House Prices Slide as Property Glut Grows

**House Prices Slide as Property Glut Grows **

The Wall Street Journal Online
By James R. Hagerty

Buyers Gain Bargaining Power in Busy Spring Selling Season; Auctions in Palm Springs

Tighter credit and a growing glut of properties are depressing an already weak U.S. housing market, wrecking the industry’s hopes for an early rebound.

That leaves buyers in a strong position to negotiate for bargains during the spring home-shopping season, the busiest time of the year for housing sales.

On April 24, the National Association of Realtors reported that sales of previously occupied homes in March dropped 8.4% from the prior month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.12 million units – the largest monthly drop since 1989. The trade group said the median price for homes was $217,000 in March, down 0.3% from a year earlier.

The data reflect sales that closed in March; most of those were negotiated in January and February. The Realtors said bad weather in February hurt March sales. The drop in March followed three months when home sales increased nationally.

Since March, the market appears to have deteriorated further in many parts of the country. Reports from builders show that sales in the past few weeks “have really plunged,” says Ivy Zelman, a Cleveland-based housing analyst for Credit Suisse Group. She says prices of new homes also are falling as tighter credit eliminates some potential buyers and builders struggle to shed excess inventory.

Lenders, stung by a surge in defaults, have rediscovered the virtues of caution over the past few months, eliminating many of their no-money-down loan offerings. That tightening is “really starting to bite,” says Ed Mixon, a real-estate agent for Re/Max Real Estate Services in Monarch Beach, Calif.

Mr. Mixon recently had to advise one of his clients, a young woman with a good job and credit record, to put off her dream of buying a $300,000 condo in Laguna Niguel, Calif., until she could come up with more than her current nest egg of $5,000 for a down payment. A year ago, he says, she could easily have obtained a loan to cover 100% of the condo’s price.

Stricter Lending Standards

Stricter lending standards will reduce demand for housing by 10% this year from where it would have been had credit remained loose, estimates Thomas Lawler, a housing economist in Vienna, Va. He expects housing prices, as measured by the national S&P/Case-Shiller index, to fall 7% in the fourth quarter of 2007 from the year-earlier level.

Standard & Poor’s reported April 24 that the S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city composite index in February was down 1% from a year earlier. The metro-area price changes ranged from drops of 7.8% in Detroit and 5% in San Diego to rises of 10.6% in Seattle and 7.7% in Portland, Ore. In 15 of the 20 cities, March prices were down from a month before.

All this has made many sellers more willing to negotiate. Shawn Gabbaie, a real-estate agent in Los Angeles who bought a new three-bedroom house in Las Vegas as an investment several years ago for about $275,000, is now trying to sell it for $299,900. He’s offering to provide partial financing to a buyer, or to lease the house for $1,200 a month. Mr. Gabbaie says he’s “definitely” flexible on the terms.

Where sellers are inflexible, buyers generally will find plenty of alternatives. The Wall Street Journal’s latest quarterly survey of residential real estate in major metropolitan areas – drawn from a wide range of sources in 28 major markets – found particularly large jumps from a year ago in listings of homes in Florida. Orlando and Tampa were both up 62%, closely followed by Miami (58%) and Jacksonville (49%).

**In Florida’s St. Lucie County, current inventory is enough to last more than 34 months at March’s sales rate, says Mr. Lawler. The supply is 29 months in Palm Beach County and 25 months in both Miami-Dade and Broward counties, he adds.
Other cities with big increases in listings from the already swollen levels of a year ago include Phoenix (36%), Chicago (44%), Los Angeles (54%) and Las Vegas (30%). The inventory was little changed but still plentiful in the San Diego and Washington, D.C., areas.