Falling Home Prices: New Housing Nightmare

No American city is immune from the housing crisis, with real estate values falling from coast to coast.

Today, the average price of a home in 20 major U.S. cities is 19 percent lower than it was just a year ago.

But not all places are hit equally. New developments in cities such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix and San Francisco have plunged further than older homes in other cities.

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For instance, home prices have dropped 32.5 percent in Las Vegas in the last year. But in the Boston area, prices have only fallen 7.3 percent, according to the Standard & Poor's Case-Shiller home index.

Tampa prices are down 23.3 percent, while in Cleveland, they have only fallen 5.2 percent.

Stephanie Graves knows that pain all too well.

In October 2005, she bought a house in a new development for $850,000 in Irvine, Calif., outside Los Angeles, with an $85,000 down payment. In January 2007, the house was appraised at $940,000 and she refinanced. Today, she still owes $846,000 on the house.

Graves has worked in the mortgage business for 18 years. But about a year ago business started to dry up. Now she can no longer afford the $6,500-a-month mortgage. She owes more than her house is worth and is going through a bank short sale.

Her house was initially listed for $800,000. She got an offer for $750,000 but then an identical home down the block sold for $710,000. The bidders came back and offered $700,000. She now hopes to sell it for $710,000 and will rent an apartment for $1,800 to $2,300 a month.

Things have become so bad in her neighborhood that Graves has now gone into business helping homeowners facilitate short sales. She is even working out the short sale of her sister's condo.

"I come to tears once a week," Graves said of the work.

Home Prices Plunge

It's a similar story all across the country.

"Home prices, which peaked in mid-2006, continued their decline in 2009," said David M. Blitzer, who oversees the index at S&P. "There are very few bright spots that one can see in the data. Most of the nation appears to remain on a downward path."

But Jim Gillespie, president and CEO of Coldwell Banker Real Estate, disagrees.

"Where the biggest price drops are is where we've had the biggest price run-ups," Gillespie said. "A lot of it is new construction. A lot of it is condos in Florida and both condos and single-family homes in Las Vegas."

For instance, the number of sales in California is up dramatically because people are taking advantage of foreclosures and short sales like Graves'. But such sales bring down the average price of real estate.

"That's what's skewing the national numbers and making prices for real estate look worse than they are," Gillespie said. "The National Association of Realtors says 45 percent of all the homes sold in the country are distressed."

Gillespie notes that the Case-Shiller report only looks at 20 major metropolitan markets, including nine in distressed states.

"I'm not saying that prices are going up, they certainly are not, but they are not going down as much as Case-Shiller says," he added.

In the past few weeks, Gillespie said he has visited San Antonio; Raleigh, N.C.; Columbus, Ga.; Fayetteville, Ark.; and Shreveport, La.

"In none of those markets are prices down 20 percent. In fact, those markets' prices are anywhere from plus-1 percent to minus-1 percent," he said. "In most of the heartland of the United States, prices are up a percentage point or two or flat."

Gillespie points to the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which reported that prices fell only 6.3 percent during the same 12-month period and actually rose 1.7 percent in January.

That's probably no relief to the people of Phoenix who saw, according to Case-Shiller, home prices fall 35 percent in the last year.

Desert Nightmare

Jay Q. Butler, director of realty studies at Arizona State University, said that in the past few years, people started buying in outlying desert communities that were cheaper. There were many investors whose bets started to go bad when the market softened.

Today, "areas that were hot for new home development are areas of the greater sources of foreclosures," Butler said. "Some of the older communities are not getting hit as hard as the newer ones."

Butler said that somebody who bought a home at the peak of the market is probably down close to $100,000.

"Even if you are making the payments, you begin to wonder why," he said.

Like so many other Phoenix-area residents, John Garcia decided two years ago to buy a new house in a new development at the edge of town.

The three-bedroom, two-bathroom house was brand new, had state-of-the-art features and his family could move right in.

"It was a perfect opportunity for us," Garcia said. "Everything we would want to add, it already had. It was our dream home."

Garcia paid $260,000 for the house, put down $5,000 in cash and took out an adjustable-rate mortgage for the rest. His interest rate started at 6.49 percent and was set to adjust to a higher rate this month.

"The financing we were presented at the time seemed reasonable enough," Garcia said. "It was an ARM and we knew it was an ARM, but there was no indication that we would have any problems refinancing before it came up."

Housing Market Collapse

But in the last two years, the housing market around him has collapsed.

There are now five empty houses in his neighborhood. Another five have foreclosure signs. To make matters worse, the developer went bankrupt with 40 or so acres of the complex still vacant desert lots. The bank even sold the model homes.

"There was nothing here but agriculture for many, many, many years. All these new developments have cropped up in the last five years. And this is one of them," Garcia said.

Today, Garcia estimates his home is worth $200,000 to $210,000. Given his low down payment, he now owes more than his house is worth -- Garcia is underwater about $50,000.

"I'm not only upside down, but the boat is on top of me," he said. "I'm stuck. With A+ credit, I still wouldn't be about to get refinanced."

In January, his mortgage company, as part of a "loss mitigation" process, decided to extend the mortgage for another five years without an automatic reset. It has bought him time, assuming the market recovers.

"Right now," he said, "there's a glut of foreclosed homes and people are buying those up first."