Senior Reporter- San Francisco Business Times
The Bay Area’s luxury home market is signaling a slowdown ahead even as prices late last year were still showing year-over-year double-digit increases.
First Republic Bank’s Home Prestige Index released Monday found that luxury home prices in the Bay Area and other key California markets are near records amid tight supplies of homes selling for $1 million and often more.
But it’s the commentary from real estate agents that set off alarms for careful followers of the luxury housing market. The commentary follows recent economic reports pointing to a national housing slowdown, which some blame on the extremely cold weather. The National Association of Realtors said last week that January existing home sales fell more than 5 percent nationally, the worst showing in 18 months. But if bad weather is to blame, some ask why were sales down 7.3 percent in the warm and sunny West?
In discussing First Republic’s latest quarterly figures released Monday, real estate agents in California’s luxury housing market are using telltale language of trouble ahead, with such phrases as “supply is plentiful” and the “market is solid,” while others see “buyer resistance” and “expect the market to level off.”
That type of talk could put a further chill on the housing market and prompt more home owners to put their properties on the market before prices fall.
Real estate agents say that pricing and demand for the limited supply of homes on the market is approaching levels last seen just before the housing market began to crater in 2007.
Earlier this month, Christopher Stafford and Terry Wright, both of Paragon Real Estate Group in San Francisco, sent an email to clients alerting them to “shifts in the San Francisco real estate market.”
“It is far too early in the year to reach definitive conclusions regarding substantive changes in the market, but there are indications of a number of shifts,” the Paragon agents said. “From the hurly burly on the street, the word is that the quantity of offers coming in on new listings is declining. Where a new listing might have attracted 10 or 12 offers last spring, three or four are coming in now; where three or four offers would have arrived, the seller is getting one.”
For those who don’t fully appreciate what the decline in offers mean, the Paragon brokers put it bluntly, “The amount of competition deeply affects home-price increases.”
“And, according to Broker Metrics, for every two listings that accepted offers in December and January, another listing expired or was withdrawn without selling.”
The Paragon agents see plenty of potential buyers checking out online listings and open houses, but more of them are first-time buyers who are “proceeding more cautiously.” Plus that group doesn’t come in with the buying power of home equity built up over the years.
“Though the market remains hot by any reasonable standard, by some statistical measure it is cooling,” the Paragon agents advised clients. “This may reflect a transition or only a lull before the spring sales season begins.”
On Monday Stafford echoed a frequently heard lament in Bay Area real estate circles, “There is no inventory.”
“It seems some of the heat has been taken off the market,” Stafford told me, adding that he views any references to the market “cooling” as overstating the case.
Those hoping that the Bay Area’s luxury housing market gets a big lift this spring might be disappointed as the affluent experience what Marcum’s accountants call “tax shock” as their higher 2013 tax bills must be paid. This segment of the market is also greatly affected by stock market performance, given how much wealth is created in the Bay Area through stock options and initial public offerings. The IPO market also helps set prices paid by acquirers of private companies. The tie between stocks and luxury housing is so strong that one real estate agent, when asked for his outlook on the region’s luxury home market, said, “You’re asking me to predict what the stock market will do.”
The traditionally strong spring housing market may see even more inventory come to market if home owners decide that they’ll get better prices by selling sooner than later.
On Monday, First Republic’s closely watched survey of luxury home values clocked in strong gains from a year ago, but more modest gains from the third quarter, especially when looking at the third quarter’s gain over the second quarter of 2013.
In the Bay Area, luxury home values in last year’s fourth quarter rose 12.4 percent from the fourth quarter of 2012 and 1.8 percent from the third quarter of 2013. That was just below the third quarter’s gain of 1.9 percent from the second quarter of 2013.
In Los Angeles, the fourth quarter’s luxury home values rose 13.7 percent from from a year ago and 1.3 percent from the third quarter. The quarter-over-quarter gain was down sharply from a 6.7 percent gain seen in the third quarter from the second quarter.
In San Diego, luxury home values rose 16.6 percent year-over-year and 1.3 percent from the third quarter of 2013. Again, that represented dramatic slowdown in price gains from the third quarter’s 6 percent increase from the second quarter.
San Francisco-based First Republic Bank produces the quarterly Prestige Home Index with Core-Logic Case-Shiller, a provider of automated property valuation services to the financial services industry. First Republic has tracked luxury homes since the bank’s founding in 1985.
The fourth quarter figures and analysis may provide a snapshot of rising luxury home values as the market was turning down.
“Luxury home prices again posted double-digit gains on a year-over-year basis,” said Katherine August-deWilde, president and chief operating officer of First Republic Bank. (NYSE: FRC) “Market conditions in California’s luxury communities continue to be very strong. Limited inventory, robust demand and low interest rates are driving prices higher.”
In Marin County, higher-priced homes saw gains.
“Going into the end of the year, homes $4 million and above finally picked up,” said Pat Montag of Sotheby’s International Realty in Mill Valley. “Prices are getting close to the peak of the market in 2007. We have very little inventory and that’s constraining the market.”
San Francisco also participated in the strong housing market last year.
“Prices continue to rise because there is so little inventory and so much demand,” said Mary Lou Castellanos of Sotheby’s International in San Francisco. “There are a lot of people who want to buy. The homes that do come to market generate multiple offers and offers over the asking.”
And new tech wealth is spurring luxury home buying on the Peninsula.
“From Palo Alto to Atherton, we are seeing offers 20 percent to 40 percent over the asking price,” said Pat Kalish of Alain Pinel Real Estate in Palo Alto. “It’s tech money as well as foreign buyers. From all indications, prices will keep increasing because the inventory is so low. If you’re a homeowner, this is one of the best times ever to sell.”
Hope springs eternal among those selling real estate.
Southern California also enjoyed a strong market as the stock market clocked in with one of its best years ever in 2013.
“The demand is incredible. It is much stronger than it was in 2006 at the height of the market. Homes that were selling at $10 million in 2005 and 2006 are now $20 million and $25 million. It’s astounding,” said David Mossler of Tele Properties in Beverly Hills.
Further south in Orange County Ron Miller of HOM Sotheby’s in Newport Beach told First Republic Bank that homes at $4 million are selling above year-earlier comps.
“The attractive properties are generating multiple offers,” Miller said. “I see some buyer resistance now and expect the market to level off.”
Even further south in the San Diego area, more signs of a cooling market are evident.
“We’re seeing multiple offers and offers over the asking for properly priced homes up to $3 million,” said Linda Sansone of Willis Allen in Rancho Santa Fe. “From $3 million to $5 million, the market is solid, prices are appreciating and supply is tight. For homes $5 million and above, there is plenty of supply, and prices are rising modestly.”
Sue De Legge of Sue De Legge Associates, also in Rancho Santa Fe, said home-price appreciation was driving the market.
“Rising prices are motivating more sellers to list their homes,” she said. “We expect more inventory to be brought to market in coming months.”
And as a reminder for those who missed Econ 101, rising supply is likely to put downward pressure on prices. One thing is certain: this spring’s home-selling season will be well worth watching.
Mark Calvey covers banking and finance for the San Francisco Business Times.