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Fewer Foreclosures Could Mean Lower Home Prices

For years now we have been harping on how distressed home sales put downward pressure on home prices all around them.

Foreclosure Sign
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Foreclosure Sign

Close to twelve million borrowers are now in a negative equity position on their homes because so many other borrowers were unable to afford their mortgages. The logical assumption would then be that as foreclosures ease, organic home prices will rebound.

But what if the current, unique state of the housing market turns that assumption on its head?

Foreclosure salesnow make up a full one third of the market nationally and far higher percentages in states like California, Florida, Nevada, and Georgia.

The supply of these properties has actually been dropping, pushing prices higher, even in the distressed category. There is huge investor and first-time home buyer demand for distressed properties at the low end of the market, and that has helped stabilize prices.

“We believe the distressed part of the housing market has already bottomed,” said Morgan Stanley analyst Oliver Chang on CNBC’s Squawkbox. “The bid that we see from the investor is the reason for this bottom.”

He sees further declines in organic home prices.

Why?

Banks have been very slow to release their repossessed (REO) inventory onto the market, not to mention that foreclosure processing delays have literally millions of properties still sitting in foreclosure limbo.

There is a dwindling supply of foreclosures and rising investor demand. Analysts keep pointing to overall falling inventories, but the current existing home sales pace doesn’t account for that drop.

The fact is that with so much of the supply distressed, and so few organic sellers putting their homes up for sale, the inventory drop is artificially skewed to the recent lack of movement in foreclosures and a crisis of confidence among potential organic home sellers.

Okay, so what about the fact that banks are ramping up the process now, which could put more properties on the market? That could boost supply, were it not for a new government program to sell foreclosures in bulk to large investors.

Chang says over $1 billion in investor capital has been raised over just the past six weeks to take advantage of this new program, and he claims this could add up to 1.8 million jobs. Property managers, renovators, rental agents, he says would benefit from these bulk rental investments.

Mortgage analyst Mark Hanson, however, disagrees.

He claims that individual investors will likely spend more on upgrades/renovations than bulk investors and will then sell to owner-occupants at a higher price, thereby not only stabilizing but increasing overall home values, while also juicing jobs.

“Due to epidemic effective negative equity (not having enough equity to pay a Realtor and put a down payment on a new house) the repeat buyer cohort has been cut in half since 2007. They now make up the minority of national resales," says Hanson.

“Investors and first-time buyers ARE the real estate market," he adds. "Investors and first timers want REO and short sales. Anything done to prevent the flow of distressed property will hurt the volume of existing home sales and all of the economic benefit that comes along with them. An REO-to-rent program will bring about record lows in monthly existing home sales volume. And volume precedes price.”

Hanson believes that when the distressed supply is choked off, by selling REO in bulk to rent, not re-sell, then the only thing you have left is meager organic sales.

“The housing market will implode,” he adds.

Yes, lower supply, in a normal market, would generally mean a return to home price appreciation, but that’s not the way today’s market is working because organic demand is still so weak and is hampered by tight credit.

There is even less demand for mid- to higher-priced homes.

“$200K to $300K is the new normal for home builders,” says Rick Palacios of John Burns Real Estate Consulting. “Since new home prices peaked in 2007, new single-family sales of over $500K have been more than cut in half, dropping from 13% to just 6% of all new home transactions.

The existing home market is much the same, with the bulk of sales and demand in the very low price tiers. It just goes to show that in the historic recovery from an historic housing crash, the usual rules just don’t apply.

Questions? Comments? RealtyCheck@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @Diana_Olick

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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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