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A year later, it's the home fires that burn brightly

Despite the uncertainties of 9/11, the real estate market continues to thrive thanks to low interest rates. Home sales are up. And home values are up, even in New York City.

By JUDY STARK, Times Homes Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 7, 2002

Despite the uncertainties of 9/11, the real estate market continues to thrive thanks to low interest rates. Home sales are up. And home values are up, even in New York City.

Last Sept. 10, a Northwest Airlines pilot and a flight attendant made an offer on a luxury waterfront home in Tierra Verde.

On Sept. 12, the couple withdrew their offer, unsure about their airline jobs after the previous day's terror attacks and doubtful that they'd be able to sell their house up north.

The uncertainty and fear of an economic downturn are part of the story of how Sept. 11 affected housing and the real estate industry.

But here's the other part: The two didn't lose their jobs. They did sell their house up north, and they eventually moved to Pinellas to investment property they already owned, said Realtor Libby Salamone of Re/Max Bayway Islands. The couple declined to be identified because they're still nervous about the precarious state of the airline industry.

That's the post-9/11 housing story in a nutshell: a short period of uncertainty -- nobody bought or sold much of anything last September -- followed by a roaring real-estate market, with the lowest mortgage interest rates in 40 years.

The anticipated "get out now" bailout from New York City? Didn't happen. Office buildings and apartments near ground zero in lower Manhattan are full again. People sticking close to home, passing up vacations that require air travel, hunkering in the bunker? Largely anecdotal, and what's out there started happening long before 9/11.

The number-crunchers dismiss some marketers' belief that buyers are rushing into the market because of emotion, a desire for family togetherness or a sense of life's uncertainty. It's finances, not fear, that are driving this market, they say.

"The rate is working its magic," said Lawrence Yun, senior economist for the National Association of Realtors. Do the math, he says: interest rates at 61/2 percent or less that allow more people into the market; a declining stock market; low unemployment (5.9 percent is still considered full employment). The numbers add up to just one thing, Yun says: "a very active housing market."

* * *

Sept. 11 "had virtually no effect, surprisingly," said Marvin Rose, whose Rose Residential Reports tracks new-home construction in the Tampa Bay area. At the time, "I cautioned a lot of people that this market hasn't tested its brakes in a long time, and we might need to do so. There were a couple of weeks where people were pretty much in a daze, but then the market came roaring back.

"The market had been going up pretty dramatically for the last two or three years as well," Rose said. "The continuing growth had already started before 9/11; it wasn't precipitated by it." Through the first half of the year, Rose's figures show that closings are up 22 percent in the Hillsborough-Pasco-Pinellas market.

Once the initial shock wore off, by November, when rates got to 61/2 percent, people who had first decided to sit tight "re-decided," said Tony Polito, director of the Tampa Bay region for Metrostudy, which also tracks new construction. "There weren't follow-up attacks, we were starting to mount an overseas offensive, things were looking better."

With the new ability to buy a house, or to buy more house or a fancier house, buyers aren't sparing the checkbook, builders and remodelers say. "We're selling lots of options," said Ernie Lashlee of Custom Craft Homes/Arthur Rutenberg Homes, which builds in Pasco and Hillsborough counties. "If the base price of a house is $300,000, people are probably spending another 15 to 20 percent of that for options." A home with $100,000 to $200,000 in options, upgrades and changes isn't unusual, Lashlee said: more square footage, upgraded flooring and countertops, nicer cabinets, better carpet, structured wiring, fancy plumbing fixtures.

Pinellas remodeling contractor Daniel Ashline is currently working on "three or four jobs for people in the investment industry who are putting their money into the house. I find that curious. The smart money's going into real estate!"

* * *

"People are spending more time at home now, but they were doing that before 9/11 happened," said Joan McCloskey, editorial marketing director of Better Homes and Gardens, which keeps a finger on the pulse of Middle America from its headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa.

"We see this in entries in our home-improvement contest. Six months to a year before the attacks, people were already spending more time at home," she said. "People are cherishing their families a little more, but I do not think that fear is a strong emotion. I don't see them building bomb shelters or cutting back vacations. I have no sense that we're scared."

The lingering effects of 9/11 are felt most strongly in New York City, said McCloskey, who visits Manhattan frequently on business, "but the farther West I travel, it's sort of out of mind now." What will be interesting to watch, she said, is how the stock market plunge will affect spending as people's 401(k)s decrease in value. (She was on her way to a meeting with her financial planner.)

In the Tampa Bay area, however, marketing executive Don Niederpruem says the flight to "a tranquil, peaceful, safe family refuge" is "absolutely what we are seeing across the board."

Niederpruem's company, United Landmark Associates of Tampa, is working on marketing "get-away-from-it-all" communities such as water-themed MiraBay, in the SouthShore area of Hillsborough, and Wilderness Lake Preserve, a rustic-themed community on U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes, Pasco County. Both areas, which were under development before 9/11, might once have been dismissed as too far from job centers for a short commute. Now, he said, "People are realizing that the essence of family is more important than the drive, more important than the commute time, more important than the little bit of aggravation they have to put up with. What they gain is far greater."

There is an economic consideration, he acknowledged -- those low interest rates -- but 9/11 "punctuated how precious our time here is" and "only created or enhanced an additional demand to be out of the urban core." He predicts Wednesday's anniversary will generate another wave of "emotional buying."

The night before the first Bucs preseason game Aug. 12, Niederpruem said friends were debating whether it's safe to go to the football stadium or Wal-Mart other big gathering places that might be potential targets of terrorists.

* * *

The other big run-up in the market these days is in refinancing. Last week refinancings represented 72.1 percent of total mortgage applications, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association -- the first time refinancing applications have exceeded 70 percent since Nov. 23.

Homeowners started pouring into the marketplace last fall to take advantage of the low rates, to pull equity out of their homes for other purposes or to switch to a 15-year mortgage they can pay off faster and cheaper.

Last week the average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage was 6.22 percent. That is its lowest point in 32 years. A year ago it was at 6.91 percent. NAR projects 5.44-million existing-home sales in 2002, up 2.7 percent from last year's record. It also expects a record of 920,000 new-home sales this year, up 1.2 percent from last year.

Yun, the NAR economist, cited another factor that keeps the housing economy strong: an overall demographic shift. The baby boomers are entering their peak earning years -- ages 45 to 55 -- which correspond to the time of the highest home ownership rate and to the time (age 47) when most people purchase their most expensive home.

That, plus the low interest rates, helped drive the median price of an existing home to $157,700 during the second quarter, up 7.4 percent from the second quarter a year ago. Twenty-eight of 113 areas surveyed by NAR reported double-digit annual increases in median existing-home prices. (Median prices mean that half of homes sold for more, half for less.)

That included areas such as Nassau-Suffolk, N.Y., with a median price of $307,200, up 29.6 percent from a year before; Bergen-Passaic, N.J., at $338,800, up 24.7 percent; and New York City-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, at $303,800, up 22.3 percent from a year ago. So much for the notion that people would flee the New York City area.

In the Tampa Bay area, the median price last month of a resale home was $142,000, up 6 percent from a year ago.

People can borrow at 61/2 percent to obtain a home mortgage, "or they can invest in the stock market and lose 20 percent," said Lashlee of Custom Craft Homes. "They figure, 'This way, I can buy a home and make some money because down the road I can sell it for a profit. If it's in the right location, the right builder, the right product, I'll make some money unless there's a total downturn in the economics of the world. And if that happens, then nowhere's safe."'

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