(TNS) — The Southern California median home price dipped slightly in March from a year earlier, the first annual decrease since 2012 and a sign of a remarkable downshift from the once-sizzling regional housing market.
The 0.1 percent drop, reported Friday by CoreLogic, means prices for the six-county region were essentially flat year-over-year. But given a pullback in previous months, prices are $18,500 off their June 2018 peak, and that raises the possibility of a sustained decline in months ahead.
The median price for new and resale houses and condos — the point where half the homes sold for more and half for less — was $518,500 in March, $500 less than a year ago and off the all-time high of $537,000 reached in June.
The dip from March 2018 doesn’t mean values declined across the board. In fact, when broken down by county, the median only dropped in Orange County, while remaining areas — including Los Angeles County — still posted a slight or modest increase compared to a year earlier.
Sales, however, continued their declines across the board and have now dropped in each county for at least eight consecutive months. Sales for the region fell 14.1 percent in March.
If prices follow and enter into a tailspin, many buyers struggling to afford a home would rejoice — provided it wasn’t accompanied by an economic downturn and return to high joblessness.
Many economists say either scenario is unlikely. Today, there is still lots of demand to live in a state where developers can’t easily ramp up construction. Unemployment in California is 4.3 percent, near a record low and a far cry from a height of 12.3 percent in the wake of the Great Recession.
Experts say it is more likely the market is pausing and, while prices may turn negative for a time, a crash the likes of last decade isn’t in the offing.
“What we are going through is a market adjustment,” said Skylar Olsen, director of economic research with Zillow. “Home prices were outpacing incomes at an unsustainable rate.”
Predicting a downturn is always fraught. But factors that led to previous housing busts aren’t readily evident today.
In the early 1990s, defense cutbacks hammered the local economy. Last decade, risky — and sometimes fraudulent lending — inflated a bubble to unsustainable heights.
Today, lending is tighter and recession fears lately have eased. Experts generally predict slower, but continued, growth.
Open houses have also been increasingly busy as the opening of the traditional spring buying season coincides with a drop in mortgage rates, some agents said. Any upsurge in demand wouldn’t fully be captured by March data.
“I don’t see any kind of crash anytime soon,” said Steven Thomas, who tracks the Southern California market at Reports on Housing. Absent an unexpected economic downturn or surge in mortgage rates, he predicted prices would be flat or increase slightly over the next year.
Los Angeles real estate agent Simone Poingsett said she’s seeing more interest as rates have dropped from a height of nearly 5 percent in November to 4.2 percent this week. But buyer psychology hasn’t returned to that of previous springs.
Home shoppers are pickier, and sellers are seeing fewer multiple offers. Poingsett said shoppers are coming to one of her listings, a Sherman Oaks condo, and finding carpet when they prefer hardwood floors.
“A year or two ago, they’d overlook that,” Poingsett said, adding the seller is now seeking HOA approval to rip out the carpet. “Little things are stopping them from jumping on something.”
Potential buyers worry about buying at the top, she said. And those who are willing to pull the trigger have more options to choose from.
The latest data show home inventory — the supply of property offered for sale — is rising. According to Zillow, there were 24 percent more homes for sale in L.A. County last month than in March 2018. In Orange County, listings rose 40 percent.
The increases stem largely from homes going unsold, rather than a flood of owners suddenly deciding now is the time to cash in, Olsen said. That indicates the chief culprit of the slowdown is affordability.
In Los Angeles County, March’s median price was 85 percent above 2012 levels, according to CoreLogic. Average weekly earnings over that same time frame rose 27 percent, according to non-inflation adjusted numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Supply has been extremely tight for years across the state — a function of homebuilders pulling in their horns after the financial crisis and local restrictions on new development. And thanks to Federal Reserve stimulus, buyers were able to take advantage of rock-bottom interest rates. Now, buyers may finally be balking.