Home flipping reached 10-year high: Can you say froth?

Home flips hit 10-year high
Home flips hit 10-year high   

Rising home prices are bringing more house flippers out of the woodwork, and that may be a sign of an overheating housing market. The number of active home flippers last year was the highest in nearly a decade, and it is only growing.

Nearly 180,000 family homes and condos were flipped in 2015, according to RealtyTrac. A flip is defined as a home that is bought and sold again within the same 12 months. Flips made up 5.5 percent of all sales last year, and that is the first increase in the flip share after four years of shrinking. Flipping increased in 75 percent of U.S. markets, and the profits are growing as well.

"As confidence in the housing recovery spreads, more real estate investors and would-be real estate investors are hopping on the home flipping bandwagon," said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at RealtyTrac. "Not only is the share of home flips on the rise again, but we also see the flipping trend trickling down to smaller investors who are completing fewer flips per year."

Jim Pinson works with investors to flip houses on the south side of Chicago and does two or three flips of his own each year in the Oak Lawn area. Home prices in Chicago have not soared as much as in other parts of the nation, but there are still a lot of distressed homes available for sale, and plenty of investor demand.

A 'For Sale' sign stands outside a home in Peoria, Illinois.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A 'For Sale' sign stands outside a home in Peoria, Illinois.

"Oh my God, there are multiple offers on almost every decent margin profit house that pops on the market," said Pinson.

The concern now is that prices are rising too fast, not because buyers can afford to pay more but because of extremely short supply of homes for sale, especially on the lower end of the market. Home prices in January were 6.9 percent higher than the January 2015, according to CoreLogic, a higher annual gain than in December. Home flipping can push prices artificially higher, especially in markets with the tightest inventory.

"Oh my God, there are multiple offers on almost every decent margin profit house that pops on the market." -Jim Pinson, house flipper

"When home flipping numbers go up, it is usually an indication that the housing market is in trouble," said Matthew Gardner, chief economist at Windermere Real Estate in Seattle, who was quoted in the RealtyTrac report.

That was the case during the housing boom in the mid-2000s, but at that time flippers were putting next to no money into their investments, instead using cheap credit. That credit no longer exists. They have to put significant money into their flips, even when using investor loans.

"More inexperienced home flippers with a smaller financial cushion could be a sign of an over-speculative market, but the data indicate that flippers in 2015 continued to operate within relatively conservative margins," said Blomquist. "Homes flipped in 2015 were on average purchased at a 26 percent discount below estimated market value and resold by the flipper at a 5 percent premium above estimated market value."

Still, affordability for that end-user, the owner occupant looking to buy perhaps a first home, is weakening. First-time home buyers are still a much lower share of home buyers today than they are historically. The risk of another home price bubble could push them even further away.

As home prices rise, even in Chicago, investors have to put more money down and put money into renovating the homes, which are often in severe disrepair. Investors have to be careful to make sure they're buying the right house in the right place, otherwise they won't find buyers ready to move in.

"Demand is block by block, and you'll have people running out and making offers, but it depends on what block you're in," added Pinson.

Just after the housing crash, large institutional investors moved in and bought thousands of distressed properties and turned the vast majority of them into rental homes. They are now buying fewer homes, leaving the field open for smaller investors who would rather flip than hold the homes. The total number of investors who completed at least one flip in 2015 was at the highest level since 2007, and the number of flips per investor was at the lowest level since 2008, according to RealtyTrac.

Flippers are watching home prices rise, and in turn seeing returns rise. Homes flipped in 2015 yielded an average gross profit of $55,000 nationwide, the highest for flips nationally since 2005, according to RealtyTrac. The return on investment was close to 46 percent, up from 44 percent in 2014 and up from 35 percent in 2005. 2005 was when flipping was rampant, thanks to super easy credit. Back then, over 8 percent of all sales were flips.

Today flippers are seeing the best returns in Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and New Haven, Connecticut. The biggest dollar returns are in California and New York, but investors there must put bigger dollars down for those flips.