Sue Fox, @Properties. Direct 773.816.1788
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Hundreds of investors, it seems, are now spotting opportunity in Chicago’s rejuvenated housing market.
House-flipping, a practice where someone buys a house (presumably at a discount) and quickly resells it for a profit, is once again on the rise. According to RealtyTrac, a real estate data firm, there were 1,067 homes flipped in the seven-county Chicago area during the first half of 2012 — a 30% jump from the previous year.
Investors often buy these homes as foreclosures and then fix them up, sometimes with cosmetic improvements like new paint, but often by gutting and replacing much of the interior and mechanicals. In many Chicago neighborhoods, the houses look almost new by the time they hit the market again three to six months later.
Over the past year, I’ve seen a good deal of flipping in areas like Irving Park, Logan Square, and Portage Park. These aren’t necessarily the hottest North side neighborhoods, but they are solid middle-class enclaves close to public transit and full of houses in the affordable $250,000 to $350,000 range.
Competition for distressed homes, which often sell below $150,000 in these neighborhoods, can be very fierce, and many ordinary buyers are outbid by investors willing to pay cash. But once the homes are rehabbed and offered for sale, they can be appealing deals for the end buyer. After all, it’s not easy to find a 3 or 4-bedroom house with a finished basement and new plumbing, electric, roof, paint, kitchen, baths etc. for $300,000 on Chicago’s North side.
I helped some first-time buyers find just such a house this year in Portage Park. This particular couple started out looking at condos in Uptown, but once they discovered they could afford a house if they were willing to move a few miles west, the house search was on. We looked at dozens of old and often rundown bungalows, Victorians, and ranch houses until we finally came across a lovely, fully rehabbed 4-bedroom Portage Park house for $279,000.
It was a great deal for my buyers, who knew how difficult it was to find a renovated house in their price range, and they snapped it up quickly. And it was apparently a great deal for the investor who flipped it as well. He bought it as a short sale for $115,000, renovated it, and sold it about five months later for more than double the price.
It’s an odd conundrum: Mortgage rates have never been lower and home prices have plunged, making 2012 an excellent time to buy property… And yet, there are so few places to choose from. Where have all the houses gone?
In Chicago, housing inventory is so low that many would-be buyers have grown frustrated with their search and decided to wait until the spring. As of October 1, there were 37,619 condos and single-family houses for sale, a 17% decrease over a year ago. In fact, Chicago’s home inventory has been steadily falling for years.
Here are the October figures for the last few years, according to data kept by the ITT Technical Institute:
October 2011 45,162 homes for sale
October 2010 51,265 homes for sale
October 2009 53,949 homes for sale
October 2008 60,169 homes for sale
October 2007 67,479 homes for sale
The limited selection has meant long and aggravating searches for buyers eager to find a home. Making matters worse (at least for ordinary buyers who want to live in the home without doing major renovations) many of the houses and condos on the market are distressed properties that need work. When a well-kept home in a desirable neighborhood does hit the market, it often sells quickly and sometimes attracts multiple offers.
This summer, I helped one couple find a 4-bedroom house in Edgewater, in a good school district they had targeted for their children. But the search took six months, and they made offers on at least two or three other homes that went to other buyers. They were very motivated to buy, but the problem was there were hardly any houses to choose from! Another couple I worked with, who were seeking a 3-bedroom condo in Andersonville, Edgewater or Uptown, ran into the same problem and finally decided to keep renting until the spring, when more properties hit the market.
I can think of at least three reasons for the tight inventory: Many Chicago homeowners are still underwater and can’t afford to sell, banks who own foreclosed homes have been holding some of their inventory off the market so as not to further depress prices, and thousands of would-be sellers simply don’t want to list their homes now — at the bottom of the market — when prices look like they will be higher next year or the year after.
Serious Chicago buyers know that they need to be ready to pounce when they see the home they want, before it’s gone. And for sellers, the lack of quality inventory gives them a chance to finally sell their homes, especially if they are in good condition and priced competitively.
It’s official: Home prices are at last on the rebound in Chicago, and around the nation as a whole. After a relentless six-year downturn that shaved about 30% off local prices, we have now seen three months of steady increases in the Chicago area, according to the latest S&P/Case-Shiller housing index.
Here’s what this means on a practical level, for ordinary Chicago buyers and sellers: Prices have stopped falling, and started to rise slightly. There is more competition now than in recent years, especially for nice properties in desirable neighborhoods, and we’re seeing more multiple offers and homes going under contract at a faster pace (sometimes in a matter of days or weeks). Sellers now have a good chance of finding a qualified buyer IF they price their property in line with recent sales.
But the price increases have been small — especially when compared to the steep declines that preceded it. For example, the Case-Shiller data shows single-family home prices climbing 2.7% from June to July, on top of a 4.6% jump from May to June and a 4.5% increase from April to May.
Overall, home prices in Chicago stand about where they were a year ago. Sellers need to remember this when pricing their homes; a “housing recovery” doesn’t mean that prices have shot back up to 2006 levels. Check out the graph above to see what I mean!
Still, the market is getting healthier. The summer home-buying season was so busy I barely had time to blog about it. Attracted by the lowest interest rates ever seen on mortgages — rates on 30-year fixed loans just hit 3.4% this week! — buyers are now flocking back into the market.
I’m especially encouraged to see young buyers decide to stop renting and buy their first homes. Many of my buyers this year have been in their 20s or early 30s, a key home-buying demographic which will power the market forward. After all, with mortgage rates so low and Chicago rents on the rise, buying is now making more financial sense than renting in many cases. A recent report by Trulia showed that buying a home in Chicago is now 50% more affordable than renting a similar home here, making Chicago a better deal for buyers here than in most other cities (72 out of 100) surveyed.
The home-buying season is now cooling off as the winter approaches, but I expect the spring of 2013 to be very active as more Chicago buyers take advantage of this unprecedented combination of low prices and low interest rates.
The spring of 2012 seems to mark the turning point for the Chicago housing market. We now have several months of solid data showing that home prices and sales are both on the rise, and the latest numbers from May suggest that the market is finally gaining strength.
In May, sales of single-family houses and condos soared almost 20% over the previous year, from 1,703 to 2,037 homes. It looks like buyers are snatching up mortgages with record-low interest rates (or simply paying cash) to take advantage of home prices that rival those last seen more than a decade ago. But prices, too, are now on the rise; the median sale price in May was $203,000, up 6.8% over last May.
Last week, I had a buyer getting ready to make an offer on a condo in Lakeview. She was reviewing comps I’d sent her about six weeks earlier, when we began looking in that area, and she had devised what seemed like a fair price. But wait! I ran the latest comps, which captured all the May and early June sales, and it was immediately clear that prices had already shot up. That’s how quickly this market is moving.
It’s been a relief for many sellers — those who priced their homes reasonably — to see how quickly they were able to sell this spring. Buyers are finally out in force, and they are sometimes getting into bidding wars for the most desirable places. If your home is still on the market this summer, it is likely priced too high. It’s time to take a closer look at the recent sales and adjust your price accordingly, before the inevitable fall slowdown comes.
In another hopeful sign for Chicago’s real estate market, the sales of downtown condos recently hit a two-year high. It seems as though buyers are finally starting to absorb the excess inventory that has shadowed the downtown market ever since the downturn, holding down prices and forcing some newer buildings to turn to renters.
In April, there were 360 condo sales pending in the downtown area, up 55% from a year earlier. While this is good news, prices have yet to recover in downtown Chicago, making this summer an especially good time to buy a condo in the heart of the city.
Over the past two years, according to MLS data, median prices for condos in the Loop have fallen almost 8%, from $352,500 to $325,000. Developers of many downtown condos have had to slash prices to attract interest. Interest rates, too, have dropped and are now at record lows — around 3.75% for a 30-year loan for people with the best credit and sizable down payments.
The combination of low prices and rock-bottom interest rates make this year the best time to buy a Chicago home in at least the last 12 years. Will prices downtown continue to slump, or are we at the bottom? We have seen a recent uptick in prices (and sales) citywide, suggesting that a recovery, however faint, may finally be taking hold.
The spring housing market has been very busy this year, with many homes going under contract quickly and multiple offers cropping up on some of the most desirable properties. Recent data from the Illinois Assn. of Realtors confirms that the Chicago market is finally gaining strength again after several years of steady declines.
In the city of Chicago, the median home price for April jumped 9.3% over that of the previous year, to $184,800. April home sales were also up significantly, rising 19.4% over this time last spring (which was kind of sluggish). Last April there were 1,466 single-family houses and condos sold, but this year the number shot up to 1,750. Chicago home prices and sales also increased in March over the prior year, though not as dramatically.
“With rents in the city of Chicago increasing, paired with a limited supply of rentals available, renters are reviewing their options,” said Bob Floss, president of the Chicago Assn. of Realtors. “Historically low interest rates and great opportunities in the market are compelling to both first-time and move-up buyers looking to spend their dollars wisely and own their own home.”
I have seen a lot of activity this spring, from first-time buyers finally ready to jump into the market to investors paying cash to snap up distressed properties to families seeking to move into a larger home. There have been more than a few bidding wars, particularly on single-family houses in desirable locations. The market finally seems to be finding its footing. But what I don’t see is buyers — who are without exception looking for a good deal — bothering with homes that are obviously overpriced.
If you are looking to buy a Chicago-area home this year, keep in mind that updated properties in nice neighborhoods tend to attract a lot of interest, and if they are well-priced they could sell quickly. And if you are trying to sell a home, be sure it is competitively priced. Buyers are out there for homes that are properly priced — and you may sell faster than you imagined.
Short sales are getting a tad easier these days. That’s not to say they aren’t a pain in the neck — they are, for both buyers and sellers — but hundreds more of them are closing in the Chicago area, and nationwide, as banks finally realize that in many cases this is a better outcome than a foreclosure.
Why are short sales so difficult? The answer is that someone — a bank — will lose money. With a short sale, a borrower is trying to sell his/her home for less than what they owe on the mortgage, sometimes considerably less. In order for a short sale to close, the lender must agree to the loss, and banks by nature don’t want to lose money. Many banks are also swamped with mortgages gone bad, and they typically take months to respond to a short sale offer. And sometimes they say no.
Right now, I have three different short sale deals under contract with various buyers. One was supposed to be ready to close “right away,” since several previous deals had fallen through and the bank had already approved the list price. But it’s been more than a month so far. The other two deals will probably drag on for much longer, since the banks involved have yet to approve a short sale or even respond.
Still, short sales are on the rise. According to a story yesterday in the Chicago Tribune, there were 907 short-sale transactions in the Chicago area in January alone — a 35% increase over a year ago. Foreclosures, however, accounted for twice as many sales.
Nationally, too, more short sales are being completed. An estimated 105,000 short sales closed during the first quarter nationwide, the highest number in three years.
I still don’t advise attempting to buy a short sale if you’re on any sort of a timeline. But if you have months to spare, and plenty of patience to boot, you could give it a shot. More deals seem to be closing, and you’ll probably get a good deal on the price. Short sales sold at an average discount of 23% in January, the Tribune said, while foreclosures sold for 29% off.
With home buyers streaming through Chicago neighborhoods this spring in search of a bargain, I’m beginning to see a phenomenon that hasn’t reared its head much in recent years: the “multiple offer situation.”
Dreaded by home buyers but embraced by sellers, this pulse-racing affair occurs when more than one buyer makes an offer on a property at the same time, sometimes within the space of hours (or even minutes). The seller’s realtor will then advise all parties of the “multiple offer situation” and often ask everyone to submit their so-called “best and final offers.” Sometimes, however, one offer is so outstanding that the sellers will decide to negotiate further with only that buyer, leaving the others by the wayside.
I have been extremely busy during the last month, taking various buyers out to see properties as soon as they hit the market and helping submit dozens of offers (hence my recent lack of blog posts!) Many of our offers have been negotiated and accepted, but I can think of at least five that wound up competing against stronger offers and losing out. The bidding wars weren’t confined to a single price range, either; I saw them cropping up anywhere from a $130,000 condo in Edgewater to a $650,000 house in Ravenswood. In two situations, I was representing an investor who was bidding against five to ten other offers (often cash offers) for houses in Irving Park or Portage Park.
It is becoming commonplace to run into other buyers looking at the same property, and to hear the seller’s realtor mention that he/she has showed the home seven or eight times in one day. By the end of March, I was advising my buyers to move quickly if they really liked a home — especially if it was priced well and in good condition. It’s always better to be the first one in and get the property under contract than to wind up paying more because someone else wants it too.
This morning I was interviewed by WBEZ housing reporter Ashley Gross about the low prices of foreclosures in Chicago. Buyers can expect about a 50% discount off regular market prices when buying a foreclosure in the Chicago area, according to data gathered in the fourth quarter of 2011 by RealtyTrac.
But, as I cautioned WBEZ listeners, that’s often because foreclosed homes are in lousy shape and need work. Single-family houses that have been seized by lenders sometimes have leaks, mold, damaged floors and other problems. Many of them are missing kitchen appliances, and occasionally they’ve even been stripped of copper plumbing (which thieves find valuable). No one is living there — often for months — and the neglect takes its toll. Foreclosed condos, too, can spring leaks (I have seen two where the refrigerator leaked in the vacant unit, damaging the condo downstairs as well.) And they often are found in buildings with other distressed condos, which can mean the building itself is financially unstable and thus it will be difficult to get a mortgage there.
Remember how a home winds up in foreclosure to begin with: its owner couldn’t afford it. That usually means the owner couldn’t afford to maintain the home, either. Rare is the foreclosed property that is in sparkly new condition.
This is the time of year when most buyers begin the search for their next home. Many of them will start by sitting down at a computer and browsing through property listings online, which is a great way to become familiar with the pricing, size and condition of homes in a given neighborhood. Going to open houses is another time-honored way to start testing the waters.
But if you are serious about buying a home this year, there are several concrete steps you can take now — before you even contact a realtor or visit a single property — that will greatly simplify your search and improve your chances of finding a home that truly suits your needs.
1) Get pre-approved for a mortgage: Unless you can pay cash for a home, this is the most important step to take. It’s not as daunting as it may sound. All you have to do is call or visit your local bank, and chances are they have a mortgage division that will be happy to help. Otherwise, Guaranteed Rate and Wintrust Mortgage are both solid lenders who offer competitive rates in Chicago. The lender will run your credit and ask about your income, assets, and debt. Within a day or so, you’ll know whether you can qualify for a loan and how much you can borrow. This is a critical step, because lending standards are tight these days and buyers often need to improve their credit scores or ask family members to co-sign the loan (or give them cash for a down payment) in order to qualify. It is also vital to know how much you can afford, since there is a huge difference between what you can get for $200,000 or $300,000 or $400,000 in this market. The lender can also help you crunch the numbers to figure out what your monthly payment is likely to be.
2) Visit neighborhoods in person: Once you are pre-approved for a mortgage of, say, $300,000, you are ready to consider what that could buy in various neighborhoods. Some buyers already know exactly where they want to live, but many people are open to new neighborhoods or suburbs. This is where house-hunting online starts to break down. If you don’t know the area, you’re just looking at random homes on a screen without the context that will tell you whether there are any coffeehouses or shops or restaurants nearby or whether you will feel safe walking your dog at night. If your budget seems to be pointing you towards neighborhoods you don’t really know, it’s a great time to actually visit these areas for a few hours. Walk or drive around and see if you like what you find. If so, that may be a place to keep on your list as your search gains more focus.
3) Be specific: Now that you have a general idea of two major criteria — price and location — you are ready to drill down even further into specifics. What would your ideal home look like? Is it a condo or a townhouse or a single-family house? How many bedrooms and baths? Do your prefer a new or rehabbed home, or an older home with vintage charm (that perhaps needs some updating)? What else really matters to you? The school district? Parking? Being near public transportation? Living in a walkable neighborhood? The more specific you can be, the better. As a realtor, I always appreciate when buyers present a list of must-haves. Sometimes they fear they are being too picky, but being clear about your priorities actually is a major step in the search process. Of course, buying a home almost always involves some trade-offs, as you discover that the house with the fabulous kitchen is also on a busy street, or the place in the great school district isn’t as big as you would prefer. But if you can figure out the things that most matter to you in a home, it will spare you a lot of frustration and wasted time once you are out there looking.
I work with a lot of buyers, especially first-time buyers, and I know that many of these questions about neighborhoods, types of homes, and amenities can’t be fully explored until we jump in the car and actually go see some properties. But buyers who have done their preliminary homework tend to have an easier, more successful search. The spring house-hunting season is a bustling time, with lots of new properties hitting the market each week and thousands of buyers out looking, so being prepared can give you an edge when it comes to finding a great property. When the right house hits the market in an area you like, you will be ready to pounce … while another buyer who isn’t pre-approved and doesn’t really know the area will hesitate.
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