Northern San Joaquin Valley home market still depressed

Sales, prices, construction -- all remain at historic lows

August 24, 2010 

A cluster of just-released housing statistics all point the same depressing direction: down.

Whether it's home sales, housing construction or resale prices, none of the news is good for the Northern San Joaquin Valley or the nation as a whole.

The only bright spot is home affordability. Stanislaus County ranks No. 1 in California for having the highest percentage of homes affordable to median-income families. But its housing is affordable because prices have plummeted.

That bad news isn't particularly new for the Northern San Joaquin Valley, but now it has spread throughout the United States.

National sales of previously occupied homes plunged last month to the lowest level in 15 years, despite the lowest mortgage rates in decades and bargain prices in many communities.

July's sales fell more than 27 percent in the United States to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.83 million, the National Association of Realtors reported Tuesday. It was the largest monthly drop on records dating to 1968, and sharp declines were recorded in all regions of the nation.

In Stanislaus County, for instance, only 641 homes sold this July. Compare that with home sales for both July 2004 and July 2005 when nearly 1,100 homes sold during each of those months, according to MDA DataQuick statistics. That's a 40 percent sales drop from the peak of the region's housing boom.

Many things have changed since then.

When home prices were soaring and housing demand seemed endless, developers couldn't build homes fast enough. During the second quarter of 2005, for instance, construction started on 1,210 new Stanislaus County homes, according to Metrostudy statistics. In those same months this year, building began on only 31 homes. That's a 97 percent decline.

Stanislaus County's median home sales price has fallen nearly 65 percent since peaking at $396,000 in 2005. It has hovered around $140,000 for the past year. The national median, by comparison, hit $182,600 in July.

New home prices — for the few being built — also have plunged.

In June 2006, prices for new homes in Stanislaus County peaked at a median base price of $476,000, according to California Building Industry Association statistics. But this June's median new home price for the county was just $208,500. That's a 56 percent drop.

Such bargain prices are great for buyers.

Stanislaus families earning the county's median income could afford to buy nearly 84 percent of the homes sold during April, May and June. That's was the highest percentage of affordable homes in California and well above the 72.3 percent national average.

Homes here weren't always so affordable, according to the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index. In 2005, only 3 percent of homes in the county were priced low enough for median-income families to afford.

Affordability is near a record high nationwide, according to that index. Credit the bad national housing market for that.

The plunge in home sales and home prices has magnified fears about the broader economy.

"The housing market is undermining the already faltering wider economic recovery," said Paul Dales, U.S. economist with Capital Economics.

"With the increasingly inevitable double dip in prices yet to come, things could yet get a lot worse."

Home sales were stronger this spring, when the now- expired government tax credits sparked sales. Those tax credits caused many buyers to speed their home purchases. Sales have weakened since the credits expired April 30.

As sales have slowed, the national inventory of unsold homes on the market grew to nearly 4 million in July. That's a 12.5-month supply at the current sales pace, the highest level in more than a decade.

Stanislaus County's housing availability market is much tighter, with only a 3.2-month supply as of July, according to Trendgraphix Inc.

One reason so few homes are on the market is because home prices have fallen so low that many homeowners owe more on their mortgages than what their homes are worth. So even if they wanted to sell, they can't afford the financial hit.

Low market prices have convinced new home developers to abandon their building plans.

In Stanislaus County, there are more than 2,500 finished lots waiting to be built upon, according to Metrostudy. At the current pace of new home construction, that's more than a 14-year supply.

The housing market — in the county and nationally — is being hampered by the weakening economic recovery. Unemployment remains stuck at 9.5 percent nationwide and nearly 18 percent in Stanislaus County.

That makes potential home buyers worry they might not have a job to pay the mortgage.

Although the average interest rate for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage has sunk to 4.42 percent, many people can't qualify for home loans because banks have tightened lending standards.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jsbranti@modbee.com or 578-2196.

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