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Home prices climb as buyers dive in

by KEN SWEET AND LARRY FENN THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | August 15, 2020 at 1:58 a.m.
A new owner tours his home in Washingtonville, N.Y., in July. The average home price in the U.S. in May was up 4.2% compared with a year ago, data shows. (AP)

NEW YORK -- A renter most of his adult life, Clarence Swann became fearful that landlords would use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to gouge their tenants. So, with a desire to move near relatives, the retired veteran bought his first home last month at the age of 74.

Swann said he used his veteran status to get the loan he needed to buy a $196,000 townhouse this summer in the Lake Wylie, S.C., area.

"The first need at my age was I wanted stability," he said.

Swann is one of tens of thousands of buyers who dove into the housing market this spring and summer even as the coronavirus upended the U.S. economy. The presence of these buyers, plus a sharp drop in the numbers of homes on the market, drove home prices to record highs in most parts of the United States, according to an analysis of housing price data by The Associated Press and Core Logic.

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The average home price in the U.S. in May rose 4.2% compared with a year ago. The data shows that prices for cheaper homes -- those found in the lower third of prices in metropolitan areas and a typical target for first-time buyers -- rose faster than the rest of the market, increasing 6.7% from a year ago.

The coronavirus pandemic helped shape the housing market by influencing everything from the direction of mortgage rates to the inventory of homes on the market to the types of homes in demand and the desired locations.

The pandemic pushed the U.S. economy into a deep recession as many businesses shut down, which in turn forced the hand of the Federal Reserve to dramatically lower interest rates. The average mortgage rate fell from around 3.75% at the beginning of the year to under 3% in a matter of weeks after the pandemic struck the U.S.

MORTGAGE RATES

That sudden drop in mortgage rates was an instant boon to home affordability, economists said, allowing many buyers to afford much more expensive homes while keeping the same monthly payments.

"A 0.75 percentage point drop may not seem like a lot, but it's like handing $40,000 to a buyer of a $475,000 home, who is able to get more house for the same monthly payment," said Taylor Marr, senior economist at Redfin.

The pandemic also caused sellers to delay putting their homes on the market. Sellers, who are typically older than buyers, were either concerned about the economy, worried about their jobs, generally reluctant to have strangers enter their homes, or some combination of all three. The supply of homes available for sale in May dropped nearly 30% from a year earlier.

The lack of foreclosed properties for sale was also a minor factor, as states and the federal government-imposed moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures.

"Supply and demand is all out of whack. I have less than a month's supply of homes in my area," said Jay Rinehart, a real estate agent in the Charlotte, N.C., metropolitan area.

Like nearly every other industry, real estate sales came to a halt in March when the country's governors put stay-at-home orders in place. But once those orders were lifted, buyers who were intent on moving in 2020 before the pandemic came back into the market, Realtors said.

The boost in mortgage affordability likely played a part in driving up prices for starter homes, or those priced in the lower third of the market.

In Washington, D.C., real estate agent Sandy Shimono said most of the activity in the past three months has been for homes between $400,000 and $650,000, which in the expensive D.C. metro area are considered starter homes.

"Many are tired of renting and finally home affordability seems to be a reachable goal," Shimono said.

It's too early to tell whether an exodus from cities to the suburbs will be long-lasting. Many employers have told employees to expect to work remotely until early 2021, with some companies now talking about at least some work done remotely indefinitely.

HOUSING NEEDS CHANGED

The pandemic also has temporarily changed the type of homes in demand. Families are looking for homes with more rooms, especially if children may be doing remote learning for the foreseeable future.

Darin LaFramboise, 35, and his fiance had plans to eventually move from the middle of San Francisco to the suburbs when they had a family. But the pandemic forced both of them to work remotely and schedule their Zoom meetings around each other so they weren't talking over each other. They hastened their search for a house.

"We loved being in the city center, but once interest rates dropped as they did, we started seriously looking," he said.

The couple came up empty at first -- even losing out on a property where their bid was $200,000 above offer -- but eventually found a three-bedroom home in Lafayette, Calif., on a half acre 55 minutes from San Francisco's city center by train, for $1.65 million.

"The downtown [of Lafayette] reminds us a lot of where we lived in [San Francisco], and we have access to markets and restaurants just like we used to," LaFramboise said.

"Plus, we have space!"

There are some threats to the housing market's resilience, however.

Home prices have been rising while the nation is in the grips of a deep recession. Many protections put into place in the early days of the pandemic are now coming to an end -- evictions are starting back up, and foreclosures are likely to follow. Enhanced unemployment benefits have also expired, with unemployed workers left to hope Congress can reach an agreement to extend them.

An analysis of mortgage data shows that roughly 7.5% of all active mortgages remain in some sort of forbearance program, according to financial data aggregator Black Knight. Roughly 2.2 million three-month forbearance program cases will expire in September.

FILE - This Monday, April 27, 2020, file photo shows a sale pending sign on a home in Mount Lebanon, Pa. The coronavirus pandemic helped shape the housing market by influencing everything from the direction of mortgage rates to the inventory of homes on the market to the types of homes in demand and the desired locations. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
FILE - This Monday, April 27, 2020, file photo shows a sale pending sign on a home in Mount Lebanon, Pa. The coronavirus pandemic helped shape the housing market by influencing everything from the direction of mortgage rates to the inventory of homes on the market to the types of homes in demand and the desired locations. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
FILE - In this Friday, May 22, 2020, file photo, a sold sign sits in front of a house in Brighton, N.Y. The coronavirus pandemic helped shape the housing market by influencing everything from the direction of mortgage rates to the inventory of homes on the market to the types of homes in demand and the desired locations. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey, File)
FILE - In this Friday, May 22, 2020, file photo, a sold sign sits in front of a house in Brighton, N.Y. The coronavirus pandemic helped shape the housing market by influencing everything from the direction of mortgage rates to the inventory of homes on the market to the types of homes in demand and the desired locations. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey, File)
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