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Recession may forge a housing shift in California

 

Tight financial times may have a lasting effect on home buyers and alter the state’s real estate landscape.

Sept. 13, 2009

By CHIP JACOBS

Mollie Bell has a plan the next time a real estate infomercial flashes on her TV: She’s “flipping to the cartoon channel.”

After being burned by a negative-amortization loan that left her owing more on her Compton home than it was worth, Bell, 62, has soured on the home-refinancing craze. Never a big spender anyway, she has clamped down even harder — deferring painting and other repairs on her modest three-bedroom home. Sadly, she’s also postponed retirement.

“From top to bottom, I’m reexamining how I spent before, and am trying to save at every turn to put away 10% a year. I [hadn’t] saved for an economic Katrina.”

Americans’ long love affair with debt is cooling off a bit. The Federal Reserve reported last week that the amount Americans owe on credit cards, auto loans and other forms of consumer loans dropped for a sixth straight month in July, the longest decline since 1991.

It’s the same story with home equity lines of credit, which financed a significant degree of consumer spending during the boom. The amount of money owed on these loans is down 3% from a peak of $1.13 trillion in mid-2007, according to the latest Fed figures.

Much of that is the result of falling house values and tighter credit by lenders, but analysts say it also reflects decisions by Americans such as Bell to spend less and save more. The savings rate climbed to 5% in the three months that ended June 30, a 15-year high.

This save-more, spend-less trend has potentially significant implications for Southern California’s real estate-centric economy, some analysts think. They believe that the nascent age of frugality — if it has staying power — could forge a new sort of California homeowner, one who ranks energy-efficient appliances and access to public transit ahead of granite countertops and luxurious bathrooms.

Economist Edward Leamer, director of the UCLA Anderson Forecast, believes that wholesale shifts in Southern California’s suburban land-use patterns may emerge, so that Los Angeles begins to look a little less like a giant cul-de-sac and a little more like Manhattan.

During the housing boom, homeowners had no qualms about spending money to commute to distant suburbs carved out of the hinterlands. But frugal home buyers, he said, will be more inclined to look first at homes that are closer to their jobs.

“We’re going to see more multifamily-dwelling units,” Leamer said.

The real estate industry is known for its bigger-is-better attitude, but even some industry pros sense a change.

“We’ll probably be seeing a trend toward smaller, greener, less-costly-to-maintain houses,” said Walter Maloney, spokesman for the National Assn. of Realtors. It’s “a return to basics.”

Not everyone is buying it. Eventually, when the economy regains steam and housing prices rebound, Southern Californians will again stretch to buy a house they cannot really afford, some believe.

“People have short memories and just look a couple years ahead,” said San Fernando Valley real estate agent Gary Rapoport, who represents clients generally looking for properties in the $400,000 range. “They just want to buy whether they qualify or not.”

Real estate economist Christopher Thornberg seconds that view. Californians display a sort of amnesia about downturns that affect the housing market, he said, whether caused by financial-market debacles or the collapse of the technology boom. Price slumps in each of the last four decades, he noted, didn’t dispel the perception of residential real estate as a sure-bet investment.

“We’ve been here before,” Thornberg said. “People have a shocking ability to forget the past.”

The counter-view is that the great recession will have a long-lasting effect on those who lived through it, much in the way the Great Depression scarred its survivors. That economic nightmare was credited with spawning a generation of Americans who mended torn clothing, saved rubber bands and dutifully returned soda bottles for deposits.

“Because of the mess we just came out of, people will be more wary, more cautious, about believing [home] values can go back up to where they did, and not be as aggressive consumers as they were before,” said Lori Gay, president of Los Angeles Neighborhood Housing Services, a nonprofit lender and developer.

“We do need to have some personal responsibility,” she added. “The bulk of consumers had some slight greed on the table too.”

Matt Rodriguez, a 30-year-old parade-float builder, may exemplify the new, cautious Californian.

Although he and his wife, a community college teacher, together earn well more than $100,000 annually, the tanking real estate market persuaded them to put an indefinite hold on buying a starter home in the San Gabriel Valley.

Friends’ horror stories — in this instance, the tale of a contractor buddy whose fixer-upper is now $250,000 underwater — further darkened Rodriguez’s long-term perspective.

“We’ve scrambled. We’ve refigured,” Rodriguez said. “It makes no sense to own now. We’re moving on.”

By moving on, Rodriguez means they’re staying put in their $1,150-a-month, un-air-conditioned Pasadena rental, saving money by growing their own vegetables and shopping for bargains wherever they can.

Kenneth Wang, 53, who recently closed escrow on a $520,000 condominium on Pasadena’s posh Orange Grove Boulevard after looking for years, is also feeling the stress of stretched finances.

To make ends meet, he is considering taking a second job on top of his special-education teaching post and won’t be eating out as much. If it’s the joy of new homeownership, it’s bittersweet.

“I plan to sacrifice or suffer for a few years to see how far I can go,” said Wang, who also owns rental units in Pasadena. “I can’t pay a mortgage until I’m 80.”

Evan Huie, 33, an engineer, said he had considered remodeling his Monrovia residence but cooled on the idea.

“My generation and older, I think we learned our lesson,” Huie said. “I’m more concerned the younger generation hasn’t experienced this kind of crisis, where you have to budget really well and say no to spending. You can get addicted to [home values] going through the roof.”

Leamer, the UCLA economist, believes the decline in housing prices could lead an entire generation of California homeowners to think twice about that costly remodel.

“The housing boom made us feel wealthier than we were,” Leamer said. “You refinanced based on [perceived] gains and bought an SUV. . . . [Now] we might be seeing a permanent change.”

Bell certainly counts herself among the converted. She was able to get her negative-amortization loan modified with the help of L.A. Neighborhood Housing Services, and now aims to pay off her home — not use it to finance other purchases.

“I used to think having a home was like cash money,” Bell said. “When these mortgage companies say things are getting better, I’m going to keep watching every penny I spend.”

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Despite such vows, seasoned observers note that when the housing market recovers — and even housing bears suspect it will recover — it will also bring back the boiler rooms of loan brokers who are trying to get people to take out loans they cannot afford.

 

Unfortunately, some tough loan-reform measures to protect homeowners from the next frenzy haven’t passed, meaning today’s post-bubble carnage may not be the last, said Paul Leonard, director of the non-profit Center for Responsible Lending in California. Last September for instance, Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would’ve better defined brokers’ fidicuiary responsibilities to put their clients’ economic interests ahead of theirs and allowed borrowers to seek damages from predatory lenders, among other changes. 

 

“I think people will be chastened by this period (but) how long it’s hard to know,” Leonard said. “There’s too much research that the way people make economic decisions isn’t always based on economics. It’s based on the structure of our brains and psychology.” That’s why we need “effective regulatory structures … not relying on the goodwill of lenders.”

 

There’s another x-factor with the new frugality equation: how long consumer resolutions to spend less might last? Surprisingly, the conviction might wear out only three-to-six months after the crash, said Dowel Myers, a professor of urban planning and demography at USC. Many people in a busy socieity have what Dowel calls a “half-life attention span” to trauma. Officials noticed it with lowered preparedness not long after earthquakes and even the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

 

Orange County homeowner-activist and blogger Martin Andelman contends that Californians are plenty mad, and that the anger won’t subside anytime soon. Because clobbered home prices have penetrated middle class and affluent areas largely immue before, he projects we’re entering a period of skeptical consumerism.

 

In January, an Andelman post on Newsvine about rampant foreclosures and heartbreaking evictions, including homeowner suicides, generated 417 comments.

 

“As we go about our daily lives, there are children crying, and moviong trucks are pulling away from (foreclosed) houses where people won’t turn and look back,” Andelman said. “These are scars that 

will last for 50 years. Will somebody who goes that ever trust the banks again?”