The following article was reposted from Knowledge@Wharton
Published: April 30, 2013 in Knowledge@Wharton
The U.S. residential real estate industry is showing signs of a recovery. Demand for homes is growing stronger, driven by historically low interest rates and government subsidies. Job growth would, of course, accelerate that rebound. However, for a sustained recovery, housing supply must increase with both new construction and regulatory reforms that could bring to market homes that are “under water,” or those whose market prices are lower than their outstanding loans. Those were the main highlights from a panel discussion on real estate industry trends at the Wharton Economic Summit 2013, held in March in New York City.
A crucial element of the legislative reforms is to find ways to shield the federal government from home financing losses, the panelists said. The government ended up becoming the country’s biggest home financier after the 2008 housing collapse, when it bailed out secondary mortgage finance agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac at an estimated taxpayer cost of up to $360 billion. Bipartisan political consensus holds the key to the reforms, panelists stressed.
The panel included Jeff Blau, CEO of Related Companies, a New York City-based real estate development firm; Jonathan D. Gray, global head of real estate at New York City-based financial advisory firm Blackstone; Jim Millstein, chairman and CEO of New York City-based financial advisory firm Millstein & Co.; and Richard A. Smith, chairman, CEO and president of Realogy Holdings Corp., a New Jersey-based real estate franchising and services company. Joseph Gyourko, Wharton professor of real estate, moderated the discussion.
“The metrics certainly indicate a much stronger interest in residential housing than it seemed in the previous six years,” said Smith. His firm Realogy operates in all 50 U.S. states and 102 countries and has a 26% market share of the U.S. housing market in sales volume. The recovery has gathered pace since the first quarter of 2012 and is “completely unexpected,” he added.
Consequently, home prices have strengthened and the overhang of unsold homes is bottoming out, but something “much more dramatic” is occurring, according to Smith. “We literally have markets where we have no supply, no inventory,” he said, citing New York City as an example of this phenomenon. He saw that across the country — a week’s supply of homes in San Francisco, no inventory to sell in Miami and an outpouring of open houses “in every market” where Realogy operates. “We feel very strongly that this is a strong recovery and it is sustainable.” In Phoenix, home prices are up 25% and they have risen in the “very high double-digit percentages” in Southern California, added Blackstone’s Gray.
Smith said the housing recovery is occurring despite impediments. He cited two issues relating to the 2010 Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. One is a decision on what constitutes a “qualified residential mortgage,” or QRM, because that would set the criteria for the down payment for home loans that underwriters require. A related second issue is whether a decision about QRM could encourage developers to resume homebuilding.
Increased housing inventory is critical for a sustained recovery, Smith argued. A resolution to the QRM issue could release some of the 10.8 million homes that are under water, he explained. “If we do not have the increase in inventory, then we will still have a recovery, [but] that will be anemic.”
Since 2009, underwriters have been wary of risk and are lending only to “the highest possible standard” of borrower creditworthiness, Smith noted. He called for a speedy resolution of the matter and hoped the new debt-to-income criteria would be less onerous than people fear they might be. He clarified that he did not expect underwriting standards to become more lax. He only wanted to get back to the “pre-bubble” days, when underwriters required credit scores about 100 basis points lower than current expectations of about 750, he said. (Credit rating agencies award scores from 300 to 850.)
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