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Houston housing awaits spring chill

Another frothy housing market may be on the verge of reversing, but this time it is for a historically classic reason. Houston has been one of the top-performing real estate markets in the nation for several years. Driven by a strong, energy-focused economy, the city, plain and simple, saw job growth push demand. But as oil prices hover at about half their year-ago values, Houston housing is suddenly teetering from its success.

"Now that oil prices are down, things haven't completely changed, but let's just say that they have come to more of a stall," said Michele Marano, a real estate agent in the Houston area.

It will take significant time for lower oil prices to impact the city's housing. While Houston companies like Halliburton, ConocoPhillips, Weatherford and Baker Hughes have announced corporate layoffs, it is too soon to see any real change in the real estate market. In previous oil downturns, it has taken 18 months to two years for job losses to affect home prices, according to Trulia's chief economist, Jed Kolko.

A file photo of a house for sale with an owner finance available sign in Houston.
David J. Phillip | AP
A file photo of a house for sale with an owner finance available sign in Houston.

"For instance, in the 1980s, the largest year-over-year oil price declines were in early and mid-1986. In Houston, job losses were steepest in late 1986. But home prices didn't slide most until the third quarter of 1987," noted Kolko.

But with oil-related jobs accounting for around 6 percent of Houston's economy, all eyes are watching the city's housing, which still appears to be moving. Houston sales and prices hit record highs in 2014, and in January sales were still 6 percent higher than a year ago, and prices jumped 7 percent, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. For now at least, it appears that extremely tight supply is hurting the market far more than oil prices.

"We still expect to see sales cool as a result of lower oil prices and the limited supply of homes," said association Chair Nancy Furst with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Anderson Properties in a monthly release. "We've already started to see declining townhome and condominium sales."

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Concern among larger home builders is not helping inventory matters. In its latest earnings call, KB Home CEO Jeff Mezger said the company had pulled out of "a couple of land transactions" in Houston in the fourth quarter of 2014 because of "sensitivity" there, but he claimed it is not seeing any pullback by consumers yet. That pullback, though, is widely expected.

"Because it hasn't been hit yet doesn't mean it's not going to happen, so I think patience is the buzz word. We're expecting that Houston will cool down significantly on the residential side," said Rick Sharga, executive vice president of Auction.com.

David Hopkins sold his Houston-area home last fall and said he got top dollar for it. He was watching the housing boom and the energy boom and apparently timed things just right.

"I feel really glad. I'm like that guy that sold his oil company last year. He's feeling pretty good right now too. I feel that same way," said Hopkins.

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While Houston is the main focus, other large local housing markets are vulnerable. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Fort Worth, Texas, have high employment in oil-related industries. These markets have grown faster than the rest of the country during the economic recovery.

"On average, in the seven large metros where oil-related jobs are at least 2 percent of the total, home prices rose 10.5 percent year over year—faster than the 7.7 percent increase for the 100 largest metros overall," wrote Kolko in a recent report.

Small markets, like Williston, North Dakota, and Midland, Texas, have more than one-third of their jobs in energy, he added.