From the WSJ:
Housing is fast dividing into two markets: Sales of low- and moderately priced homes are picking up and values have stopped falling in some parts of the nation. But on the upper end, sales remain mired in a deep slump and price declines are expected to accelerate.
Signs of the divide are visible across the country, including in suburban Chicago. In middle-class Schaumburg, Ill., which had a median income of $65,000 in 2007, sales were up 41% in June from the depressed level of a year earlier and bidding wars have broken out on some properties. “I can’t even tell you how many I’ve been in over the last two months,” says Joe Stacy, a local real-estate agent.
But 25 miles away in the affluent town of Kenilworth, with a median income of $230,000, home sales have stalled. While there are 65 homes on the market, just 13 have sold this year. “We’re extremely oversupplied,” says Sherry Molitor, a local real-estate agent. “Sellers are struggling to realize that we’re back to 2001-02 prices.”
The divide between the mass market and the high-end — generally defined as homes that cost above $750,000 — partly reflects the effects of Washington’s housing-rescue plan, which is producing winners and losers.
Policymakers have helped spur sales of lower-priced homes by offering first-time buyers a federal tax credit of as much as $8,000, by driving mortgage rates to near 50-year lows and by expanding the mission of the Federal Housing Administration, which will guarantee mortgages for consumers buying homes with down payments as low as 3.5%.
Sales at the lower end are also helped by the large number of foreclosed homes that banks have dumped at fire-sale prices, which has pulled down values of neighboring houses and sparked bargain hunting. Prices in both Las Vegas and Phoenix are down more than 50% from their peaks of several years ago, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller index.
To be sure, the affluent housing market is substantially smaller than the mass market. Sales of existing homes priced over $750,000 accounted for 2.3% of all sales in the first quarter of this year, compared to 4.4% of the housing market in 2007, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Inventory of expensive homes is rising. Overall, the inventory of unsold homes in June was enough to last 9.4 months at the current selling pace, down from 11 months a year ago, according to the NAR. But the supply of unsold homes priced above $750,000 swelled to around 17 months in June, up from a 14.5-month backlog one year ago. A recent forecast by analysts at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. said it would take until at least 2012 for the expensive-home market to recover and that peak-to-trough declines could surpass 60%, compared to 40% for the rest of the market.
A recent survey by the NAR found nearly three-quarters of real-estate agents said buyers were purchasing smaller houses due to tighter credit requirements. “We’re in a ‘trade-down’ environment for the first time since the 1930s,” says Kenneth Rosen, chairman of the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.
Having lost large amounts in the stock market and on real estate, “a lot of people are licking their wounds and hoarding their cash,” says Sally Daley, a real-estate broker who sells luxury homes in Vero Beach, Fla. She says many customers are asking, “Do I really need this big a house?”