Publication Date: Wednesday, October
Riding the roller coaster
With housing tied to the stock market, buyers
and sellers are on a wild ride
by Carol Blitzer
If you want to know how the local housing market is doing, take
a glance at the NASDAQ, local Realtors agree. When it dips, so drops
interest in buying homes -- especially high-end homes; when it rises,
out come the would-be buyers.
This two-bedroom, two-bath home at 1201 University Drive
in Menlo Park was offered in September at $795,000.
While some fear the real-estate market parallels the national economy,
those in the trenches see closer comparisons to be made from the
NASDAQ, as well as a few local quirks.
"You've got school district boundaries, a draft housing ordinance
that could drastically change what you build or expand, all these
subtle flavors that make this a very locally based market,"
said Tom LeMieux, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Menlo Park. LeMieux
specializes in the higher end properties in Atherton, Menlo Park,
Portola Valley and Woodside and tracks their sales closely, checking
Multiple Listing Service listings along with corroborated rumors.
In Old Palo Alto, one can find homes such as this one at
601 Seale Ave., listed at $2.25 milion.
What he's found so far this year is an active first five or six
months when the stock market was doing better and there was more
optimism about a second-half recovery "that's largely dissipated."
He points to an active Thanksgiving and Christmas, continuing through
the spring, when the stock market got volatile again.
"You could see buyers pull back a bit, still making offers,
but more cautious offers," he said, adding that in September
he heard of seven offers on a home in the Allied Arts area.
There's a lot more action in the lower end of the market, everyone
agrees -- with a few odd exceptions.
"Look at Atherton," LeMieux said. "Twenty-eight
percent of sales are in the $4 million segment. Last year it was
21 percent." But, he added, Atherton prices dropped 41 percent
between 2000 and 2001, while Menlo Park lost 15 percent. "These
are things we can't explain. Some are surprised real estate has
remained so healthy over the last few years, one of the strongest
segments of the economy. How much longer will that phenomenon be?
I don't think we're going to fall off the cliff."
Nearby in Woodside, another Coldwell Banker agent, Ed Kahl, points
to the low inventory as another reason prices have remained high.
The tree-bedroom, two-bath home at 993 Ilima Court, Palo
Alto, was offered at just under $800,000.
"In some communities, homes turn over every four to five years.
In Woodside, the average home sells every 20 to 25 years. Even if
their job is moved, they'll keep their home here," Kahl said.
What he's been observing this year is a real slow-down of the high-end
market -- what he defines as $5 million and above. Although he points
to downturns in the NASDAQ as having a strong effect on the local
real estate market, he said "the good news is the real estate
prices haven't fallen nearly as much as the NASDAQ." Comparing
home prices falling 10 to 20 percent to stocks that are now worth
10 percent of what they were before, he calls real estate "a
much safer market."
Although Atherton appears to be recovering this year, Los Altos
Hills seems to be lagging.
"(The) Los Altos Hills area is more of new money versus old
money. During the dot-com boom, Los Altos Hills was pretty active,
but it's not quite as active today," said Jim Gafke, of Primecore
Properties Inc. in Menlo Park. "There are still lookers and
buyers in Atherton."
Gafke is finding houses on the market longer, but prices, which
have already dropped from their 1999-2000 highs, stabilizing over
the last year. "There still are a considerable number of buyers,
but the buyers seem to be waiting for something, thinking something
is going to happen," he said. He hears comments from potential
buyers that they're wondering when the real-estate bubble will burst.
There are two approaches to selling houses, he said. Some set the
price high, then negotiate down. Others set a lower price and wait
for multiple offers to bid the price higher. "Both things are
happening in this market," he added.
In the middle of this crazy California marketplace are Palo Alto
and Menlo Park homes that sell in the $1 million to $1.5 million
Maya Sewald, a Menlo Park Coldwell Banker agent, is seeing "an
up tick in sales in late August/early September." She credits
buyers returning to the market after taking the summer off, a recognition
that interest rates are really low and the fact that inventory is
higher than it's been for about two years.
"We probably have twice as many properties as a year ago,"
noted Bonnie Biorn, an agent with Alain Pinel Realtors in Menlo
Park. "That translates to more choice and a shift to a buyer's
market. They in turn have more leverage price-wise. There is more
negotiating," she said.
Pointing to the many opinions floating about, Biorn said that "sellers
are still stuck in the mode they're not getting enough, and buyers
think they're not getting a deal. That hasn't changed dramatically.
Sellers can't get past the fact that 2000 is gone, and buyers are
confident that the market will go down more."
"The market has kind of corrected itself for the most part,"
but fear on the part of the consumer is holding buyers back, particularly
over the $1 million range, said Efi Luzon, an agent with Coldwell
Banker in Palo Alto. "Anything between $500,000 and $1 million,
if it's priced right, then we can make a deal."
Still some sellers are holding onto 2000 ideas of what a property
is worth. Another agent pointed to a Leghorn Street property in
Mountain View that has been on the market since 1996. The deal-killer
is the asking price: $3 million where the median price for homes
is the mid-$600,000s.
"The younger sellers are more realistic, more in touch with
the economy," Luzon added.
Although there's never been enormous inventory available in any
of the communities from Mountain View to Redwood City, today the
higher-end properties appear to be accumulating. According to Los
Altos Coldwell Banker agent David Troyer, there's a two-year inventory
for sale in Los Altos Hills.
That's more than 200 homes priced above $3.5 million, with an average
of five to eight selling each month.
"Sellers have to decide whether or not they really want to
sell in that marketplace, because only a true value will be sold.
Or new construction, which takes two years to build," he said.
The middle of the market -- say $1 million to $1.5 million -- appears
to be more traditional. "Homes that are well priced in good
locations are still selling," noted Maureen Hamner, a Coldwell
Banker agent in Menlo Park. "People at the higher end were
tied to the stock market. Buyers (today) have homes, want to improve
location and schools. They're more traditional buyers. There's less
demand for high-end homes," she said.
Traditional or not, there's still a lot of volatility in the market.
Ray Walton, an agent for Alain Pinel Realtors in Menlo Park, noted
that he sold a house in Linfield Oaks for $1.2 million in January.
"The next house went for $915,000, (we) had some under $800,000.
Then one came on for $795,000 that had 16 offers and sold for just
over $1 million. The one next door, priced at $895,000, sold for
over $1 million, another for $1.3 million. I've seen a significant
return, sort of true all over Menlo Park," he said.
Even with this experience, Walton sees things leveling off, without
houses being bid $200,000 to $300,000 over the asking price.
While many of the higher-priced properties are staying on the market
for a long time, lower-priced homes that show well are often selling
above the asking price, noted Jim Nappo, an agent with Alain Pinel
Realtors in Los Altos. He sees Mountain View as a middle ground
between the higher priced homes in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills
and the lower priced ones in Sunnyvale, Santa Clara and Cupertino.
Today Mountain View has 70 homes on the market; a year ago only
40 percent of those were available, he said.
"What we have now are buyers who are far more sophisticated
than buyers in the market two to three years ago. They've earned
their money as opposed to the free money before. They look carefully
and they buy perceived value," he added.
Still, it's a good idea to present a home well before putting it
on the market. By that, he doesn't mean remodeling the kitchen and
bathrooms, but cleaning, painting, doing obvious repairs, tidying
up the landscaping and getting rid of clutter.
While no one can safely predict the future -- even the immediate
future -- most Realtors are optimistic about this local market.
"A lot of dot-com people are just a little wary (about a real
estate bubble) and think it will happen to housing as well. But,
we don't see any signs of that, across the country or here. Statistics
are still really good," Biorn said.
Ray Walton summed it up: "We've got a very solid market. Even
though the technology industry is insolvent, we've still got Stanford,
we're 20 minutes to the airport, San Jose, we've got a fabulous
climate, wonderful schools, within 10 minutes we can be in open
space. I don't think this area will ever have the bottom drop out."
E-mail Carol Blitzer at email@example.com