The first official day of Spring may still be 20 days away, but the Spring housing market is already underway. Buyer traffic is rising along with home prices, but one traditional Spring phenomenon is sorely absent: rising supply. The raw number of homes for sale is now at its lowest level in over 13 years, according to the National Association of Realtors, and the numbers continue to fall.
"Some listings are vanishing from a strategic decision of waiting for an even a higher price later. Some are due to few newly built homes available to trade-up to, hence some current existing home owners are unwilling to list. Some could be related to fear of being unable to buy after selling," says Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors.
Supplies are down across the nation, not just in the former crash markets, like Phoenix and Las Vegas, where investors decimated inventories of distressed homes in bulk purchases. Listings are down 31 percent in Seattle from a year ago, down 32 percent in Denver, down 20 percent in Houston, down 37 percent in Boston, according to local Realtor associations.
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"At the moment it's a seller's market again," said David Fogg, a real estate agent in Burbank, CA. "Very low inventory, very low interest rates, almost no bank inventory of homes, it's crazy out there. Every good property I've listed this year has brought 10-50 offers and sales prices 10-20 percent over comps. Cash is King."
Nearly one third of all existing home sales in January were paid for in cash, and not just by investors, who are making up a shrinking share of the market. Fierce competition is forcing buyers to use every advantage, given that so many are going after so little.
In California's San Fernando Valley there are usually over 9,000 homes for sale this time of year, according to real estate agent Billy Wynn. Today there are just over 1,400.
"Realtors are getting so many offers they are taking the homes off the market and not accepting additional offers before any offer is even accepted," said Wynn. "This is real estate bubble 2.0 on steroids."
It is a puzzling situation, given all the warnings of a tsunami of so-called "shadow inventory" that was supposed to be flooding the market right now. As it stands, fewer distressed properties are coming to the market.
"The ticking time bomb of shadow supply has been diffused by a combination of foreclosure processing delays in judicial states, legislation slowing down the foreclosure process in non-judicial states, foreclosure prevention programs and initiatives encouraging short sales," said Daren Blomquist of RealtyTrac. "Notably, in 2012, was the National Mortgage Settlement, which both encouraged foreclosure prevention and short sales as an alternative to foreclosure, and the loosening of short sale guidelines by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in November."
As a result, short sales, where the home is sold for less than the value of the mortgage, are rising as a share of total distressed sales, while bank-owned home sales are falling. Investors are now competing for such little supply that they are ironically pricing themselves out of the market.
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"We are hearing also, that new home buyers are not really looking at the foreclosure market—the houses are either not in good neighborhoods or the house is in bad condition and needs a lot of updates," noted Paul Miller, an analyst at FBR. "So home buyers are either going to new-builds or being very picky with the type and shape of the house. We are hearing from plenty of mortgage brokers that they are working with many couples, and they just can't find the perfect house."
It is the same story in Houston, Texas, where there were 25,600 listings in January of last year and just 19,000 today. Real estate agents there doubt they will see a surge in inventory this Spring, as Houston is experiencing an employment boom. The Texas Workforce Commission reported more than 85,000 new jobs were created there in 2012. Housing starts are expected to rise by about 17 percent, but that only translates to about 28,000 new homes, according to the Houston Association of Realtors, and current homeowners are just not stepping up.
"Many of my clients are unsure about the economy and the future costs they may face that are associated with The Affordable Care Act. Many say they are nervous about the future and are just sitting back waiting for economic conditions to level out," explained Danny Frank, Chairman of the Houston Association of Realtors. "Some sellers may be reluctant to put their homes on the market because it typically requires them, in turn, to purchase a home. They may not be financially prepared to make that commitment at this time. Another factor is that there simply isn't a vast number of homes currently on the market in Houston because of the buying surge we experienced throughout 2012 and now into the new year."
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It may also be a case of, 'Be careful what you wish for.' Homeowners were crushed by falling home prices, losing trillions of dollars collectively in home equity. Now that prices are rising, and rising faster than most expected, sellers likely see no reason to rush.
"We are not seeing a flood of new listings, as I would have predicted in a rising market," said Steve Storti of Philadelphia-based Prudential Fox & Roach. "Sellers are wary and perhaps a little shell-shocked by having listed previously and not being successful. They also may be waiting for prices to rise."
—CNBC's Jane Wells contributed to this post; Follow her on Twitter @janewells