and come on down south!

Posted by: Keith League at October 2, 2004 10:52 AM