October 30, 2007

Housing in Turmoil: Some discover they can do well in the downturn

While many real estate professionals bemoan slow sales, and many homeowners fret over foreclosure, there's another side to the real estate downturn: Some buyers are taking advantage of falling prices, and some sellers are cashing in.

While many real estate professionals bemoan slow sales, and many homeowners fret over foreclosure, there's another side to the ongoing slide in buying and selling homes.

Some buyers have been able to take advantage of falling prices, and some sellers still are able to cash in.

What it means is that even though there are people hurting in this real estate downturn, there also are people who have found a silver lining.

"If you bought a house in 2001, you're fine. You've seen the best of times," said Ken Rivera, manager at American Pacific Mortgage in Modesto.

Despite recent declines, Stanislaus County's median home sales price in September was $300,000, which is nearly double what it was in 2001, according to DataQuick Information Systems.

Rivera explained that the slump in prices and values is negative only if you're trying to sell your home or refinance your loan.

He said the angst about the current state of real estate suffers from the same flaw that caused many of the problems in the market: a perspective that's too short.

When real estate was soaring, many people bought homes more as investments than as places to live, he said, and often sold them quickly to take advantage of a hot sellers' market.

Other experts noted that the current downturn is within the normal up-and-down cycle of the Northern San Joaquin Valley market, and that consumers must remember that the slowdown isn't without precedent. A similar downturn hit the region in the early 1980s and the early to mid-1990s.

Just as the market cycled down in 2005, prices eventually will recover from the lows of 2007, they said.

That means sellers have to be patient and prudent, and buyers can take advantage of what many real estate professionals call a "perfect storm" of low interest rates, plentiful supply and lots of sellers willing to negotiate.

"You're not going to flip anything at this point," said Michael Tedesco, a Realtor with Century 21 M&M in Modesto. "Rent it out and wait two years and get equity. That's when you're going to make some money."

Some advantages

A buyer in the current market has several advantages, particularly if they have good credit, a sizable down payment and a willingness to shop thoroughly.

When the market was at its peak, Kimiko Horiuchi avoided buying because prices were too high. Now, she and her husband are buying a 2,700-square-foot house in Patterson for $329,000.

She said her real estate agent told her that a few years ago the home was worth $600,000, because it's a former model home with several upgrades.

"We're definitely getting a home for a good price," said Horiuchi, 28, who will move from Tracy into the new house in early November. "You're going from renting to paying on the mortgage, and if the economy comes back, then I'll have a house that I bought for less than it's worth."

Buying the house comes with some tradeoffs. She'll have to add about 25 miles to her commute to her job as a patent legal assistant in Sunnyvale and still will take her sons to school in Tracy.

Horiuchi said she knows she may be taking advantage of someone else's misfortune or bad loan.

"I just feel bad that I'm taking someone's house," she said.

Horiuchi's house was owned by a bank, which many experts said is a niche that may allow buyers more opportunity to get homes at bargain prices.

Banks don't get involved in selling homes willingly, and those that own foreclosed properties want to quickly move them off the books, experts say.

That, Tedesco said, can make negotiations with a bank easier.

"If buyers see something they like, they should throw an offer out there," he said. "You won't insult the bank like you would an individual seller, and with a bank, they're going to counter back."

Wait a while? Maybe not

Although many trends point to prices sliding more before they rise again, experts said it's not necessarily a good idea for a buyer to wait.

Too many homes at cut-rate prices will spur the return of lots of buyers, including investors who were partly responsible for making prices soar in the most recent boom. And interest rates aren't likely to drop much more.

If someone's considering buying a home, they benefit only once they own the home and keep it, said Bill Saldana, a salesman with William Lyon Homes.

"One has to get into the mind-set where this is a home to live in," he said.

After two price adjustments, Realtor Ken Ernst said he still thinks the owners of a Salida home he's listing will come out ahead.

The couple bought the home when it was new, in 1994. Equity has soared since, even taking into account the recent drops, he said. The house is listed at $299,900, but the owners bought it for $133,000.

"The biggest time of price depreciation has come about," Ernst said at an open house in September. "It got to the point for these folks that it's time to move up."

Although they missed out on the boom, Ernst said, they will benefit because they can pay less for a new home in Manteca.

"They held back during the high price time, and it definitely made a difference," Ernst said.

Bee staff writer Ben van der Meer can be reached at bvandermeer@modbee.com or 578-2331.

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