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Lunacy in Las Vegas Housing

Wednesday, 14 Oct 2009 | 11:15 AM ET
Welcome to Las Vegas Sign
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Welcome to Las Vegas Sign

Just when you think you've heard it all in today's housing market, along comes a story that takes all those statistics and all those monthly foreclosure reports and all that testimony to Congress and just drop kicks them all out the window.

I'm going to tell you about a nice young woman named Katie. Last week Katie tried to buy a house in Las Vegas, and got a lesson in real estate reality that she will never forget.

Let's back up a bit for some background. Katie and her husband live in Maryland and are about to have their first child. Both work, but Katie's husband, who has a very solid government job, is being transferred to Vegas. And please note, the government is paying all his moving expenses, including Realtor and closing costs. Both he and Katie have credit scores right around 800.

So off the two went to Vegas, thinking they were in the right place at the right time.

The foreclosure capital of America, Vegas home prices are down more than 50 percent from their peak in 2006. The median price of a home there is $138,000, but, interestingly, the inventory is down to a less than 3-month supply. Compare that to the national inventory, now at an 8.5 month supply. Despite the low supply, prices are not recovering quickly because the sales are all by banks, looking to unload properties quickly.

But back to Katie. Her Realtor, who is also an old friend, emailed Katie the following warnings before her arrival on the Vegas strip:

- This market is crazy and many things are just not going to make any sense.

- I can guarantee you 99.99% of the listings emailed to you will no longer be available by the time you get here.

- Properties are selling in the blink of an eye.

- Properties are getting multiple offers within a few days of being on the market, the most offers I’ve heard a house had recently was 44 offers (I know, crazy).

- This market is crazy and many things are just not going to make any sense.

- 40% of all transactions are cash purchases, which makes it harder for the buyers who are financing to get their offers accepted.

- We have 1/2 the inventory we had a year ago and 4 times as many buyers as we did a year ago.

- Chances are we will have to submit several offers to have the chance of getting 1 accepted.

- This market is crazy and many things are just not going to make any sense.

- You will probably leave not knowing if you have a house or not because banks take 2 to 3 weeks to respond, because this market is crazy… you know the rest.

I'm guessing you noted the crazy part. Katie is looking in the $150-200,000 price range. Despite the warnings, Katie was completely unprepared for what she found. In seven days, she saw 50 homes. All but one were foreclosures.

On the first day, Katie and her husband saw 13 homes.

Only three were anywhere close to move-in condition, despite the fact that all of the homes were built in 2005 or later. All were foreclosed properties. "People find out a year before they're ever kicked out, so what do they do for that year?" says Katie. "Completely destroy their homes."

I know we've already heard about this, as had Katie, but the destruction was even beyond her expectations. "There's no cleaning that would help." There was dirt rubbed on the walls, graffiti, holes in the walls and garbage deposited inside the holes. The smell? "I couldn't get past it." Obviously there was no hardware on the doors and no appliances, kitchen cabinets, stovetops...whatever could go went. 75 percent of the homes she went into were an instant no.

But here's the crazy part:

"We went to a home that had been on the market for one day, and the key was stolen out of the lock box. Our Realtor said immediately, 'You want this home.' She told us another Realtor had stolen the key because they wanted their client to get it. So what did my Realtor do? She broke in. And sure enough this was the home we fell in love with. It was on for $132,000 so we decided to be really aggressive and offered $160,000, plus we had government backing on our loan. Well our Realtor called that night and said, 'You're not going to get the home. They got 30 offers and half are cash offers, so the bank is not even going to look at you.' The banks just want the cash to unload these places."

Finally, on day 7 of looking, and after having 7 offers ignored by the banks (who owned all the homes), the Realtor called Katie with "a gold mine." Yes, an owner-occupied, regular home. A rare non-foreclosure. They went immediately and put in an offer. The owner claims to like them, but she ended up with 10 offers and is still mulling.

Ironically, in a market still flooding with new foreclosed properties every day, at the end of their week Katie and her husband met with a local builder. "We know our money will not get us as much, but they're giving away the granite and hardwoods for free." It's not in their ideal location, and they wouldn't be able to move in until March, the month their first baby is due. But at least they don't have to deal with the banks, the filth and the competition.

Oh, and by the way, a fun factoid on Katie's Realtor: She bought her brand new home in 2005 for $240,000. According to the comps she runs daily, she says it's now worth between $90-110,000. So in January she decided to stop paying her mortgage. No financial hardship, she just figured she was throwing money away. The bank hasn't gotten to her yet, so she's just been living there for free. At some point, she knows, her bank will foreclose, but she's fine with that. She says she'll do far better financially renting for a while.

This is what the housing market has come to.

Questions? Comments? RealtyCheck@cnbc.com

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  • Diana Olick serves as CNBC's real estate correspondent as well as the editor of the Realty Check section on CNBC.com.

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