If journalists were allowed to bet (we’re not) it would have been easy to call today’s S&P/Case-Shiller housing price data. After jumps of 6.8% two months ago (reflecting December year-over-year sales) and 8.1% last month (reflecting January sales), “up” would have been a fairly easy prediction.
And, indeed, today’s announcement of a 9.3% year-over-year gain for February is right on trend. The number appears to reflect a broad national trend, with gains in each of the 20 metro areas the Home Price Index includes. Even New York, which had been the last holdout with a negative report of down 0.3% last month, came in with a 1.9% gain.
In fact, the index is ratcheting up with such speed that it no longer seems driven by people buying homes in which to live, especially in an economy with unemployment still at a pesky 7.6% and job growth low. Compare that with housing price gains of 23% per year in Phoenix; 17.6% in Las Vegas, and 16.5% in Atlanta. Prices are even up 15.2% per year in Detroit, which is enough to make many city mayors consider their own Clint Eastwood commercials.
The answer to the paradox may indeed be buying by investors rather than homesteaders. First-time buyers, especially, have found current credit markets tough to navigate. The Federal Housing Administration, which traditionally provides a boost for first-time homeowners by insuring their mortgages, is now backing one-quarter of all homes purchased in America, up from a more typical 10 to 15% market share, according to a story by Rose Melly in the San Jose Mercury News. However, the FHA has made its policies more restrictive — and those purchases more expensive — by raising the mortgage insurance premiums (MIPs) that it charges by one-tenth of 1%. For homes under $625,000, the MIP has gone up from 1.25% to 1.35%. That may not seem like much, but when you’re trying to make a housing payment as a first-timer, every dollar counts.
Investment funds, by contrast, seem to be upping their spending. The percentage of home sales that were all-cash but not by individual investors rose from 10% to 11% in March, according to the National Association of Realtors. John Paulson, the billionaire investor often seen as a housing bellwether after he made $15 billion from the housing crash, has announced plans to start a second real estate fund, following its 2009 real estate fund, according to Pensions & Investments. But it’s the Blackstone Group that is known for leading this pack, having spent billions in the single-family market; the number that Wall Streeters like to quote is that founder Steven Schwarzman says that the firm is spending $100 million a week buying homes. If that pace continues, I’d guess — because I’d never bet — that we’ll have an uptick in the home price indices next month, too.