Sue Fox, @Properties. Direct 773.816.1788
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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.
In many Chicago neighborhoods we’ve been seeing condo prices falling steadily, while the price of single-family houses has tended to hold up a little better. This is the case in places like Lincoln Square, Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park, West Ridge and Logan Square.
In Lakeview and North Center, which are two of the most popular North side neighborhoods, both condos and houses have held their value and prices have even slightly increased over the past two years.
But in Lincoln Park — another popular neighborhood, and one of Chicago’s most expensive — I’m seeing condo prices hold steady (with just a small 3.3% decline over two years) while single-family house prices have fallen steeply. The median single-family house price is now $1,280,000 in Lincoln Park, a 22.4% drop over two years earlier, when the median was $1,650,000.
This plunge suggests the difficulty of selling high-end houses in a time of uncertainly and austerity. In Chicago, only the Near North Side (home to Old Town, the Gold Coast, Streeterville and River North) now boasts higher single-family home prices than Lincoln Park, with a median price of $1.6 million. But that figure also reflects a major drop, down 25.6% in the last two years.
I think there could be something more at work, though. Maybe some luxury buyers are choosing the suburbs over the city? Over the past two years, single-family home prices have held relatively steady across much of the North Shore, including Wilmette, Winnetka and Glencoe.
I’ve witnessed an interesting trend emerging in recent months, just by watching my own buyers as they move through the home-hunting process. And now I have some hard data to prove it: Chicago buyers are increasingly buying single-family houses, often skipping right past the condo stage that was once the point of entry for first-time buyers.
Five to ten years ago, if you were a North side buyer approved for a loan of $200,000 to $400,000, your best option was often to buy a condo if you wanted to live in a lively neighborhood with plenty of restaurants and shops (and sometimes even the lake) within walking distance. The Loop, South Loop, River North, Bucktown, Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, North Center, Roscoe Village, Lincoln Square, Andersonville, Uptown, Edgewater — all of these areas were bursting with new condo developments that made the most of city living at prices that were affordable for first-time buyers. Most of these folks never even considered buying a single-family house.
But today, Chicago housing prices have fallen so far that decent 3-bedroom houses can now be had for the price of a condo. The demand for single-family houses has climbed rapidly, with 37 percent of Chicago buyers choosing a house in 2011, according to data gathered by the National Assn. of Realtors. Two years ago, only 27 percent of buyers made a similar choice.
Likewise, the appetite for condos has waned. Just 39 percent of Chicago buyers opted for a condo in a building with at least five units in 2011, compared with 54 percent in 2009. (The rest presumably bought townhouses, two-flats or some other type of residential property.)
Among my buyers, the shift seems to be happening because they realize that by compromising a bit on the neighborhood, they are able to find a house for $200,000 to $300,000. These houses generally are neither large nor new. They tend to be around 1200 to 1600 square feet (often a bungalow, a ranch house, or an A-frame home) and they often need some cosmetic updating, especially things like refinishing the floors and renovating the kitchen and baths. But they usually offer all the appeal of a single-family house — including a backyard, garage, and basement, while NOT including a condo association, upstairs or downstairs neighbors, or monthly assessments.
“I never dreamed we would be able to afford a house,” one of my buyers recently told me. But more and more buyers can — particularly if they are willing to look a bit further west than they may have lived previously. Instead of the neighborhoods mentioned above, areas like Irving Park, Albany Park, Avondale, Logan Square, Portage Park and Jefferson Park are now attracting Northsiders who want a house but may only have $250,000 or so to spend. At price points around $300,000 and above, you can sometimes find newly rehabbed houses with finished basements in these neighborhoods. There is literally nothing to do but move in (which, in years past, was often the appeal of many new and gut-rehabbed condos.)
The latest figures are in for December home sales, and once again, prices have slipped in Chicago as distressed properties gobble up nearly half the market.
The median sale price is now $156,000 in Chicago — a 6.2% drop from December 2010, when it was $166,250. Back in the robust days of 2005, 2006 and 2007 before the housing market crashed, Chicago’s median price stood between $279,000 and $287,000 each December. So you can see how dramatically local prices have fallen.
But the price plunge is deepened by the kind of properties now selling. Nearly half the homes trading hands, about 45%, are foreclosures or short sales. Many people may imagine that these homes are fabulous deals, attractive houses or condos sold well below market value. But as a realtor who actually tromps through these distressed properties on a regular basis, let me assure you that a lot of them are in crummy shape.
Foreclosed homes are vacant, and vacant homes invite leaks, mold, animals, vandalism and occasionally even squatters. They are often missing their kitchen appliances. An angry former owner may have damaged the home on the way out. Stained carpets, holes in the drywall, buckled floors and other maladies are common. Short sales, on the other hand, are still owned by a financially-strapped homeowner, so while they are often occupied, they may have been the victim of deferred maintenance for years. Sometimes tenants live there, and many times these homes are not in great shape by the time a short sale is finally completed.
Every once in a while you do run across a distressed property that is in good condition, but I would say that is the exception in most Chicago neighborhoods. The point is, with so many foreclosures and short sales now in the mix, Chicago’s home prices have been dragged down by the sheer weight of all these lower-end properties.
This phenomenon has made it very tough for ordinary sellers (who aren’t in foreclosure or attempting a short sale) to compete on price, particularly in areas with a lot of distressed homes like Rogers Park, Uptown, or Albany Park. Many people are opting to stay put (or try to rent out their homes) rather than sell in this environment.
In his State of the Union speech last night, President Barack Obama proposed a new plan to let all underwater homeowners refinance at today’s super-low mortgage rates — a proposal that could help heal the housing market and inject fresh cash into the economy.
If Congress approves it, that is. And with a Republican-controlled House that continues to block many of Obama’s initiatives, that is a big if.
The Obama administration has already offered a variety of programs aimed at stemming the tide of foreclosures, helping people modify their loans, and promoting refinancing for government-backed mortgages. But so far, the impact has been minimal and more than 3 million homes have been repossessed since the housing boom ended in 2006.
In Chicago, where the median home price has dropped about 30% since the downturn began, thousands of underwater homeowners have either lost their homes to foreclosure or been forced to sell in a short sale. Nearly half of the recent sales here now involve distressed properties. Each year, I meet dozens of people who would like to sell, if only they could get enough to pay off their mortgage.
Obama’s plan would at least help these folks hang onto their homes. Each homeowner could save an estimated $3,000 per year if he/she could refi and take advantage of the lowest rates (around 4% for a 30-year fixed mortgage) in half a century. Then they could pump those savings back into the economy, whose lifeblood is consumer spending. The Obama administration estimates that the program could benefit two to three million homeowners, according to the New York Times.
It’s a sensible plan all around, but some financial analysts are already proclaiming it dead on arrival, saying it won’t get through Congress. The sticking point seems to be a “small fee” that would be imposed on large banks to help fund the plan. Will this prove to be another instance of Congress protecting Wall Street profits at the expense of Main Street homeowners?
The highest end of Chicago’s housing market took a beating in 2011, with sales of homes for $1 million or more falling 14.4% over the prior year. Only 539 such properties sold in 2011, compared with 630 homes in 2010.
Luxury condo sales were particularly hard hit, according to a recent story in Crain’s Chicago Business. Sales of million-dollar condos plunged 29% to 259 units, compared with 364 in 2010. The decline was partly attributed to the fact that no major new luxury condo developments were completed last year.
But the uncertain economy and troubled real estate market also certainly played a role. Many people are holding off on big-ticket purchases, and million-dollar homes are taking longer to sell. There’s a year-and-a-half supply of luxury homes sitting unsold throughout the Chicago area, Crain’s reported.
On the ground, I’m seeing some of these single-family homes endure multiple price reductions, occasionally to the point that their original asking price is sliced nearly in half. Often homes priced slightly above $1 million will sell for closer to $850,000 or $900,000. On the other hand, new or recently-built homes in hot school districts tend to sell quickly, with less of a discount off the asking price.
While home prices in most Chicago neighborhoods have been steadily falling, North Center — a desirable area with good schools and walkable neighborhoods like Roscoe Village — is bucking the trend. In 2011, the median price for a single-family house here rose to $805,000, a 7.5% increase over the year before.
More of these lovely houses are being sold, too. Sales of North Center houses soared almost 23% in 2011.
Condo prices in North Center, meanwhile, have held steady, ranging from a median of $365,000 to $370,000 over the past three years. Considering that condos in many other North Side areas have fallen at least 10-20% in value in recent years, North Center is definitely holding up quite well.
As the new year begins, I have two buyers looking in North Center, both young couples with children interested in homes available here in good elementary school districts such as Coonley, Bell and Audubon. And despite the relatively high median price of $805,000, you can definitely find an updated 3 or 4-bedroom house in North Center for considerably less money. More than 30 houses, many of them century-old homes that have been renovated, sold for $500,000 to $700,000 in 2011.
Happy 2012! Especially if you’re a home buyer.
From what I’ve been seeing over the past few weeks, Chicago buyers are already out shopping for their next home. Even during the height of the holiday season, I witnessed: One of my condo listings go under contract two days before Christmas, two separate buyers (in the Loop and Uptown) who are preparing to make offers this week, and another three new buyers who are starting their single-family home searches (in Bucktown, Irving Park, and Andersonville).
Home sales are on the rise throughout Chicago… but home prices are not. And neither, for the time being, are mortgage rates. That’s why it’s such an incredible time to be a home buyer. At no other moment in the past decade could you find home prices so low in Chicago (the median is now $160,000, nearly back to the levels of 1999), nor interest rates hovering below 4% for a 30-year fixed mortgage. Savvy buyers with solid income and credit scores are seizing the moment — and many people are simply paying cash for their properties these days, if they can afford it.
A major trend in 2012 will undoubtedly be the flood of foreclosed and short sale properties hitting the market; they already make up almost half of Chicago’s home sales. Illinois now ranks fourth in the nation for foreclosure activity, with 12,398 properties receiving foreclosure filings in November alone. In Cook County, foreclosure activity jumped 20% in November, according to a recent story in the Chicago Tribune, which attributed the rise to a 57% increase in homes sent to court-ordered auctions.
Buyers are out there, but they are definitely looking for bargains in 2012. And with homes now selling for about 30% less than what they commanded just a few years ago, bargains are not hard to find. It’s much harder to find home sellers — particularly the traditional kind who aren’t in foreclosure or attempting a short sale — willing to accept the new market reality and price their properties accordingly.
Merry Christmas! I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season this year.
I just wanted to give you a quick update on where prices are heading: Down, in a word. The latest housing data from the Illinois Assn. of Realtors shows that Chicago home sales are picking up, but prices have continued to fall throughout 2011.
In November, sales of single-family houses and condos in Chicago totaled 1,377 — a 20.4% jump over the previous year. But nearly half of them involved short sales or foreclosures, troubled properties that are often sold at a discount. That’s the main reason, in my view, that Chicago’s median price has continued to slide.
The median price for a Chicago home sold in November was just $160,000. That’s 12.3% lower than it stood in November 2010 — and a startling 45% decline from the median price of $290,000 in November 2007.
Check out the plunge, year over year:
November 2007: 1859 sales and median price of $290,000
November 2008: 1093 sales and median price of $222,500
November 2009: 1905 sales and median price of $215,000
November 2010: 1144 sales and median price of $182,500
November 2011: 1377 sales and median price of $160,000
It seems that our local market is stabilizing as far as sales go, albeit with a lower volume of homes changing hands. But prices have yet to bounce back by any long-term measure. They may increase slightly for a month or two, but year-over-year home prices have declined for about half a decade now.
As the new year approaches, it looks like it will be a stellar year for home buyers, who now enjoy the lowest prices in 11 years and the lowest mortgage rates in more than half a century. Homeowners, however, will continue to suffer and sellers who are truly motivated will have to lower their asking prices to match this sunken market.
Little by little, Chicago developers are once again breaking ground on new houses on lots sprinkled across the North side, bringing dozens of high-end homes to neighborhoods like North Center (which includes Roscoe Village and Ravenswood), Lincoln Park, and Bucktown. In North Center, for example, 18 new homes were sold this year, another 16 are still on the market, while 4 more are under contract.
It looks like Chicago is now witnessing the Return of the Spec Builder — local developers who plan, design and build single-family houses without having a buyer lined up ahead of time. “While spec building never entirely dried up, it slowed significantly after the bust, leaving only a few developers with deep pockets still standing” said a recent story in Crain’s Chicago Business. “Now, smaller builders that waited for signs of life — and the availability of financing — are once again breaking ground on million-dollar-plus homes, confident that buyers will bite.”
In North Center, the new homes for sale range from a 3-bedroom frame house at 2440 W Fletcher St. for $649,900 (with delivery planned for 2012) to a 7-bedroom mini-mansion on an oversized lot at 1936 W Grace St. for $1,749,900 (that the builder promises to customize.) But the majority of the homes are 5-bedroom houses, many of them in the Coonley elementary school district, for $1 million to $1.3 million.
A typical offering is 4108 N Claremont Street, which has a large family room on the main floor, a second-floor laundry room, and a finished basement with a rec room and a wet bar. It has been on the market for only a week, priced at $1,199,000. Once finished, it will be just over 4,000-square feet, with amenities like radiant heat, steam showers and an outdoor fireplace.
While Chicago is just starting to see a glimmer of new construction, housing starts — a measure of how many homes builders are working on — are up sharply throughout the country. Today the Commerce Department reported that housing starts jumped 9.3% in November, the highest in the past 19 months. It seems that low interest rates for mortgages, as well as lower home prices, are propelling buyers back into the market for new houses.
In Chicago, developer Mike Barrett of Barrett Homes is building three spec homes, in Roscoe Village, west Lakeview and Bucktown. “I wouldn’t say the market is flush with prospective buyers,” he told Crain’s, “but the people who are looking seem to be well-qualified and have a pretty good idea of what they want in a home.”
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