After December, The Avalanche?

Louis XIV of France, styled the Sun King, famously opined, “Apres moi, le deluge.”  After me, the flood. He was right, of course, for his excesses so infuriated the people that his successor was guillotined and his monarchy overthrown in the French Revolution.

SoCal Plunge In Foreclosure Filings

Something similar seems to be brewing in Southern California and maybe even nationwide as lenders ratchet up their foreclosure filings after the “robo-signing” lull. Though foreclosures dropped dramatically in SoCal this fall, so, too, did all home sales. The reasons seem to be many: the end of the home buyer tax credit, stubbornly high unemployment and the generally still-moribund economy. In fact, sales are down a full 16% from November of 2009. This at the same time foreclosure filings fell 14% from the previous November after a 22% decline in October for a two-month total 36% decline. Nationwide, the filings fell 21%.

December is traditionally a slow month in real estate as consumers focus on retail buying, parties and holiday travel plans. Typically, though, also in December  smart investors are out there snapping up last-minute bargains of the now-extremely motivated sellers still on the market. Competition is almost always much less, to put it mildly, and sellers are determined to close out their books for year’s end.  This year seems to be different as even investors are holding back.

That may be because the huge drop in  foreclosure filings this fall has ominous repercussions for home prices in the new year. With the foreclosure freeze over, informed observers now expect to see the banks ratchet up their foreclosures with a vengeance, restarting filings begun in October and November and barreling ahead with new ones in January. Executives from RealtyTrac, a real estate data collection firm, speculate that the housing recovery could be set back three months, if not more, as the foreclosures pile up. In fact, we can expect ” an avalanche” of foreclosures shortly.

SoCal Home Prices

The most immediate effect of an avalanche of foreclosed properties on the market will be to further depress prices in Southern California which had started a slight upward movement. Los Angeles County home prices had dropped 1.2% over November 2009 to a median of $325,000. Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, the hardest hit by the bursting of the real estate bubble, lost 2.5% and 5.0% respectively to medians of $195,000 and $152,000. But, that is a huge improvement over the 30% and 40% drops of previous years. Other SoCal counties actually gained in value. Orange County eked out a .6% improvement for a $435,000 median home price. San Diego topped the charts with a 3.1% improvement over last year to a median of  $335,000 with Ventura County just behind at 2.7% uptick to a median of $375,000.

Future: More Underwater Homes

These hard-earned gains will soon be lost as the promised avalanche of foreclosures hits the market. Perhaps sales will pick up as buyers and investors are lured back into the game. But, bargain-hunting fun aside,  another price drop for already distressed homeowners will plunge yet more homeowners underwater.  That, in turn, spirals down into more foreclosures and more equity loss in future.

Like Louis XIV, banks see this as well as anyone, yet still refuse to modify loans in any serious way. Like Louis, they see, but, obviously, don’t give a damn as long as they get their bonuses. Short-term is the only term.

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