Bubble burst? Real estate's future is all about location

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:54

    Now that crystal-ball watchers are no longer speculating about the state of Brad and Jenn's marriage, they're debating whether real-estate prices are about to burst. Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan joined the discussion in July when he said that he had greater concern about the "speculative fervor" in the booming housing market in some areas of the country. Experts hold different views regarding whether an imminent bust will duplicate the dot.com demise n or if it won't happen at all, particularly in hot markets. Bruce Labovitz, CFO of Comstock Homebuilding Companies Inc., in Washington, D.C., which builds houses in the $400,000 to $800,000 range, sees no bust on his area's horizon because of a strong economy and housing demand. "We've had 250,000 jobs added in the last five years and more are to be added. Income levels are at a record high and above the national average," he says. The only change he foresees is a slight dip in appreciation. Craig Studnicky, principal and executive vice president, International Sales Group, a real-estate marketing firm in Aventura, Fla., also predicts no bust because of low interest rates pushing up prices, which he thinks will continue. "We're not concerned about demand meeting supply, but supply meeting demand, and that could be cause for a slowdown," he says Mortgage banker Michael Kronsburg, president of Allstate Lending Group in the hot market of Monterey Park, Calif., near Los Angeles, also thinks demand will keep up, though he says prices could soften in some local markets where appreciation has skyrocketed. "Real estate has peaks and valleys," he says. But he estimates any dip would be only 5-10 percent and wouldn't happen everywhere. Anthony Marguleas, a real estate broker with A.M. Realty in Los Angeles, also doesn't expect a crash because of strong demand. "The main reason people buy a home is because they want a place to live and/or raise a family; investment is a secondary issue for most homebuyers," he says. Others disagree and think a bubble will happen not just nationally but globally, though it may be contained to specific regions or neighborhoods. Investment advisor James Berman, president of JB Global LLC in New York City, takes this position and expects prices to pop in the hottest markets where low mortgage rates have made mortgages too easy to secure. Ed Champy, partner at Waypoint Development LLC, an investment and development firm in Boston, Mass., thinks fringe neighborhoods, where many don't want to live because they represent a risk, are most susceptible to a bust while the best and worst neighborhoods may avoid them, he says. Proof of a bust already beginning, he says, is greater inventory coming online, more properties selling slower and investment opportunities increasing. Diana Brodman Summers, an attorney based in Lisle, Ill., and author of "How To Buy Your First Home" (Sphinx Publishing, 2003), agrees that the availability of funds and especially "creative" mortgages for those who might not have qualified in the past is one factor that will trigger a bust. Others, she says, are house prices rising faster than wages; downsizing and outsourcing increases the ranks of unemployed or making some unemployed take lower-paying jobs or multiple part-time jobs; bankruptcy law changes favoring creditors and hurting homeowners; and credit-card companies being allowed to raise rates sometimes without telling customers n or making cards too easily available. Jennifer Openshaw, host of ABC's radio show, "Winning Advice with Jennifer Openshaw," adds another sign of a softening market: slowing appreciation. She also thinks some sellers may need to offer incentives to move their houses, such as assuming more closing costs. Bruce Fenton, president of Atlantic Financial Inc., a full-service investment firm in Norwell, Mass., says those hurt most will be the highly leveraged. Despite the different predictions, experts agree that anyone buying or selling should exercise greater caution. The following tips may help: • Anyone buying should live in a home for at least five years since it may take that long for a market to rebound, says Berman. He also suggests avoiding adjustable-rate mortgages with initial teaser low rates since they'll go up and could be a time bomb for those unable to pay higher rates. • Oppenshaw thinks buyers should consider the worst home in the best neighborhood since, if prices drop, they won't feel as big a sting, she says. They also should consider more affordable housing, which often may be found further away than their original destination. Examples: Riverside, Calif., versus a closer Los Angeles suburb, or undiscovered Tamarack, Ida., versus high profile and pricey Sun Valley. • Investors planning to flip a property quickly should exercise caution, Berman says. Openshaw thinks investors should buy in areas with strong rental markets that offer a prime location or many amenities, or buy in an undiscovered area with a big upside. Berman says he'd discourage sellers from thinking they can predict the perfect timetable to sell, rent and wait out the rebound before they buy again. "That's a dangerous game because bubbles can go on for a longer time than expected and renting can prove expensive," he says.