UNITED STATES

All-cash home purchases surge in US with rising interest rates

Smaller players keeping residential sales trudging along while mortgage lending plummets, hurt by higher borrowing costs and stiff credit rules

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 5:04am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 5:04am

Greg Leffel, an investor in Columbus, Ohio, relishes cash deals as much as he dislikes home loans. He has spent US$150,000 buying and renovating 10 foreclosed houses in the past two years and turned them into rentals.

"Lending is so tight, and even if you do get a loan, you would have to jump through a bunch of hoops first," Leffel said. "I like buying with cash, because then I can control my investments."

Investors like Leffel helped spur all-cash home purchases to a record 43 per cent of deals in the United States in the first quarter, more than double the share a year ago, according to data firm RealtyTrac.

Cash is keeping residential sales trudging along while mortgage lending plummets, hurt by rising interest rates and stiff credit requirements. Americans seeking a loan to buy their first dwelling are increasingly shut out.

Even if you do get a loan, you would have to jump through a bunch of hoops
Investor Greg Leffel

"The cash buyers today mean that all is not well in the housing market," said Clifford Rossi, a finance professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

"First-time homebuyers should make up 40 per cent and we're not seeing it because of mortgage rules."

Lenders are cutting jobs as business contracts. They made US$226 billion in mortgages in the first quarter, a 17-year low, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association in Washington.

Smaller investors, who deploy cash for homes to rent, flip, or holiday in, are finding better deals now that institutions have pared buying foreclosures, according to RealtyTrac vice-president Daren Blomquist.

Cash sales are rising from coast to coast, comprising more than half of all purchases in many metropolitan areas in the first quarter.

In Miami, 67.1 per cent of sales were cash deals; New York posted 57 per cent; Detroit recorded 53.5 per cent; Atlanta had 53.2 per cent, and Las Vegas registered 52.2 per cent, according to RealtyTrac.

In Manhattan, buyers are using cash for trophy apartments and to gain an advantage over borrowers who must depend on loans to finance a purchase.

Pej Barlavi, the owner of brokerage Barlavi Realty in Manhattan, said three of his five current clients buying homes prevailed with all-cash offers.

Barlavi said two of them were hedge fund managers who used year-end bonuses to buy the properties: a US$2.2 million two-bedroom apartment in Midtown, selling for US$150,000 above the asking price; and US$1.5 million for a one-bedroom in Tribeca.

His client in the second transaction was "nudged higher by a foreign buyer" before being chosen by the seller.

"In Manhattan, you have foreign buyers coming in and using properties as a second, third, fourth or fifth home and hedging risks in their home countries," said Chris Mayer, a real estate professor at Columbia University Business School in New York.

Private equity firms, hedge funds and other institutional investors have spent more than US$20 billion to buy as many as 200,000 rental homes in the past two years.

They snapped up properties after prices dropped as much as 35 per cent from the 2006 peak and rental demand rose from the almost 5 million owners who went through foreclosure since 2008.

New York-based Blackstone Group, the biggest US single-family home landlord, cut purchases by 70 per cent from last year's peak and was now concentrating on just five markets, said Jonathan Gray, the global head of real estate.

Blackstone has invested US$8.5 billion since April 2012 to amass almost 44,000 rentals in 14 cities.

American Homes 4 Rent and Colony American Homes, the second and third-ranked US home landlords, have also cut acquisitions as the rebound in prices requires them to raise capital or improve operations.

"As institutional investors pull back their purchasing in many markets across the country, there is still strong demand from other cash buyers, including individual investors, second-home buyers and even owner-occupant buyers," Blomquist said.

Banks' stricter credit standards following the housing crash, in combination with rising mortgage rates, have put the brakes on lending. More than 40 per cent of borrowers had credit rating scores above 760 last year, compared with about 25 per cent in 2001, according to a Goldman Sachs report published in February.

The 4.22 per cent average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage on May 6 rose from 3.53 per cent a year ago, following the Federal Reserve's announced plan to taper its bond buying.

"The increase in all-cash purchases is partly because rates are higher than they were a year ago, so it's made buying with a mortgage more expensive on top of home price increases," said Jed Kolko, the chief economist at real estate information service Trulia in San Francisco.

At Wells Fargo, the biggest US mortgage provider, home-loan originations plunged to US$36 billion in the first quarter after surpassing US$100 billion for seven straight quarters to June last year, according to the bank.

Second-ranked JP Morgan Chase's US$17 billion total in the first quarter fell below the trough in originations made during the housing crash.

First-time buyers in particular are struggling to get home loans. They comprised 30 per cent of total existing-home sales in March compared with an average of 35 per cent since October 2008, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Without these buyers, existing-home sales are declining. They fell 7.5 per cent in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.59 million compared with a year earlier, according to the association.

The sales volume in March remained the lowest since July 2012, according to the trade group.

"With fewer first-time buyers, you end up with more all-cash buyers and less trading up in home activity," Mayer said. "To get that ecosystem working, you need to have first-time homebuyers so the trade-up purchasers can buy bigger homes."