No cities went untouched by the collapse in prices over the past few years. But markets such as Northern Virginia, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, San Diego, the San Francisco suburbs, and virtually all of Texas held up reasonably well. In those areas prices spiked far less than in bubble cities — the foreclosure markets we’ll get to shortly — chiefly because they didn’t get nearly as many speculators who thought they could flip the homes or rent them to snowbirds.
The nondistressed markets will be able to get prices rising and construction growing far faster than the harder-hit areas for a simple reason: Although some of these markets are still suffering from foreclosures, they don’t need to work through the big overhang haunting a Las Vegas or a Phoenix. The number of new homes for sale or in the pipeline is extraordinarily low in nondistressed markets. San Diego is typical. It has just 921 freestanding homes for sale or under construction, compared with 4,425 in late 2005. The challenge for these cities is to generate enough demand to reduce inventories of existing, or resale, homes. In the entire country the resale supply stands at 3.5 million houses and condos. That’s a fairly high number, since it would take more than eight months to sell those properties; seven months or below is the threshold for a strong market.
But in the nondistressed cities, the existing home inventory is lower, closer to seven months on average. So a modest increase in demand will translate into strong gains in both prices and new construction. That should happen quickly, because most of those markets — including Silicon Valley, Northern Virginia, and Texas — are now showing good job growth.
Zandi of Moody’s Analytics expects that prices will rise three to four points faster than inflation for the next few years in virtually all of the nondistressed markets. His view is that prices will increase in line with rents, which are now growing briskly because apartments are in short supply. Those higher rents will encourage buyers to cross the street from an apartment to a home of their own.
In Northern Virginia, Chris Bratz, an engineer, and his wife, Amy DiElsi, a publicist, are planning to leave their rental apartment and become homeowners for the first time. The main reason? Buying has simply become a far better deal than renting. “The market got completely inflated, then it crashed, so prices are coming back to where they should be,” says Chris. As the couple have watched prices fall, they have also watched the rent on their apartment spiral upward, reaching $2,700 a month. They calculate that they should be able to purchase a townhouse for between $400,000 and $500,000 and pay less per month for a mortgage.
The nondistressed markets will also lead the way in construction. Zandi predicts that for the nation as a whole, single-family housing “starts” — measured when a builder pours a foundation for a new home — will rise from 470,000 in 2010 to as much as 700,000 this year. A large portion of that activity will happen in nondistressed markets where a tightening supply of resale houses will start making new homes look like a good deal. “Our main competition is from resales,” says Jeff Mezger, CEO of KB Home. “The prices of those homes have stayed so low, because of low demand, that it’s hampered the ability of builders to sell new houses.”
But many would-be buyers simply prefer a brand-new house. Eventually they’ll move from renters to buyers, and the trend will accelerate now that prices are no longer dropping. In Minneapolis, Yuan Qu and her husband, Xiang Chen, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, just moved from a two-bedroom rental to a new light-blue four-bedroom ranch with a chocolate-colored roof on a spacious corner lot. They paid $400,000, a bargain price compared with a few years ago. The couple, both in their early thirties, moved to Minnesota from China six years ago. “We wanted to buy a house, and we’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting,” says Qu. “The prices went down for so long, we finally thought they couldn’t keep falling.” For Qu the only choice was new construction. “We’re not very handy people,” she admits.
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