After an almost uninterrupted run of declines since 1990, Los Angeles homeowners may have finally reached the promised land of real estate and that’s spelled appreciation.
The question is how much.
In the first quarter of 1997, median prices of sold houses were up 2.6 percent in Los Angeles County, to $166,000, compared with the like period a year earlier. It was the first year-over-year quarterly rise in the series since 1992.
Moreover, 1992 turned out to be a false hope, in that house prices had been falling since 1990, and resumed their southward march in 1993.
“There is clearly recovery going on now,” said John Karevoll, publisher of the Real Estate Observer in Running Springs. “And this time I think it is sustainable. We are probably looking at something in the range of 3 percent appreciation this year.”
Karevoll cited continuing strength in job rolls, and generally low interest rates, as underpinning a prolonged, if gentle, recovery.
“Things are moving in the right direction,” agreed economist Mark Schniepp of UC Santa Barbara. “That is helping house prices bottom.”
Karevoll and others seem to agree that the bottom has been reached and that housing prices will gradually increase but with pricier neighborhoods doing better than medium- or low-priced zip codes.
“The high-end market has really picked up. I think we are going to see appreciation in the 5 to 10 percent range in 1997 for better neighborhoods,” said Jon Douglas, chairman of Prudential Jon Douglas Co., the region’s largest residential real estate brokerage. “In better neighborhoods, I am predicting 5 to 10 percent appreciation this year.”
Certain, leafier zip codes in Los Angeles, both by anecdotal commentary and median resale values, appear on the upswing.
For example, the median price for a house sold in the the zip code for Pacific Palisades, 90272, rose 16.2 percent in the first quarter compared with the like period a year earlier, while 90077, the Bel Air Estates, was up 8.8 percent. Similarly, San Marino 91108 was up 12.5 percent.
“My guess is that Los Angeles County is a mixed bag There is real strength in West Los Angeles, and higher-income areas,” said Gordon Pattison, of the Santa Ana-based Investors’ Property Services Inc.
But other areas of Los Angeles County appear to be in funk, judged by median prices of homes. For example, all four zip codes of Palmdale were down in the first quarter compared with a year earlier, as were the two zip codes for South Central Los Angeles.
Certain zip codes in the San Fernando Valley reflect weaker housing markets, perhaps still a response to the earthquake of 1994.
The three zip codes that make up the Northridge section of Los Angeles all have house prices that were down in the first quarter, compared with a year earlier. And three out of four zip codes that make up Canoga Park have first quarter house prices that are down from a year earlier.
Away from the quake epicenter area, however, home prices showed strong increases in many Valley neighborhoods. Housing prices in Encino posted a 9.2 percent increase, and in Studio City prices rose 10.4 percent.
“I think that prices are firming up,” said Linda Gary, president of James R. Gary & Co. Ltd. in Woodland Hills. “The earthquake took a heavy toll on Northridge, and I think this may be the first year house prices stop falling there.”
Even if 1997 turns out to be a solid year for homeowners, the road back, for many, is a long one.
From the first quarter of 1990 to this year’s first quarter, median prices are down 18.6 percent, before adjustment for inflation. Even growing at 2 percent to 3 percent a year, it will be another five years or so before house prices reach levels of the late 1980s. Some economists believe it will be much longer than that.
And many Southern Californians are still “underwater” on on their homes in other words, their houses are worth less than the outstanding indebtedness (mortgage) on the home.
This is reflected in foreclosure activity, which is still strong. In March, more than 2,700 properties in the county were repossessed by lenders, with a total value of $464.7 million a level that dwarfs monthly activity in the late 1980s.
“People ‘walk away’ from their homes when they can’t sell it to pay the mortgage,” said Pattison.
While many real estate experts forecast some appreciation, few expect a return to the red-hot 1980s.
“I don’t think we will see a boom,” said Karevoll.
Indeed, by some measurements, house prices are still virtually flat in and around Los Angeles.
On a per square foot basis, the average house in Los Angeles County sold for $111.65 in April, up a scant 1.0 percent from the like period a year earlier, according to Karevoll.
The rate of inflation in the same period for the Los Angeles area was 1.4 percent, an indication that house prices still lag general inflation.
By other measures, house prices are still slipping. At Anaheim-based Experian Inc., a real estate research firm, the word is that minor depreciation in Los Angeles County is still the rule.
Unlike other analysts, Experian does not use median prices as an index (the median price is the level at which half the homes sold for more and half sold for less).
Instead, Experian compares homes that were sold in the first quarter of 1996 and then resold in the first quarter of 1997. Based on that index, home values fell 1.8 percent.
“Home values still show signs of weakness,” said Nima Nattagh, Experian economist. “Perhaps by 1998 we will see some appreciation.”