Stock market swoon stalls luxury home sales

Rampant volatility in the U.S. stock market is showing up in the high-end housing market. But as with all things real estate, the impact depends entirely on location.

2016 started with a severe stock swoon, and that had an outsized impact on homebuyers with a higher net worth. Historically, high-end housing suffers most in a market downturn.

"As you go up the income quintile, into the top 10 percent, 5 percent, 1 percent by income, their stock exposure increases," said Sam Khater, chief economist at CoreLogic. "For the typical family, the bulk of their equity is tied up in home equity not stock equity. It's the reverse for high income."

Source: Sam Khater/CoreLogic

Khater compared the share of million-dollar home sales to the S&P 500 and found a distinct correlation. While the share of $1 million or more homes is very small, just 1.2 percent of all home sales historically, it can move dramatically depending on stock market gains or losses. From the worst of the financial crisis in 2008 to the peak of the equity markets in May 2015, the share of million dollar and more home sales nearly doubled, according to Khater.

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"Since its peak in May 2015, the S&P index declined 10 percent as of mid-February. This decline in the S&P index was matched by a 30 basis point or 15 percent decline in the $1 million or more share," Khater said.

The correlation, however, is far more acute in certain locations.

In New York City and San Francisco, where the local economies are tied most to financial markets, sales of high-end homes have weakened, and supply is rising. That jump in inventory will likely affect prices down the road, as supply outstrips demand. Nationally there was a 9.3-month supply of homes listed at $1 million or above in December 2014, but that increased to 13 months by December 2015, according to CoreLogic.

"With more than a year's supply of inventory, prices, for the most part, won't be increasing," Khater said.

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In Washington, D.C., however, the stock effect is far more muted. Government, and the high-priced lawyers and lobbyists that surround it, are a steady denominator.

Luxury home and pool
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"Demand is higher, even though the stock market has gotten in the way and the snowstorm has gotten in the way, but demand is there, people are feeling very good about the economy," said Nancy Taylor Bubes, a 30-year veteran of high-end D.C. real estate and currently an agent with Washington Fine Properties.

She was standing in a $5.75 million listing that received a solid offer in just 10 days. Taylor Bubes, who specializes in the area's high-end neighborhoods, says she has sold six million-dollar-plus listings year to date, three times what she did last year. Her buyers, mostly domestic and local, are not swayed by Wall Street.

"I actually think the stock market is good for my business. I think people are going to really think about divesting a little bit and putting it into something they would really enjoy," Taylor Bubes said.

In southwest Florida, however, where real estate is primarily driven by wealthy retirees from the Northeast and Midwest, the story is very different. Sales have slowed dramatically.

"The stock market volatility has definitely impacted the luxury homebuyer in Florida, particularly in Naples and Sarasota," said Kristine Smale, a senior consultant with John Burns Real Estate Consulting who is based in Florida. "Seasonal traffic is still strong, but would-be buyers are slow to commit this year due to the significant hits to their portfolios. Builders are disappointed, and some are increasing incentives to generate sales,"

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The direction of the luxury real estate market now depends entirely on both the trajectory of the stock market and on inventory levels. Supply of less-expensive homes is extremely tight, and homebuilders are leery of building to that market, as it is harder to meet margins at lower price points. Early last year, before the stock market began its fall, the CEO of Pulte Group, Richard Dugas, said the company would focus more on high-end product, because that is where the demand is.

If the stock market settles, the spring housing market could see a resurgence on the high end. If not, supply will surely increase, and prices will chill.