Editorial: Carefully consider housing data

  • Updated: July 15, 2009 - 10:30 AM

Dire data may depend on location, location, location.

Burst bubbles in the stock and housing markets have left behind discouraging monthly reminders, as Minnesotans open financial statements or read the latest housing market report in the Star Tribune. The numbers have been dreary on both fronts, but at least 401(k) statements provide specifics on individual retirement accounts. Housing data merely describe the general direction of home values across the metro area.

Last week, for instance, the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors reported results for June, and the message was mixed. Pending home sales spiked 33.7 percent compared with June 2008, which continued a string of 12 consecutive months of year-over-year increases. At the same time, the number of properties for sale slid 21.6 percent from last June. That decline in inventory may help stabilize prices.

But among the houses that sold, the median, or midpoint, price fell 15.4 percent from a year earlier to $173,500, although that was up from May's median price of $165,000.

Trouble is, these are figures from the entire market. The very different parts that make up that whole are the subject of an analysis by the McComb Group, a Minneapolis-based real estate and retail consultancy, which is working on behalf of the Builders Association of the Twin Cities, among other local real estate interests.

The study asserts that like most metro areas, the Twin Cities tells a tale of two markets. "The traditional market" comprises homes that are not in or threatened by foreclosure. In the first quarter of 2009, it included about 90 percent of the region's houses, but only 41.2 percent of overall sales. The remaining 10 percent of houses are in some stage of foreclosure and account for 58.8 percent of all sales through "lender-mediated" transactions, in which prices tend to be particularly low.

James McComb, the consultancy's president, argues that lumping together "traditional" and "lender-mediated" home sales gives a misleading, and overly gloomy, impression. He doesn't question the technical accuracy of the numbers, but claims real estate data compiled by firms like Case-Shiller for their widely followed national home price index "is mathematically correct, but it's misleading because it's an unbalanced sample ... If you went out and did a poll with 10 percent Democrats and 90 percent Republicans you could do the math right, but you'd have a widely inaccurate poll to base an opinion on."

Instead, McComb suggests that the old real estate marketing mantra of location, location, location remains the driving dynamic in setting house prices. Among the largest 100 metro-area neighborhoods designated by the Realtors association, for instance, median sale prices of traditional homes have declined less than 10 percent in the majority -- 58 -- of them. In only 11 neighborhoods did prices fall 15 percent or more. The key factor making the difference, of course, is the prevalence of "lender-mediated" sales.

All the same, another seasoned observer, real estate professor George Karvel of the University of St. Thomas, is skeptical of the two-market concept. "There is only one market for housing," he said. "Every individual house that is for sale influences the price of all other homes. There are expensive homes. There are cheap homes. And they all influence and play one against each other."

Suffice it to say that housing market data is complex, and deciding what it means for any individual property is more challenging than reading a monthly savings statement. Housing troubles are real, and homeowners are wise to proceed with caution. But the contradictory data shouldn't paralyze people from making rational investment and spending decisions based on their individual circumstances and needs.

Indeed, Karvel optimistically notes of the housing market: "It's one of the best buying opportunities in decades."

  • THE BUBBLE RIPPLES

    "It's cascading through to automobiles and other high-ticket items. As dire as the economy is, most households aren't at the risk of unemployment. It's that group of 80 percent not at risk that's going to have to lead us out of this cycle and they're hunkering down. They've been lead to believe that their house has lost more value than it really has."

    James McComb,

    president, McComb Group

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