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What a crazy year 2010 was! What an equally auspicious start to 2011 already!  May I unburden myself for a moment?

A quick recap of the news. The Chinese Government issued regulations forbidding reincarnation without proper authorization. Peruvian President Alan Garcia declared that “inbred national melancholy” is to blame for his recent low approval ratings.  Romanian witches, angry at having to pay taxes for the first time, are using cat excrement to cast spells on their government.  And astronomers are revising the number of stars upward to 300 sextillion, meaning there are probably trillions of “earth-like worlds” populating the universe.  A reassuring thought for sure.

Thanks  for indulging me.  Since Real Estate of Mind is conspicuously lodged on the front page of the Sentinel Real Estate Section, I’ll try to navigate a little closer to home in the future.

Anybody catch the pre-Christmas art installation by Bay Area sculptor Lucy Puls?  Held at the Electric Works in San Francisco, it advanced “found object art” to the more socially relevant genre of “foreclosed object art.”  Puls’ show was called “Repossessed: Brief Madness”  and featured pieces inspired by illicit forays into numerous unoccupied, foreclosed homes. Google it.

Paul Auster’s new novel Sunset Park is a stark existential tale about home and its many threads of meaning. The acclaimed author uses the nation’s housing crisis as a narrative backdrop and his description of a work crew cleaning out REO properties that begins the book, will resonate deeply with those mindful of the sad humanity underlying all those distress sales happening out there. Google Auster/NPR and hear him read a passage.

Anyone notice the guy standing at River Street and Hwy 1 for weeks, right next to the Homeless Services Center,  waving a red sign at passing traffic, advertising a  huge TENT SALE  for a local retail outlet?  Panhandling is illegal but folks in clown suits standing on street corners selling tents isn’t.  We could up the irony quotient by hiring some homeless folks to push Safeway shopping carts around town  as mobile sandwich boards featuring those promotional pictures of Real Estate Agents wanting to list your home.

An unemployed Santa Cruz carpenter has found a way to turn the squeezed-out labor market into an enterprising attempt at lemonade.  He’s pioneered a new, new age technique aimed at revitalizing sick or unsold homes by performing acupuncture on them.  Using a specially adopted nail gun, he shoots 16 penny nails into the energy meridians of a home’s framing structure to get the positive chi flowing again.

Internet entrepreneur Jon Jacobs recently completed the largest single Virtual Real Estate  transaction on record – selling his property on a giant virtual asteroid for $330,000.  Google it. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m going to get my own virtual house in order and make sure my Real Estate Avatar is ready to rock and roll.

Question: What’s the name of the biggest, baddest gang in the Palm Springs/Palm Dessert area?  Answer: Barrio Dream Homes. Google it.

Promoters in Las Vegas are poised to announce the grand opening of Dystopia Acres, America’s first official “Subprime Suburb”. It will be billed as a planned community that’s been thoroughly unplanned and then completely re-planned again to meet the needs of the future and remedy the sins of the past.  They’ll kick off the festivities with a Broken Dream House Raffle awarding a free home to some richly deserving soul.

Also popular this coming year will be a series of ground-breaking neuro-marketing seminars based on A.K. Pradeep’s new book called  The Buying Brain: Secrets for Selling to the Subconscious Mind.  Google it. Pradeep’s precepts will supplant older high-touch models based on Vulcan Mind Meld Techniques as a means of allowing Agents to get into the heads of their buyers and sellers.

There is no truth to the rumor that limericks will become a popular way to  promote homes.  There is also no truth to the rumor that real estate agents will begin collecting cover charges at their weekend open houses.

Advanced Data Mining by Real Estate Agents using Facebook and other Social Media sites is apparently in the works. Special software algorithms have been developed to chase down all mentions of  major life transitions like job loss, old age and death and send follow-up automated e mail solicitations.  Getting divorced ? Look for a special message from the Community Property Asset Protection Service coming to an inbox near you.

By the way, there is no truth to the rumor that Al Gore invented algorithms despite the whimsical similarity in names.

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Reading the Headlines

Are we there yet?  Settled in?  Hunkered down?  Resigned and signed on for the “new normal ” of real estate?  The same old that continues to look more and more like the same old as more time goes by?

Our regular ration of news about the state of the market is due out any day now.  A smattering of real estate-related stories will start popping up in the public domain presently.  It’s the little flurry of activity that always accompanies the release of the previous month’s sales data.

Don’t blink, because the half-life of these stories only quickens the pulse and fogs the mirror for a day or two.  And don’t hold your breath either, thinking that the UPI guy is going to be delivering any big gift-wrapped packages to your front door.  As we wander further ahead into the Ho Ho-Ho season we are going to find ourselves sinking further into the Ho-Hum season as far as real estate is concerned.

Status quo seems to be the current quid pro quo. Stories sounding more like non-stories will be rearing their nondescript headlines in the daily press.   Dressed in bold font. Spun this way or that to foster an air of enlightened importance.   But in the end, there won’t be a whole lot of new news fit to print.  Certainly not much news to use in any meaningful way for anyone trying to determine their own individual path forward through life.

Maybe there’s some brilliant phrenologist out there with the ability to get a good “reading” from those upcoming headlines when they appear.  Tickle some kind of intuitive sense or future perfect tense out of them.  As for the rest of us?  I’m guessing most Agents and Buyers and Sellers are going to remain hovering in the dark for quite awhile longer.

Yep, the jury is still out even as the results are trickling in.  Just as inconclusive as they’ve been. And had been before that. The median price is still lodged in soft tissues of the marketplace – between $500k and $550k.  The number of sales has ratcheted down a little but not by a significant amount considering the small local sample  – 140 to 119 year over year.  The average price is still residing in the familiar confines of the same ballpark  -$572k – one that simply isn’t allowing many home runs.  The ubiquitous Unsold Inventory Index is holding steady in the 6-8 month range, the suggestion being that prices, for the moment, remain “stable”  –  if not completely and utterly uninspiring  to principals on both ends of the average real estate transaction.

Is the lack of news the real news?

Here we are. Sitting on the edge of our musical chairs. Primed with anticipation after a whole year of kicking the can down the road. Wondering whether the other shoe is going to drop from the high wire balancing act of the economy.  Or alternately wondering what miraculous confluence of factors is going to step up to give us a swift kick in the pants. Boot and reboot us forward.

With Thanksgiving and Christmas on tap, we’ve got the perfect excuse to explain why people and properties aren’t moving faster.  Faster better. Or faster worse.   For another month or so, we can simply say that we aren’t really holding our breaths., we are all just taking a breather.  Buyers are on temporary hiatus.  Sellers are on sabbatical.  Agents are on vacation.   The market has given itself a voluntary furlough.

There’s no way around it so we might as well use this time wisely.  Take a few extra weeks to drop back twenty yards and survey the horizon ahead. Ponder the landscape before we decide whether we have to punt or not in the new year.

We’ve thrown a lot of life preservers to real estate this past year just  to keep it floating in the same place.  Incredible interest rates. Tax credits. Buyer incentives of all shapes and sizes.

What’s going to determine whether we sink, swim or continue to tread water this year?  That’s easy.  The big three:  1) Jobs.  2)  The continuing machinations of the credit crunch. And…3) The disposition of the ominous shadow inventory that has grown to archetypal proportions in the realm of the collective unconscious.

 

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My Brain on Real Estate

It’s not even noon yet and my synapses are already misfiring on all cylinders.  The steady stream of data coming in feels like a bunch of square pegs trying to shove themselves into a dart board full of small, round, empty holes.  My right and left hemispheres might as well be ships passing in the night of day because my deepest gut instincts are in direct disconnect with the spin of information  orbiting a world that’s already wobbling woozily around on its own axis in full tilt boogie.

There’s an image of Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the marketplace, looming large on a video screen inside my head.  It keeps cracking eggs open into a sizzling frying pan while the voice-over in my inner ear keeps saying …”This is your brain on real estate…Any questions?”

Well…yeah. I’ve got some questions.  A  lot of questions.  That’s probably all I do have at the moment. Thank you very much.

Like…what happens when the bottom of the market is going up and the top of the market is coming down at the same time?  What do we call that? And how do we explain that to our clients? Do more and more people and places just get stuffed into a never-ending zone of price and property compression somewhere north of low and south of high?

How dense can it get in that space before the gravity of the situation gives – in one direction or the other?  Can the stirrings at the bottom of the market push the top back up? Or will the weight of all those pie’s hovering in the sky eventually get so heavy, they’ll force a carefully crafted façade of positive perception to fall to earth?

Is there a second dip coming to top off the cone of silence surrounding the shadow inventory of bank-owned properties getting held off the market? Not to mention the shadowier  inventory of  loan modifications not getting done, notices of default not getting foreclosed on, delinquent payments not getting issued notices of default and the next cycle of 5/1 Arm’s getting set (and reset) to appear right around the corner?

Why has the Mortgage Application Index (google it) fallen so abruptly at the same time interest  rates have dropped so remarkably low?  Money at 4.5%?!!  Weren’t they just warning us that rates were going to go up when the Fed Mortgage Purchase Program ended?

Shouldn’t the ranks of eager purchasers lining up to get their pre-approval letters be growing by leaps and bounds?  Aren’t more buyers out there chomping at the bit as summer inventory begins to expand right in middle of their very own buyer’s market?

And while we are asking the questions…even though it is probably true that the market is seasonal and the sellin’ is easiest in the summer when the catfish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high…isn’t it also true that more homes (as in a larger percentage of properties that are actually listed) don’t sell in the summer too? So which is it? Do more homes sell in the summer? Or do more homes not sell in the summer? Or both?

Is this just all about the end of the tax credit for first time buyers that expired on April 30th?   Would first time buyers  really have waited until the second or third week in April to get their loan applications in? Wouldn’t most of them have started their processes sooner?  Did we just move the time horizon up on purchases that would have otherwise happened later?  Like a cash for clunker homes program?  Was this just another version of all of us collectively kicking the can down the road to see if something else might happen in the meantime to pull our asses out of the fire?

Will the real, real estate market ever stand on it’s own again without huge transfusions coming from the Feds?  Or without interest rates being propped artificially down?  Will the private sector be able to make its own rain again? Without a house of cards built on liars loans and credit default swaps.?  Can it pick up the loose reins of laissez -faire even if it feels  very laissez-unfair in the short term?

Is there some secret escape route on the horizon the helps us get out of the Pavlovian Paradigm where we can’t help robbing Peter to pay Paul with yet one more hail Mary pass that leaves the answers blowing in the wind for future generations to figure out?

Time will tell. But not any time soon.  In the meantime, I’ve signed up to have my brain frozen at the cryogenics lab. Wake me up when we get there.

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