Phoenix value decline creates opportunities
Two-bed, two-bath sells for $34,500, for example; builders now pursuing Canadian customers
While homelessness and home affordability dominate real estate stories in Vancouver, Phoenix is dealing with some different housing problems.
During a recent visit to the Valley of the Sun, I discovered that stories about falling house prices, "short sales", foreclosures and evictions are front-page items in the local papers.
The Phoenix housing market is unlike anything in Canada. The median price of a home has dropped from $250,000 to $130,000. Since mid-2009, purchasers have been able to snap up incredible deals, and current listings reveal that it is still possible to buy a house at a fraction of the price of a comparable home in Vancouver.
In a recent North Scottsdale Times I came across a feature called "After the Bubble", which illustrated recent sales. An attractive two-bedroom, two-bathroom, double-garage home that sold for $175,000 in 2002 had just sold for $34,500.
A 10-year-old, three-bedroom, two-bathroom detached home of 1,182 square feet that sold for $212,000 in 2006 recently went for $89,100.
In Carefree, just north of Scottsdale, a 4,400-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-bathroom house on an acre of land that features a 1,000-square-foot guest house, pool, movie theatre and elevator sold last month for $630,000. In 2006, it sold for $1.75 million.
Each was a "short sale" -- that means the lender allowed the homeowner to sell for less than the amount owed on the mortgage. Selling the property at a loss was a better option than foreclosing and attempting sale by auction.
The auctioning of foreclosed properties has become a daily occurrence in Phoenix. Sadly, increasing numbers of homeowners are not aware their homes have been sold until the new buyers show up at the door with eviction notices. Generally, owners have five days in which to vacate. In some instances, a new purchaser will agree to rent the home back to the original owner. In many others, however, upsetting events can occur, leading to property damage and violence.
REOs, or real-estate-owned properties, often sell for a third of their peak prices. These are properties that are owned by a lender after they fail to sell at foreclosure auctions. "Short sales" and REOs have accounted for a significant percentage of home sales in the metropolitan Phoenix area over the past year.
Not surprisingly, some local developers, especially operators of retirement communities, are now targeting Canadian buyers. A full-page ad in the Arizona Republic recently promoted the "O Canada Weekend" at Robson Ranch featuring Tim Horton's coffee and a 50-per-cent discount for a round of golf for those who could present a Canadian driver's licence.
During my stay in Phoenix, I was guided around by Craig Waddell, a former Vancouver architect and developer who has been active in the local market for the past 25 years.
He told me that leading up to the bubble, it was much too easy for borrowers to arrange mortgage financing. However, now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Many locals cannot take advantage of the excellent deals since they cannot qualify for bank financing. Furthermore, real estate appraisers who have been spooked by fluctuating markets in recent years are now often too conservative in their valuations. As a result, sales that could be closing are not closing.
Waddell's companies built a variety of projects, including some very luxurious homes at DC Ranch, one of Scottsdale's most exclusive gated communities. (When you are cleared for entry by the gatekeeper, you are given a printout with the address and detailed directions to the designated property.)Waddell lives in a spectacular 4,650-square-foot DC Ranch home that overlooks the sixth hole of the golf course. Like many Scottsdale properties, it is planned around a majestic great room with a huge entertaining kitchen. A variety of outdoor living spaces surround the pool and open-air fireplace. After seven years, he is ready to downsize; however, like many owners of luxury properties, he is having difficulty selling at a price that is less than what one would pay for a home half the size on a 33-foot lot in Dunbar.
Given the number of existing homes on the market, new home developers face difficult challenges. To attract buyers to sale centres, some are experimenting with new product types for the area. On one rainy Sunday afternoon (yes, it rains occasionally in the winter) Waddell and I set off for "Spaces", developed by Shea Homes, one of the area's larger builders. Designed with what the architect called a "mid-century modern" esthetic, the homes offer a surprisingly high degree of flexibility and energy efficiency.
The flexibility is created by expansive spaces and numerous sliding doors. To help potential buyers appreciate it, the project's website allows users to try out different furniture arrangements using furniture cut-outs. At the click of a mouse, a living room becomes the dining area, or an office, or den.
Energy-saving features include an electric vehicle charging outlet, radiant-barrier roof sheathing and "solatube" day lighting. A compact, on-demand hot water system eliminates the need for a bulky, conventional hot water tank.
As my plane was taking off, I calculated that Metro Vancouver's median house price is about four times that of Phoenix. I could not help but wonder whether Metro Vancouver could ever experience similar drops in house prices.
While between 1980 and 1983 we did see some homes drop almost 50 per cent, I do not think Vancouverites will ever witness what has happened in Phoenix. For one thing, our banking system is very different, and recent changes will further control who can build and who can buy into the market.
Secondly, Vancouver's land supply, unlike Phoenix's, is constrained by the ocean, the mountains and protected agricultural lands.
However, an old Blood, Sweat and Tears song did come to mind: "What goes up, must come down ..." It's a song many are singing in Phoenix.
Michael Geller is an architect, planner, development consultant and SFU adjunct professor and occasional Westcoast Homes contributor.