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Confused about San Francisco’s real estate market? You are not alone

San Francisco is a place that loves to call itself “unpredictable,” and yet every fall it’s the same thing: the fog blows off, summer arrives, a ton of listings flood the real estate market and people start asking if this is the year the housing bubble finally bursts.

Is this the year? Here we are, dripping sweat after another Patagonia summer, hearing about record-setting inventory spikes and year-over-year price drops, listening keenly as pundit after pundit warns of the coming recession. It’s enough to send us to our knees with despair — if we’re sellers or potential sellers — or rubbing our hands together in glee — if we’re buyers, potential buyers or simply real estate haters.

So we flock to the websites — Zillow, Socketsite, Redfin, Curbed — and find news of homes sitting on the market for months… alongside tales of record-setting prices paid for Pac Heights mansions by 30-something tech titans. Meanwhile, the national media occasionally adds in a bomb about San Francisco’s outrageous cost of living, its homeless crisis, its jazzy new innovators or some combination of all three.

Confused? You have every right to be. Sometimes it seems that local real estate is the poster child for the term “mixed messages.”

In 2019 there is no one “story” of San Francisco real estate. It’s not like it’s been all decade, when the news is always madcap growth, multiple offers and record-setting prices. Nor is it like it was in 2008, when the news was foreclosures, underwater mortgages and suburban ghost town subdivisions.

The 2019 market is more nuanced than that. Way more nuanced.

Right now, after the usual early-autumn flood, the number of active residential listings in San Francisco is the highest it’s been at any time since 2011. Or maybe it’s slightly lower than it was in 2018. Home sales are lagging and have been lagging, compared to 2018, for months. That part is inarguable. Prices nationwide are declining slightly, except in San Francisco, where they’re holding fast, or maybe also declining slightly, depending on which number-cruncher you read most recently in an effort to further cloud your understanding of the local market.

The local median price is holding at $1.6 million, unemployment is at 2.3 percent and mortgage rates, which recently fell as low as 3.5 percent, are still historically low but have risen slightly to 3.64 percent.

Is this good news for buyers, that 17 percent of residents who, per Compass real estate analyst guru Patrick Carlisle, can now afford a home in San Francisco? Maybe, but that assumes a blanket statement about local real estate. Remember, the local market is nuanced. When Compass agent Ana Dierkhising tells me about “microclimates,” she’s not talking about the weather. She means that the market can change from neighborhood to neighborhood or even block to block. And that the market for condominiums is completely different than the market for single-family homes. “Condos are way easier to get into,” she says.

What everyone seems to agree on amidst the turmoil, real or otherwise, is that what happens over the next three months will go a long way toward determining the actual state of the local market. Real estate follows the academic calendar; the year starts in September and ends in June, with a big mid-winter break during the holidays. Local real estate has until then to decide where it’s going.

Right now we’ve got the usual flood of post-summer inventory, which could continue to rise — signaling a softening market — or continue to rise, fueled in part by newly-completed condo buildings in the city’s southeastern corridor (I’m looking at you, Mission Bay). Like all markets, Bay Area real estate is driven by supply and demand. Increased demand and a looming recession could play havoc on our decade-old real estate bubble.

Or maybe all of those recent tech IPOs will bring new buyers to the existing market. These new millionaires could wait, or they could pounce. Interest rates could remain low, driving the market through whatever recession comes. International buyers could be spooked by new U.S. immigration policies or find work-arounds. There are lots of moving parts.

To be honest, this is not a new story. In fact, this is what the market looked like last September, too — except interest rates were a full point higher.

“Last fall everyone thought the sky was falling,” Dale Boutiette of Compass told me recently, “and then spring came and we had this nice bounce back.”

Boutiette says he is “bearish” right now, but feels 2018 was “worse than what this fall will be.”

So forget trying to figure it out. Instead, grab a bowl of popcorn, sit back and watch what happens. Keep this in mind: between 2008 and 2010, San Francisco home values dropped by around 25 percent overall. Two years later they were back above their 2007 peak. Since then the median price for a home in San Francisco has almost doubled. If your aim is to keep living where you’ve been living, if you’ve been sitting on a property for more than 10 years or if you plan to buy a house and hang onto it for awhile, all of this should be white noise to you.

The new Market Musings real estate column will appear every other Wednesday. Larry Rosen is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, podcaster and recovering former Realtor. He is a guest columnist and his viewpoint is not necessarily that of the Examiner.

Larry Rosen

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