Rising home prices in California concern economists, prompt action by lenders

Housing affordability – or more precisely, the increasing lack of it – in California has prompted growing concern among economists and segments of the residential real estate industry.

Sung Won Sohn, a professor of economics at California State University, Channel Islands, said last week that “the average person, especially in the Bay Area and Southern California, is essentially priced out of the market. The only way they can buy a home is with a high-paying job or their parents helping them out.”

The former chief economist for Wells Fargo added that “the importance of housing in California is greater … than it is elsewhere. California is very real estate-dependent and it’s a very important part of the economy. Home ownership is tied to economic growth. Just think of the spending related to owning a house – on shrubs, glass, tile, carpet, appliances, furniture and more. A lot of spending is dependent on housing.”

According to the most recent monthly report by Irvine-based real estate market tracker CoreLogic, the median price of a resale house in Sacramento County in February was $310,500, up about 11 percent from February 2016. In surrounding counties, prices were significantly higher: $400,000 in El Dorado County (up 8.4 percent year-over-year) and $425,000 in Placer (up 3.7 percent). Median sales prices of new homes in February ranged from $410,750 in Sacramento County to $493,000 in Placer County to $540,750 in El Dorado County.

Those numbers, however, are humble compared with the Bay Area and Southern California.

A March 30 report by Beacon Economics., the Los Angeles-based research and consulting firm, projected that the median home price in Los Angeles County will hit $600,000 by year’s end, and the median home price in San Francisco will surpass $1.3 million in the by the middle of this year.

Irvine-based ATTOM Data Solutions, which oversees a massive national property database, last month cited five U.S. counties where buying a median-priced home required more than 100 percent of buyers’ annual wages. Two were in California: Santa Cruz County (111.9 percent) and Marin County (109.9 percent). ATTOM’s calculations included a 3 percent conventional loan down payment, property taxes, monthly payments and insurance.

By comparison, ATTOM said buying a median-priced home in Sacramento County in this year’s first quarter required 40.7 percent of annual income. It was 61.7 percent in Placer County and 66.8 percent in El Dorado County.

Rising prices have prompted moves within the residential real estate industry. Sacramento-based Catalyst Mortgage, for example, recently began offering a 1 percent down payment assistance program. Under the program to secure a conventional first mortgage, Catalyst essentially contributes a 2 percent “lender concession” on a 3 percent down payment.

Brandon Haefele, president and CEO of Catalyst, explained that there are qualifying restrictions, including minimum income, debt-to-income ratio and credit rating (a minimum FICO score of 700 is required), but he said the program could make the difference for first-time buyers in particular.

“When you look at current home prices even in Sacramento County and you have a household with an average income of $39,000, it’s really difficult to reach that price point,” Haefele said. “For many first-time buyers, it’s very tough right now to get a conventional loan.”

Haefele noted that other lenders are offering discounted down payment programs, and there are other mortgage programs that could benefit homebuyers concerned about qualifying for a loan. He encourages buyers “to shop around and educate yourself.”

Haefele also advises budget-conscious homebuyers to resist traditional advice that it’s best to pay “as much as you can” on the down payment: “If you have enough money fine, but if your finances are limited, don’t put down your life savings. You can be strategic on what’s going to be best for you or your family.

“It’s not necessary to put down 5 percent instead of 3 percent. The long-term difference (on monthly payments) is not that great, and you might need to have that extra money for a rainy day … and all that goes into owning a home. Say your roof needs repair or something else needs to be repaired. It’s good to have that money available.”

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Chris Alexakishousing, C.A.