Sunday, August 19, 2007

A Tale of Three Markets

There's been a lot of hoopla lately about the median home price in OC bumping up close to historic highs. The data, such as they are, seem to indicate that is the case, but remember here, that's true only if you're looking at the county-wide median price.

In the past, you've seen me and others deride the county-wide median price stat because of the sheer size and/or heterogeneity of OC. Talking about the county as a whole, particularly when using the flawed median as a metric, just doesn't tell one a whole lot. Parts of the county could be collapsing, while other parts rise, but when you throw every neighborhood in the county into one big bucket, all of that movement is washed out, all of the uniqueness statistically smoothed over. County-level stats just aren't granular enough to truly convey any meaningful information.

For the vibrancy and dynamism of the market to be seen, we need to analyze the market by segment. Simply by bucketing areas of the county together by similar characteristics and then analyzing them, patterns that betray notion that prices in the county are strong quickly appear, particularly if you look at homes by price segment.

I decided to divide OC's ZIPs into three segments based on median price: ZIPs with median prices less than 85% of the county-wide average (23 ZIPs) , ZIPs with median prices between 85 and 115% of the county median (33 ZIPs) and the last group with prices more than 115% of the median (27 ZIPs.) I then looked at the number of ZIPs in each group where the YOY sales volume and/or price were down. The results were dramatic.

In the ZIPs with the lowest prices, essentially all of the ZIPs were down in terms of price (91%) and volume (96%)--a profoundly weak segment. In the middle price group, both price and volume were down for 70% of ZIPs--a weak to very weak segment. While the most expensive ZIPs showed volumes down less than half of ZIPs, at 41%, and a relatively equal number of ZIPs (52% down) with price declines--a neutral segment. Clearly, OC is not one market, but at least three, varying from neutral to very weak in terms of their market strength.

Just to emphasize how different OC's price segments are performing, ZIPs in the lowest price range were roughly twice as likely to be down in terms of volumes and price as the most expensive ZIPs. Twice as likely.

Now, my personal area of interest are the middle ZIPs: white picket fences, middle class, 2.3 kids, regular folk. Fully 70% of those ZIPs have have dropped in terms of prices and volume. At 50%, we'd be at parity, but at 70% were in the midst of some serious volume/price weakness. As half a dozen Realtors told me today at open houses, this weakness could be a sign to buy, but as I explained to them, I don't think so. After all of the mortgage resets occur next summer and sellers panic, that may be a time to buy.

In the mean time bears, eschew claims that the "OC prices are strong", keep your financial powder dry, your FICO score up and enjoy another 12 months of cheap rent. Next summer if the middle is collapsing like the bottom price segment is today, it might, just might be time to get a great deal on a distressed home.

Viva los Osos!

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