Is this what a bottom looks like?
This city was among the first in the nation to fall victim to the real estate collapse. Now it seems to be in the earliest stages of a recovery, a hopeful sign for an economy mired in trouble and anxiety.
Investors and first-time buyers, the traditional harbingers of a housing rebound, are out in force here, competing for bargain-price foreclosures. With sales up 45 percent from last year, the vast backlog of inventory has diminished. Even prices, which have plummeted to levels not seen since the beginning of the decade, show evidence of stabilizing.
Indications of progress are visible in other hard-hit areas, including Las Vegas, parts of Florida and the Inland Empire in southeastern California. Sales in Las Vegas in March, for example, rose 35 percent from last year.
“It’s fragile, and it could easily be fleeting,” said an MDA DataQuick analyst, Andrew LePage. “But history suggests this is how things might look six months before prices bottom out.”
Hope for housing was on full display in the stock market on Monday. News that pending home sales rose in March instead of falling, coupled with improved construction spending, propelled a strong rally. One broad market average, the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, is now in positive territory for the year, after being down 25 percent on March 9.
No one in Sacramento is predicting that local housing prices, which have been cut in half from their mid-2005 peak, are going to reclaim much of that ground anytime soon.
Instead, this is what passes for wild-eyed optimism: a belief that things have finally stopped getting worse. “A period of price stagnation would boost a lot of spirits,” Mr. LePage said.
When a market bottoms, foreclosures usually stop piling up and banks become more willing to make loans, confident the collateral backing them will not fall in value.
Nationally, signs of progress in real estate are still faint at best. Existing home sales in March were down 7 percent from last year, according to the National Association of Realtors.
The supply of unsold homes was about 10 months, a number that has changed little over the last year and is abnormally high. But first-time buyers were an impressive 53 percent of the market — and that was largely before a first-time buyer’s tax credit of $8,000 became available.
With the tax credit in place and interest rates low, the pace of sales may be picking up. The Realtors’ group said Monday that the number of houses under contract in March was up 1 percent from a year earlier. Those pending deals will be reported in the existing-home sales for April and May.
Sales volume tends to recover long before prices. In fact, some analysts think price declines in many markets are accelerating. First American CoreLogic, a real estate data firm, reported that “the depth and breadth of price declines continued to worsen in February.” Fitch Ratings recently revised its estimate of future declines to 12.5 percent, from 10 percent, saying the drop would extend to the end of next year.
Amid the uncertainty, Sacramento is drawing scrutiny as a test case. The area boomed in the first part of the decade; the population of Sacramento County increased 10 percent, to 1.4 million, as San Franciscans sought cheaper places to live.
When the market peaked and the ability to refinance all those costly mortgages dried up, the carnage began. There have been 28,898 foreclosures in Sacramento County since 2005.
Sales in the top half of the market remain slow. The Federal Reserve reported on Monday that half of all banks recently tightened their lending standards on prime mortgages. Many would-be buyers, here as elsewhere, simply cannot get financing.
Sellers, meanwhile, are reluctant to lower their prices, preferring to bide their time. New construction is nearly nonexistent.
What drives the market here, then, are all those foreclosures. Two-thirds of the 2,092 existing single-family houses and condominiums sold here in March were bank repossessions, up from 8.5 percent two years ago, according to MDA DataQuick, a real estate research firm.
These cut-rate properties are engendering the same frenzy and frustration that symbolized the boom, as Rebecca and Chris Whitman discovered when they started looking for a house in December. Ms. Whitman’s new job as an athletics director at Sacramento State required an immediate move from Chico, two hours north.
In two months the couple looked at 100 houses, nearly all foreclosures priced under $200,000, making verbal offers on 20. Only rarely did they get a response. Banks trying to unload large numbers of properties are less interested in traditional transactions with individuals than all-cash offers from investors.
As interest rates fell, the Whitmans were able to increase their price limit. They ended up buying from investors. A syndicate had bought a three-bedroom foreclosure on a cul-de-sac in eastern Sacramento last fall for $172,000, made a few improvements and was flipping it — another boom-era element that is back. The Whitmans bought it three weeks ago for $224,500.
“We think we got a good deal,” said Ms. Whitman, 31. Their monthly payment, including property taxes, will be about $1,200. Renting an equivalent house, with space for their two dogs, two cats and the baby they are expecting, would have been hundreds of dollars more.
When buying is cheaper than renting, markets begin to turn. At the current rate of sales, there is less than three months of inventory in the Sacramento market. In normal times, that would indicate a seller’s market.
Except these are not normal times. The unemployment rate in the county is 11.3 percent, the highest in decades. That will prompt more foreclosures all by itself. Furthermore, banks have lifted various processing moratoriums that lowered foreclosures last fall.
These two factors yielded a rise in the number of default notices filed in Sacramento County in March to 2,819, a record. Thousands more bank-owned houses are likely to come to market this summer and fall.
“That will stall any progress toward stability,” said Michael Lyon, chief executive of Lyon Real Estate. “The prospects for a recovery are fool’s gold.”
Mr. Lyon expects further price declines and slowing sales. But David Berson, the chief economist for the mortgage insurer PMI, argues that such bleakness from the people whose livelihood is selling houses is itself a positive sign. “Things are awful at the bottom, and we’re at the bottom,” Mr. Berson said. “No question about it. But the trend going forward should be higher sales, and that will eventually affect prices.”