San Francisco Bay Area Home Sales Dip, Median Sale Price Rises

Residential News » Residential Real Estate Edition | By Michael Gerrity | March 19, 2010 2:22 PM ET

(LA JOLLA, CA) -- According to MDA DataQuick, San Francisco Bay Area home sales were subpar again in February, dipping below the year-ago level for the second straight month as some potential buyers worried about job security, some couldn't get financing and others found a thin inventory of homes for sale.

The median price paid rose year-over-year for the fifth consecutive month, mainly because fewer low-cost foreclosures have sold and more higher-end homes have turned over this year compared with last, a real estate information service reported.

A total of 4,987 new and resale houses and condos closed escrow in the nine-county Bay Area last month. That was up 2.8 percent from 4,853 in January and down 0.9 percent from 5,032 in February 2009.

Last month's sales fell 22.2 percent short of the February average of 6,413 sales since 1988, when DataQuick's statistics begin.

February's sales were the second-lowest for that month since 1995, behind the record-low 3,989 homes sold in February 2008. January and February this year are the only two months since August 2008 in which sales have fallen year-over-year.

"The sales and price data remain choppy, with more ups and downs and inconsistencies than we'd typically see. It's partly the season - January and February are often atypical and don't serve as good barometers. But it's more than that. The market remains fundamentally off kilter. There's still relatively little lending going on in the upper price ranges, and little adjustable-rate financing, which had been vital to the Bay Area. Investor and cash-only deals remain well above normal, as does the level of sales involving distressed property," said John Walsh, MDA DataQuick president.

"Despite the widening stability seen in the housing market in recent months, the outlook remains murky," he said. "Whether prices will firm, or remain firm, will depend largely on three factors: The market's response as the government reduces its housing stimulus, the economy's ability to gain traction, and the decisions that lenders and borrowers will make in countless distress cases. The key question is how much more distressed inventory is coming, and when."

Foreclosure resales - homes that had been foreclosed on in the prior 12 months - rose to 36.6 percent of all homes resold last month, marking the fourth consecutive month in which foreclosure resales edged higher. Foreclosure resales peaked at 52 percent of resales in February 2009, then gradually fell and, in the fall, leveled off near 32 percent before starting to rise modestly.

The median price paid for all new and resale houses and condos sold in the nine-county Bay Area last month was $354,000. That was up 1.1 percent from $350,000 in January and up 20.0 percent from $295,000 in February 2009.

Last month's median was 22.1 percent higher than the lowest point reached in the housing downturn - $290,000 last March - but it was still 46.8 percent lower than the $665,000 peak median reached in June and July of 2007.

Last month's median rose 20 percent above February 2009 largely because a year ago low-cost foreclosures were far more plentiful, lower-cost inland areas represented a substantially larger portion of total sales, and high-end sales were very sluggish. That made for an unusually low February 2009 median of $295,000.

Sales over $500,000 made up 31.9 percent of all transactions last month, compared with 23.6 percent a year ago. High-end sales have risen in part because more distress has crept into that segment of the market, creating more motivated sellers. Other sellers have simply given up on holding out for yesterday's higher prices, which were supported by what was then a relative abundance of financing, some quite creative, for high-end homes.

The availability of financing for costlier homes appears to have improved modestly in the last year, but those loans remain relatively expensive and hard to obtain.

Mortgages above $417,000 - formerly the definition of a jumbo loan - made up 26.3 percent of all home purchase loans last month. That was down from 27.3 percent in January but up from 18.3 percent a year ago. More than 60 percent of purchase loans were over $417,000 before the August 2007 credit crunch hit.

Another key form of financing for higher-cost homes - adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) - remains way below the historical norm. In February, 7.8 percent of Bay Area purchase loans were ARMs, up from 7.5 percent in January and 3.9 percent a year ago. ARMs averaged 61 percent of purchase loans each month between January 2000 and when the credit crunch began in August 2007. The 22-year monthly average for ARMs in the Bay Area is 47.0 percent.

Financing has flowed more easily for low- to mid-priced homes. Federally-insured, low-down-payment FHA loans, a popular choice among first-time buyers, made up 26.9 percent of Bay Area purchase loans last month. That was up from 23.3 percent a year ago and 1.4 percent two years ago.

Last month absentee buyers - mostly investors - purchased 19.4 percent of all Bay Area homes sold, the same as in January and up from 18.4 percent a year ago. The monthly absentee buyer average over the past decade is 13.0 percent. Buyers who appeared to have paid all cash - meaning there was no corresponding purchase loan found in the public record - accounted for a record 27.1 percent of sales in February, up from 25.7 percent in January and 24.4 percent a year ago.

Home flipping has trended higher lately but eased a bit last month, when 2.6 percent of the homes that sold had previously been sold between three weeks and six months prior. That was down from a flipping rate of 2.9 percent in January but up from 1.5 percent a year ago. Last month's flipping rates varied from 1.3 percent of sales in Napa County to 3.6 percent in Solano County.

The typical monthly mortgage payment that Bay Area buyers committed themselves to paying was $1,519 last month, up from $1,508 the previous month, and up from $1,286 a year ago. Adjusted for inflation, current payments are 42.7 percent below typical payments in the spring of 1989, the peak of the prior real estate cycle. They are 57.7 percent below the current cycle's peak in July 2007.

Indicators of market distress continue to move in different directions. Foreclosure activity remains high by historical standards, with default notices on the rise again, but it's well below peak levels reached over the last two years. Financing with multiple mortgages is low, down payment sizes are stable, and non-owner occupied buying is above-average, MDA DataQuick reported.

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