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House flipping heats up, creating 'home price pressure cooker'

It looks so easy on TV. Buy a bargain-basement house, pull up some nasty carpet, re-tile the bathroom, paint away the wall stains and sell it for a hefty profit.

It's not, however, all those popular shows that are driving the flipping market today. It's pure and simple prices — and profit. There is a severe lack of good quality, turn-key homes for sale, and that has created a seller's market across the nation, even for those reselling homes.

After cooling off in 2014, home flipping is on the rise again — its share of all home sales is up 20 percent in the first three months of this year from the previous quarter and up 3 percent from the same period a year ago, according to a new report from RealtyTrac, which defines a flip as a property bought and resold within a 12-month period.

While flipping today is nothing like it was during the housing boom a decade ago, when investors used risky mortgages, it is reaching new peaks in 7 percent of the nation's metro markets, including Baltimore, Buffalo, New Orleans, San Diego and even pricey Seattle.

Dana Rice, real estate agent and home flipper, at her latest project in Bethesda, Maryland, a very small colonial, within walking distance to shops and Metro.
Diana Olick | CNBC
Dana Rice, real estate agent and home flipper, at her latest project in Bethesda, Maryland, a very small colonial, within walking distance to shops and Metro.

"While responsible home flipping is helpful for a housing market, excessive and irresponsible flipping activity can contribute to a home price pressure cooker that overheats a housing market, and we are starting to see evidence of that pressure cooker environment in a handful of markets," said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at RealtyTrac.

That's because flippers today largely use cash — 71 percent did in the first quarter of this year. Compare that to just 27 percent who used cash at the height of the housing boom. That helps keep most flippers conservative, but it also exacerbates the problems for entry-level homebuyers, who are facing one of the tightest housing markets in history. They simply can't compete against all-cash buyers.

Usually flippers look for distressed properties either in the foreclosure process or already bank-owned. These are not always listed on public sale sites. There are fewer of those today, so flippers are moving to the mainstream market, creating that new pressure.

"A telltale sign is when flippers are acquiring properties at or close to full market value. Those markets are so competitive that even the off-market properties flippers are looking to buy are not selling at much of a discount — and there may be very few distressed properties available," said Blomquist.

Examples of these markets include San Antonio, where Blomquist says flippers are actually purchasing at a 7.8 percent premium above estimated full market value, as well as Austin, Texas; Salt Lake City; Naples, Florida; Dallas and San Jose, California.

Despite the premium to buy, flippers are still seeing growing gains in profit. Home flippers realized an average gross profit of more than $58,000 in the first quarter of this year, the highest since the third quarter of 2005, according to RealtyTrac.

Real estate agent Dana Rice and her husband flip houses in the tony D.C. suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. Prices there are well above the national median, and there are few distressed properties. Instead, they target old, small fixer-uppers. Even those command a hefty purchase price up front, but they can also offer big rewards.

"I didn't want a teardown. There is so much character in this part of Bethesda," said Rice. "I don't think that everybody wants a brand new build. There is a hole in the market because not everyone wants to do a renovation. If you put a little bit of effort in, these numbers can be huge."

Rice purchased her latest project, a very small colonial, within walking distance to shops and Metro, for $680,000. She expects to put half a million dollars into the renovation, adding both square footage and high-end finishings; she is confident that in this competitive market she will see an 18-25 percent return on investment.

"It's like birthing a baby. ... If you're overpriced, you're dead in the water." -Dana Rice, real estate agent and home flipper

"It's like birthing a baby," she said, noting that she will wait to list it until she feels the market is just right. "If you're overpriced, you're dead in the water."

The lack of inventory is certainly a double-edged sword for flippers. Their initial investment price can be high, and flippers are often competing against local builders, who may want to tear the house down and put something up that is twice the size. On the other hand, not everyone wants or can afford a huge, new, expensive home, and that gives flippers the edge.

"The key here is that there is particularly a dearth of listed inventory in good condition," said Blomquist. "That is the inventory flippers are competing against when they sell."