Elliman Magazine: 8 Regional Housing Market Charts

April 2, 2020 | 12:01 am | | Articles |

I whipped up eight charts using data from our expanding Douglas Elliman Market Report Series to touch base on a wide array of U.S. housing markets. These charts appeared on pages 280-282 in the 2020 Spring/Summer edition of Elliman Magazine. Click on each graphic to expand.

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The Apple Peeled – Ask the Experts: Market Dynamics with Jonathan Miller

February 12, 2019 | 11:54 am | | Articles |

Over the years, I have bantered with the Espinal Adler Team (Marie Espinal and Jeff Adler) at Douglas Elliman Real Estate about the market which has been invaluable for on the ground intel. And we’ve become friends. When Jeff and Marie asked me to be formally interviewed for their blog “The Apple Peeled” I was happy to do so, especially because I could veer off the road into issues about the current mortgage and appraisal process. This “The Apple Peeled” blog post: Ask the Experts: Market Dynamics with Jonathan Miller was distilled from the 90-minute conversation (I could have gone on for 5 hours) I had with their team.

I hope you find that this apple was fully peeled:

Jonathan Miller’s Market Outlook

The number of units sold in Manhattan in 2018 was down by more than 14 percent compared to the previous year. The brokerage industry tends to be very linear in its perception of the market, so many believe when the market is rising, it will rise forever. And, in-turn, when the market falls, it will fall forever. That approach can lead to overreaction.

The 10-year Challenge (2009 vs. 2019)

Some analysts are even comparing the current cycle to the last downturn and the housing bubble in 2009, but Miller outlined quite a few differences between then and now.

In 2009, the average discount from listing was 10.2%. In 2018 the discount was 5.2%. In ’09, Miller said sellers were anchored to the “pre-Lehman, pre-financial crisis asking prices” and had to travel farther on price to meet a buyer. (Miller measures listing discount by the percent difference between the contract price and the price that the property was listed for sale at the time of contract – not when it was first listed). The most recent asking price is “really the moment the property entered the market,” he said.

Miller said there are more buyers today compared to 2009, but those buyers are “very jaded about what value is.” Meanwhile, sellers are anchored to another market completely, he said.

The change in tax laws in 2018 and a several-month stretch that saw mortgage rates rise before recently dropping close to previous levels had both buyers and sellers re-calibrating what value is. That process can take time.

“If a seller overprices a listing, it takes them up to 2 years to de-anchor from what their price was without thinking that they left money on the table,” Miller said. “The disconnect between buyers and sellers is measured by lower sales volume.”

Starter Segment vs. High-End Luxury

For the last two years, Miller has said that the NYC market is softer at the top and tighter as you move lower in price.

Overall inventory is up by about 17%, with a significant amount of supply coming from the studio and 1-bedroom market. Studio inventory is up 21% percent.

“The pace of the starter market is still the fastest of all segments,” Miller said. “It’s just not as detached as it was because now you have more supply.”

Interest Rates and Their Impact

Typically, rates rise when the economy is strong. The low rates we’re seeing today understate the strength of the current economy, according to Miller. “That’s the disconnect.” In the long run, interest rates do not impact price trends. Mortgage rates have trended lower for three decades, Miller said, but housing prices have fluctuated up and down during that same lengthy stretch.

Mortgage rates weren’t wildly different in ’09 compared to today. In a recent report, Miller stated that an adjustable rate mortgage rate averaged 4.38% in 2009 and was at 3.98% using the same metrics in 2018.

Miller said that real estate investors should stop trying to perfectly time the market (both with rate and supply vs. demand). Perfect timing is a concept that was born out of the housing bubble, he said, when investors viewed housing as a highly liquid stock, instead of in its proper context. “(Real estate) is more of a long-term asset.”

In-Depth Look at the State of Appraisals

“There was nothing learned from the bad behavior of a decade ago,” Miller said, reminding himself of a Mark Twain quote. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes,” Jonathan Miller recited. Miller, President and CEO of real estate appraisal and consulting firm Miller Samuel Inc., said federal regulators are acting irresponsibly in their effort to reduce and perhaps even eliminate the need for an appraisal as part of an overall effort to erase “friction points” that slow-down the mortgage application process.

Miller said the regulators were more concerned with collecting fees than they were with protecting the American consumer. He likened the subtle de-regulation to the housing bubble of a decade ago, pointing out that regulators were getting paid by the failing investment banks they were rating back then. Now, he said, regulators and both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are getting paid whenever loan volume passes through those agencies. (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are Government sponsored enterprises that purchase mortgages from banks and mortgage companies in an effort to create liquidity so that lenders have the capacity to lend to more homebuyers).

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), The Board of Governors for the Federal Reserve System, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) proposed a rule to amend the agencies regulations requiring appraisals for certain real estate related transactions. The proposed rule would increase the threshold level at, or below which appraisals would not be required for residential real estate-related transactions from $250,000 to $400,000.

In response to our request for comment, spokespeople for the FDIC, the OCC, and The Federal Reserve said they do not comment on proposed rules during the rulemaking process.

Mortgage volume has trended lower despite rates falling steadily since the housing bubble, because lenders don’t want to take on risk, Miller said. “They’re in the fetal position. Banks are afraid of their own shadow.”

The tremendous amount of regulation implemented since Dodd Frank has led to mortgage lenders filling Fannie and Freddie’s portfolios with low-risk “pristine” mortgage bundles. But with rates so low, margins are so compressed, regulators need to stimulate volume to make money, according to Miller. “I think (Fannie and Freddie) are emboldened to take more risk.”

The push for fewer mandatory appraisals isn’t the only thing that has hurt the appraisal industry since the Dodd Frank Act was passed in 2010. The evolution of the mortgage industry’s use of the Appraisal Management Company (AMC) has led to a collapse in quality of appraisals ordered by banks, Miller said. He described the AMC as an institutional middle man that takes more than 50 cents on the dollar away from the professional appraisers who do the actual work.

“It’s like a Hollywood actor paying their agent 60% instead of 10%,” Miller said. “The mortgage industry is trying to widgetize the appraiser.”

The AMC is supposed to act as a communication barrier between the appraiser and the loan officer or mortgage broker, to thwart undue pressure to bring appraised values in at specific numbers. But according to Miller, the AMCs are under the same types of pressure that an individual appraiser might face. Some AMCs receive hundreds of thousands of dollars every month by way of appraisal orders placed by big banks. At least at the sales level, the banks apply pressure to the AMC to not “kill deals,” said Miller, who has testified in several class action lawsuits against AMCs.

In many instances, Miller and his firm were hired to do sample reviews of appraisals that came through AMCs. Often, the AMC would utilize appraisers in the market that would always “hit the number,” Miller said. A lot of those appraisers were ignoring valid comps, sometimes from directly across the street that were virtually the same as the subject property. “The AMC encouraged it because they were getting the work,” he said.

Appraisers are pushing back and there are already signs that AMCs were beginning to crumble, Miller said. Quality appraisers are turning away bank work when they know the order is coming in through an AMC because they’re not happy working for less than they deserve and because they’ve been reduced to “form-fillers,” Miller said.

The Apple Peeled Blog, February 12, 2019

Espinal Adler Team at Douglas Elliman Real Estate

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One57 Flip Analysis From Manhattan’s Peak New Development

November 15, 2017 | 4:47 pm | | Articles |

For those of you that read my weekly Housing Notes, you’ll know I refer to 2014 as “Peak New Development” for the Manhattan housing market. “Peak Luxury” works as a label too.

Bloomberg news broke the story that a $50M+ condo purchased in 2014 just sold at a foreclosure auction for $36,000,0000. There were five bidders. It’s been the fourth resale since the market peaked and the sixth overall – so I created a graphic of all the resales to show how they fared before and after the 2014 “peak.”

The Bloomberg story (that I got to chime in on) lays out the details of the One57 auction sale: One57 Foreclosure Shatters Price Dreams at Billionaires’ Tower

The story reached #1 as the most read on the 350k± Bloomberg Terminals worldwide yesterday.

It is important to remember that there are still a fair amount of units remaining that are priced at 2014 levels. Extell, the developer, has their work cut out for them to compete with current market conditions.

While One57 is a symbolic poster child for the new dev phenomenon, it is not a proxy for the entire new development market. Some projects were priced more reasonably at the peak, hence they haven’t fallen as much. In addition, the quality and design of each project can vary greatly. One thing is clear – since the 2014 peak, investors don’t have the same potential for big and fast returns on flips – their initial strategy was to buy early and realize instant equity as the sponsor increased the offering prices. That scenario no longer applies. Since the market has more choices for buyers now than it did back during peak, One57 is no longer seen as a “new” building like it was back then.

CNBC picked up the story – My firm and I get a shoutout during the conversation on Sqawkbox which was pretty cool.

Luxury condo in One57 tower sold in New York City’s biggest ever foreclosure auction from CNBC.

And here’s the transcript on yesterday’s PBS Nightly Business Report show (owned by CNBC) with the shoutout that is making the rounds.

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NeighborhoodX: How racist and misguided planning put America in its housing crunch

August 24, 2017 | 12:03 pm | | Articles |

Every so often I include a guest post that stands out. It was written by my friend and colleague Constantine A. Valhouli, the co-founder and Director of Research for NeighborhoodX. I hope you enjoy it.

How racist and misguided planning put America in its housing crunch

How racist and misguided planning put America in its housing crunch.

Detail of Edward Hopper, “From Williamsburg Bridge”

Constantine A. Valhouli   |   August 15, 2017 12:31 PM

Real estate markets are cyclical, and prices appear to be near the peak of this cycle. But prices have not risen evenly across U.S. real estate markets. The biggest gains have been concentrated in the major cities, and often concentrated to a few neighborhoods within those cities. That said, the housing prices in these cities have largely outperformed the towns around them, and have risen significantly faster than most of the commuter suburbs.

However, what is happening right now – a sustained rise in city real estate prices – may not be a part of the regular real estate cycle.

Instead, the two-decade long rise of housing prices in some city neighborhoods may be driven in part by the gradual correction of effects from the misguided and racist urban planning policies like redlining and racist covenants. In these neighborhoods, prices for historic housing stock are pulling closer in line with those for adjacent neighborhoods.

In addition, neighborhoods hit hard by redlining retain their historic architecture and have one path to recovery. The neighborhoods affected by urban renewal have a different path to recovery – one driven by new development, where the upside goes to developers rather than to individual owners.

A Boston neighborhood that was under radar in 2000 is now asking up to $900/sq.ft. 65 Lewis St. in East Boston via RedFin

The diverging housing prices of cities and suburbs

To use Boston as an example, between 2000 and 2015, prices per square foot rose 12-185% depending on the neighborhood. A prime neighborhood like Back Bay increased 131%. But the biggest gains went to city neighborhoods that had been under the radar in 2000: South Boston (+185%) and East Boston (+152%). By contrast, housing prices in the surrounding towns increased much more modestly, and the commuter towns increased only marginally by comparison.

This pattern has played out in other major cities, too.

“The gains seemed to be driven by some combination of proximity to core neighborhoods, transportation hubs and a housing stock conducive to conversion,” said Jonathan Miller of Miller Samuel.

In addition, one of the reasons for the dramatic price increases in neighborhoods like South Boston and East Boston is that the starting points were so low. For a neighborhood where the average price is, for example, $200 per square foot, an increase of $100/sq.ft. represents a 50% increase. On the other hand, for an established neighborhood with an average price of $800/sq.ft., an increase of $200/sq.ft. only represents a 25% increase.

On one hand, the real estate data tell a story of diverging paths of major cities and suburbs: how cities could become considerably more affluent across neighborhoods, and how both poverty and the middle class might be pushed to the suburbs.

Above all, this data offers a chance to examine the urban planning and policy decisions that contributed to the decline of city real estate prices decades ago and simultaneously propped up the prices in the suburbs – and how these trends have been gradually reversing. But why?

Perhaps what we have been seeing isn’t a dramatic rise in housing prices so much as a return to the intrinsic value of historic neighborhoods that had once been desirable places, before poor planning and policy decisions artificially reduced their value.

If this is the case, then housing prices in major cities may continue to rise much higher and faster than those in the suburbs.

Levittown was the archetypal model for post-World War II suburban development – including the shameful racial covenants restricting sales to whites only.

Did policies like redlining and urban renewal depress values in parts of cities – and subsidize values in some suburbs?

In order to understand why housing prices may rise further in these cities and comparatively lag in the suburbs, it is important to first understand the adverse effects that misguided urban planning policies had on cities from the 1950s to the 1970s. Specifically, how redlining, racially-restrictive covenants, and urban renewal affected neighborhood housing prices for decades – and what this means for us today.

Until World War II, American cities resembled European ones in that wealth was largely concentrated in the urban core. However, in the decades after World War II, the United States pursued policies that in hindsight were both misguided and racist – but which centrifuged affluence outwards and concentrated poverty in certain city neighborhoods.

Collectively, these policies blighted many city neighborhoods and simultaneously acted as a subsidy for the suburbs. More importantly, these policies served as what economists call ‘market distortions’ by artificially depressing prices in some neighborhoods of major cities, and boosted prices in some suburbs. These price distortions partially set the stage for the real estate bargains of the 1980s and 90s, as well as the meteoric rise of property values since then – not to mention the important questions over gentrification and displacement we’re facing today.

But these policies affected neighborhoods in different ways – and this in turn affects how (or even if) the neighborhoods will recover their intrinsic value. Looking at Los Angeles, New York, and Boston, some historic neighborhoods affected by redlining seem to have recovered far earlier than neighborhoods that were reshaped by urban renewal.

Let’s examine these policies. Restrictive covenants were clauses in the bylaws or deeds of a building or housing development which prohibited the sale of the property to minority or Jewish buyers. These clauses were also used to preserve the whiteness of many suburbs. At the same time, at the federal level, banks were encouraged to pursue a policy of redlining that made it almost impossible to get a loan in a city neighborhood that was too racially diverse, because it was deemed ‘too risky.’ There was literally a red line drawn around certain neighborhoods on a map, and no loans were made within this area. The policy was, at its core, segregation.

Lastly, urban renewal was a euphemism for the wholesale demolition of historic downtown neighborhoods. For the affected neighborhoods, urban renewal resulted in permanent and unwelcome change. Historic houses were replaced by dense housing projects and the street grid was often de-mapped for de-humanizing megablocks – and both of these planning strategies have been since discredited. Adding insult to injury, highways were often run through these neighborhoods – causing air and noise pollution, as well as higher asthma rates for generations of poorer residents.

In many ways, this clash of ideologies was symbolized by the confrontation between visionary urbanist Jane Jacobs and misguided and racist planner Robert Moses. Jacobs valued neighborhoods and a bottom-up approach to planning, one that involved the residents of a place. Her Death and Life of American Cities offered a scathing and well-reasoned critique of Moses’ city-scale, top-down, and racist urban planning. For example, in order to restrict minority access to the suburban beaches, Moses intentionally designed the bridges too low to permit buses, thus restricting the beaches to the mostly white, affluent families who could afford a car.

For decades, these policies distorted the living conditions and real estate prices for entire neighborhoods. Furthermore, by creating concentrations of poverty, they caused ripple effects that were felt for years.

In a formerly redlined neighborhood like Crown Heights, architecture like this helps spur revival. | 982 Sterling Place via Corcoran

Did redlining and urban renewal affect housing prices differently?

Today, the central question is whether city neighborhoods affected by redlining are reviving differently from those affected by significant urban renewal.

In the last two real estate cycles, prices in many of these city neighborhoods have been rising. Perhaps what we’re seeing now isn’t speculation or gentrification, but simply a return of many neighborhoods to their inherent value as they repair the damage from these misguided policy decisions – at least the neighborhoods that are able to do so.

Redlining generally did not affect the architectural fabric. Redlining led to disinvestment, but most of this neglect can be fairly easily repaired. Neighborhoods that remained architecturally intact are likely to see housing prices improve for the existing buildings. By contrast, the damage done by urban renewal is often so significant that it renders the land more valuable than the buildings.

Redlining and racial covenants temporarily affected living conditions but not the underlying architectural fabric. As a result, the neighborhood may have desirable historic buildings which can be purchased for a fraction of the price of other, more established neighborhoods nearby. In New York City, this was the pattern seen in the revival of Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope, and more recently in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

But at the time, and for decades later, these policies enforced segregation and created economic ghettos. This in turn created other problems which changed the daily experience of living in the neighborhood.

For example, in a healthy city neighborhood, street-level retail commands a significantly higher price per square foot compared to residential space. However, the concentration of poverty and the lack of disposable income caused landlords in these neighborhoods to convert valuable retail spaces into makeshift apartments. In turn, the lack of retail made the streets less lively and more dangerous, creating further downward pressure on housing prices. At the time, properties near certain city parks were regarded as less valuable because the parks were so dangerous. In a healthy real estate market, these properties should command a higher price for the park views and access.

As a result of the effects of these policies, many city neighborhoods regressed from neighborhoods of choice (places where people aspired to live) to neighborhoods of necessity (places where people lived only because they could not afford to live elsewhere).

However, many neighborhoods affected by redlining and disinvestment retain the qualities which have made them inherently desirable. People are drawn to traditional, walkable neighborhoods with attractive historic housing and a potentially lively mix of uses at street level. While these core qualities that were devalued during the mid to late 20th century, thoughtful urban planners are trying to encourage the development and restoration of these neighborhoods today.

Neighborhoods hit hard by urban renewal require institutional-level investment to recover. | Brush Park, courtesy of City of Detroit

Neighborhoods hit hard by urban renewal have a different path to recovery

On the other hands, neighborhoods affected by urban renewal have a different – and more difficult – road to recovery.

The planners of the 1950s-70s demolished the very historic buildings and walkable, human-scale streets that have helped other traditional neighborhoods revive. These lost buildings would have been a natural catalyst for the neighborhood’s revival, and would have needed only a comparatively modest investment to do so. Instead, these neighborhoods were destroyed by institutional-scale planning and will require institutional-scale investment to revive. These neighborhoods will likely never recover their previous charm, but it is possible – with tremendous vision and care – to transform them into something new and desirable.

The historic neighborhoods which escaped urban renewal offer a glimpse of where prices might have been if other, comparable neighborhoods had remained intact.

In the 1960s, planners would begin the urban renewal process by designating certain neighborhoods as ‘slums’ as a pretext for the need for demolition. The neighborhoods which successfully fought the slum designation, like the West Village in Manhattan and the North End in Boston, are today among the most valuable neighborhoods in their respective cities.

In an effort to spur demolition, Robert Moses declared Greenwich Village ‘blighted’ and a ‘slum.’ The existing buildings now command some of the highest prices for Manhattan real estate.

However, whereas the upside in intact historic neighborhoods goes to individual homeowners, the potential housing gains in a neighborhood leveled by urban renewal are often driven by the land value and rezonings that benefit developers rather the homeowners.

The neighborhoods hit hard by, or entirely demolished by, urban renewal were positioned as development opportunities at the time. But it took decades for that land to become a compelling opportunity for development. The same policies which demolished these neighborhoods encouraged residents to leave for the suburbs, making that urban land less valuable. Ironically, the development opportunities did not become truly compelling until, ironically, the nearby intact neighborhoods recovered in an organic manner.

Comparatively stagnant housing prices in the suburbs

There is a significant contrast between the rise in housing prices of the major cities since 2000, with the comparative stagnation of the suburban housing prices during the same period. According to Jonathan Miller, “Suburban counties outside of New York City have underperformed Manhattan price trends since 2000. For example, Westchester County housing prices increased 62.7% from 2000 to 2015, trailing Manhattan which more than doubled. And no towns in Westchester experienced four-fold gains observed in some Manhattan neighborhoods.”

The same policies that damaged housing values in cities also artificially boosted values in many post-war suburbs. And just as housing prices in certain urban neighborhoods are rising as the price-distorting effects of these racist policies wears off, housing prices in some suburbs may be returning to their intrinsic, lower levels.

The phrase “white flight” is often used to describe the shift in preference from city to suburb after World War II, but the phrase doesn’t convey the nuances of how things actually happened. There were massive systemic mechanisms in place that made it difficult for white buyers to purchase in walkable city neighborhoods that were diverse, partially in order to drive demand for the new suburbs that were being developed as a result of the highway system.

The current shift in preferences from suburb to city is driven in part by the recognition that many suburbs have inherent drawbacks: long commutes as well as a lack of walkability, restaurants, nightlife and a sense of community. For years, redlining steered white buyers to the suburbs by prohibiting them from purchasing in diverse, urban neighborhoods. This stimulated demand for what might have otherwise been a less desirable alternative. The stagnation of suburban prices since 2000, particularly in contrast to the increase in value of walkable city neighborhoods, reflects that for many buyers, the decision to live in the suburbs is one of economic necessity rather than choice.

The diverging housing values of the cities and the suburbs raise some important questions.

Going forward, what are the implications for residents of the suburbs and commuter towns? Will they be able to sell their place in the suburbs and buy into the city, thus tapping into the opportunities for upward mobility through better education and job opportunities?

Certain suburbs may fall victim to the same misguided and racist practices which affected less-affluent city neighborhoods during this time.

Under these policies, city neighborhoods that lacked political clout became the site for contentious projects, including infrastructure (incinerators, municipal dumps, trash transfer stations, and wastewater treatment plants) as well as concentrations of public housing.

In New York City, sections of the Rockaway peninsula, a former beach resort, were demolished for a massive low-income housing complex. The area was wholly unsuited to public housing, given an hour-long commute to midtown and the lack of job opportunities nearby. Decades later, that section of the Rockaways has the highest concentration of poverty, the lowest-income census tracts, and among the highest rates of violence in New York City.

As major cities become more desirable and more affluent overall, poverty and the working class are being pushed out to the suburbs. And as certain suburbs become poorer and less able to organize effectively, they may find themselves in the same position as the Rockaways.

For example, when Rudolph Giuliani served as mayor of New York City, he externalized the issue of homelessness to the suburbs by offering one-way tickets for the city’s homeless to Brideport, Connecticut. He did not address the issue in a meaningful way, he simply created conditions that led to a sharp rise in poverty, violence, and a need for social services in Bridgeport.


The diverging price trajectories of cities and suburbs could become a major issue. Cities appear to be recovering their intrinsic value, and are becoming more expensive, even in outlying neighborhoods. At the same time, suburbs are falling behind in value and desirability. What was once a sign of the American Dream is now a neighborhood of necessity rather than one of choice.

But for those who live in the suburbs and are hoping that a market correction may provide an opportunity to sell there and buy in the city, this may not necessarily be good news. [if the suburbs have been this stagnant in price during a strong market, what will happen when the markets correct as they inevitably will]

Going forward, what are the implications for residents of the suburbs and commuter towns? As prices diverge, selling a 2,000 square foot house in the suburbs might only buy a one bedroom apartment in the city. It may be increasingly difficult for those in the suburbs to access opportunities for upward mobility through better education and job opportunities found in cities.

It is difficult to judge decisions of another era by the standards of our own. But the racism that underscored redlining and much urban renewal created a shameful legacy of economic, social, and health repercussions that we are still struggling to understand and address today.

Constantine A. Valhouli is the co-founder and Director of Research for NeighborhoodX.

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NeighborhoodX: In praise of secondary cities

July 5, 2017 | 4:52 pm | | Articles |

Every so often I include a guest post that I wish I had written on my own. This is one of them. It was written by my friend and colleague at NeighborhoodX. I hope you enjoy it.

In praise of secondary cities

Why the next great Brooklyn neighborhood might not be in Brooklyn.

Detail of Edward Hopper, “From Williamsburg Bridge”

Constantine A. Valhouli   |   Jun 20, 2017 10:45 AM

Not so long ago, the central question of urban planning was how to revive the downtowns and surrounding neighborhoods of major cities. In the last decade or so, those efforts have succeeded to the point where the central question has become, “where do the people go who are being priced out of these cities?”

It’s worth a moment to understand what shifted during that time.

Across the United States, the downtowns in need of revival had been damaged by misguided federal policies like redlining (a racist policy of not making loans in ethnically-diverse neighborhoods) and urban renewal (massive demolition of historic neighborhoods). By contrast, the revival of these neighborhoods was often a fragmented, small-scale effort that largely happened from the ground up. Cheaper rents and large vacant spaces provided fertile ground for creative and entrepreneurial efforts.

Many of these neighborhoods experienced the same arc. From sleepy and decrepit bargains to lively and gritty destinations, and finally to consumerist caricatures of their former liveliness. Some of these neighborhoods were victims of their own success; rents and purchase prices rose out of reach because it was now much more desirable. For other neighborhoods, rezoning created incentives to demolish those large, vacant spaces (or those small, occupied houses) for an apartment complex or condo tower aimed at more affluent residents.

Among affluent families, the shifting preference from suburbs to cities is glibly described as a ‘change in consumer preference.’ But it is more than this. The shifts are not just on the demand side, but on the supply side as well. During that time, the cities changed as well, becoming more like suburbs – and thus more welcoming to wealthy suburbanites. In turn, the demographic of these cities is coming to resemble affluent suburbs: doctors, lawyers, management consultants, and those in financial services.

At the same time, the people who made these cities interesting and dynamic – the writers and artists, musicians and actors, entrepreneurs and talented young people – are being priced out. Today, many young people who move to a major American city to pursue creative or entrepreneurial ventures require the financial support from their parents.

And yet, people are paying these higher prices because they believe that they need to be in the city in order to pursue these kinds of ventures and meet like-minded people. But is this always true? Or could smaller cities and suburbs also could provide these opportunities?

Almost every unsexy suburb within commuting distance of major cities has the basic raw elements to make for a fascinating and livable place.

In addition to low rents and purchase prices, there is often a critical mass of housing within walking distance of a historic (but largely vacant) downtown, one that evokes the opening sequence of Bob’s Burgers. But even the vacancies can be an opportunity rather than a drawback. These were the same conditions that faced the early next-wave residents of almost-suburban city neighborhoods like Williamsburg, South Boston, or Silver Lake. In each case, it was the vision and drive of the creative and entrepreneurial residents that transformed these buildings from space into an actual community.

Today, these suburbs and mill towns are overlooked by major real estate investors. But again, this can be an opportunity rather than a drawback. Even as contrarian investor Sam Zell recently sold Equity Residential’s suburban portfolio to focus on urban markets, this creates an opportunity to be a contrarian to the contrarian, by taking advantage of the lower prices because these areas are out of favor.

But not all secondary cities are created equal.

Some have geographic advantages of significant parks, protected land, or beautiful views and rivers (like Beacon and Garrison, NY). Others have architectural advantages, with intact neighborhoods of elegant historic houses for less than the price of a Manhattan studio apartment.

Former mill towns have a particular advantage – if it is used thoughtfully.

The vacant or underused factory buildings offer a potential density that might only be found in larger cities. For example, the buildings in the canal district of Lowell, Mass., would not look out of place in Tribeca in New York City. Furthermore, the redevelopment of these spaces generally doesn’t displace anyone (except for pigeons) and, if done thoughtfully, can add mixed-use liveliness that can benefit the entire neighborhood or town. The vast size of the buildings and the relative affordability of the raw space allows developers to devote square footage to, say, independent movie theaters and stages, to provide a lifestyle within walking distance for which residents previously needed to travel out of town.

While these entertainment spaces are critical to the livability of a secondary city, they do not need to be gratuitously large or fancy. In fact, they will likely be better, and more affordable, if they are not.

For example, community groups who try to raise money for a nonprofit movie theater get caught in an endless cycle of grant writing to raise much more money than they actually need to launch. People forget that at its heart, a movie theater is a black box room with a projector. Maybe with beanbag chairs. Rather than trying to compete with commercial chain theaters on technology or fancy seating, their competitive advantage can be intangible – better film programming, or video talks with the director or writer, or events or events (like Rocky Horror Picture Show) that cannot be found elsewhere.

Even buildings that are not historically significant can be re-purposed rather than demolished. Smaller towns that grew by absorbing more contemporary suburbs have examples for how to reuse functional buildings like auto body shops and chain restaurants.

In outlying neighborhoods of Austin and Sedona, some former Pizza Hut franchises have been transformed into independent restaurants. In Greenwich, Connecticut, a former Howard Johnsons was renovated into the sleek, midcentury J-House Hotel. In a rural part of North Andover, Mass., the local music venue was the Red Barn, which was exactly what is sounds like. And in suburban parts of Anchorage, Alaska, pop-up shops take the form of happily-painted garden sheds on trailer hitches, set up in parking lots or roadside which serve as mobile coffee shops or as specialty jerky shacks.

Truly, more Brooklyn than Brooklyn.

In 2006, at the final show of CBGB’s – a moment that for many marked the end of a countercultural era for the East Village – when most people were waxing nostalgic about the revelry, the community, and the closing of an institution, Patti Smith offered an unsentimental coda: “CBGB is a state of mind. Young kids all over the world are going to have their own f—ing clubs. They won’t care about CBGB because they’re going to have the new places, and the new places are always the most important.”

This sort of punk rock/DIY ethos that drove the city’s revival from the 1970s to the 1990s, and this pragmatic, grassroots approach is precisely why the next hot Brooklyn neighborhood might not be in Brooklyn.

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[Housingwire] Hey 50-percenters, there is no “appraiser shortage” so knock it off

June 15, 2017 | 4:32 pm | Articles |

As a longtime reader of Housingwire, I always saw them as a great resource on the goings on in the mortgage industry. But lately, I grew concerned about the one-sided coverage as it related to my industry – residential appraisal.

HousingWire recently published an “appraiser shortage” blog screed that was tone-deaf to the problems facing appraisers. To their credit, Jacob Gaffney, the editor-in-chief, reached out to me for a rebuttal after reading all the negative appraiser feedback in the comments section. Rather than address specific failings of this piece, I opted to focus on current appraiser reality.

To start, the residential appraisal industry has a perception problem.

Read my full post on HousingWire.

Here is another thought on this appraisal shortage silliness. Not too long ago there was a webinar hosted by Housingwire that included some Powerpoint slides by one of the panelists, Matt Simmons. He is a Florida appraiser and former state regulator. He shared it with me and one of his slides is quite amazing. He matched mortgage origination volume with the federal registry of appraisers.

The finding?

The ratio of appraisers to mortgage volume has been higher since the housing bust than during the housing boom. While the chart only goes to 2015, both total origination and appraisers have changed little since then, so the ratio would remain stable, consistent with the post-financial crisis pattern. In other words, there are more appraisers now than there were during the Housing Bubble based on mortgage volume.

UPDATE Full Housingwire Blog Post with Comments [PDF]

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Doubling Down On Appraisers as ‘Lone Wolves’ – Valuation Review

March 23, 2017 | 7:29 am | Articles |

Note: I have been a subscriber of Valuation Review and it’s predecessor for years. It provides a wide perspective on the appraisal industry and I’ve always got something out of it. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that the voices in the magazine seemed to be skewing more and more towards national level AMC executives. I suspect the PR departments of these firms make their top executives readily accessible washing out the voices of individual appraisers. So I sent the editor a note offering another perspective with links to my content. He was immediately interested in getting another voice so he interviewed me.

From the Wednesday, March 22, 2017, Valuation Review Article:  CEO suggests appraisal industry comprised of ‘lone wolves’.

CEO suggests appraisal industry comprised of ‘lone wolves’

Reasonable compensation, lender and AMC issues are constantly on the mind of the appraiser. When things aren’t falling into place, the process of assigning blame kicks into high gear with appraisers continuing to look for guidance.

“That’s the problem in that there really isn’t any leadership for appraisers to follow. The false narrative of an appraisal shortage continues to be pushed by AMCs, unfairly tarnishing the image of individual appraisers,” Miller Samuel Inc. President and CEO Jonathan Miller told Valuation Review. “When an industry takes a 50 percent pay cut overnight, good people leave or struggle to hang on and weaker players are attracted-which equals problems. But is it the fault of the remaining individual appraisers?

“AMCs are at a seminal moment,” Miller added. “In what other industry does the company managing the talent get about the same compensation as the talent them? An agent representing a Hollywood actor isn’t going to get $1 million if their client is receiving that same amount for a movie role. It is a broken model.”

Like many in the appraisal profession, Miller strongly believes that there is not a shortage of appraisers. In fact, he more than challenges one reason for such a shortage is that too many burdensome regulations are being placed upon appraisers.

“There is a shortage of appraisers willing to work for 50 cents on the dollar,” Miller said. “The AMC model has hit a wall. AMCs have run out of new people willing to work for 50 cents on the dollar. Sadly, consumers think appraisers are getting the appraisal fee stated in their mortgage documents. They aren’t and typically the appraiser receives as little as 50 percent of it.

“The Appraisal Institute says there is a shortage of appraisers and seem to be championing the AMC concept but appraisers don’t understand why,” Miller added. “I’m not against AMCs; rather, I’m against the execution of business by the AMCs. They treat appraisers as a commodity rather than a professional service.”

For the rest of the story, visit here.

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An Honest Appraisal – Some Personal Background Including My Favorite Color and Love of Yo-Yos

July 30, 2015 | 9:59 am | Articles |

A while back, Kim Velsey at New York Observer reached out and thought it would be interesting to do a profile on me. Who wouldn’t like to talk about themselves for hours? What an opportunity! LOL. Uh, Yes?

We met and she proceeded to “drain my soul” as I am fond of saying – by the end of the interview my head was spinning and I wasn’t quite sure what I had said or if I would look foolish (the sign of a good interviewer). I was also getting a little worried when I started hearing through the grapevine who she was reaching out to – in other words, this was an actual, real interview profile thing!

It turned out to be a fun, extensive, and detailed read that captured a very fair and accurate picture of me for which I am very grateful (and relieved).

Jonathan Miller Is the Most Trusted (and Quoted) Man in New York Real Estate An Honest Appraisal by Kim Velsey July 29, 2015

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Bloomberg View Column: What Does It Mean When a House Sells for $50 Million?

September 17, 2014 | 2:58 pm | | Articles |


Read my latest Bloomberg View column What Does It Mean When a House Sells for $50 Million?. Please join the conversation over at Bloomberg View. Here’s an excerpt…

One of the byproducts of the global financial crisis has been the creation of a new class of housing and buyers. Some of the strongest evidence is the rise in the number of residences sold for more than $50 million. A buyer recently paid a record $71.3 million for a Manhattan co-op, breaking the $70 million record set only a few months earlier. These sales seem modest compared with a $147 million sale in East Hampton, New York, and a $120 million sale in Greenwich, Connecticut, the two highest U.S. residential transactions in 2014. There have been six sales of more than $100 million in the past four years, with more likely to come…

[read more]

[click to expand]

My Bloomberg View Column Directory

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Demanding More: terms of sale are now as important as the price

May 18, 2014 | 7:00 pm | | Articles |

[click to open article]

Sellers and their real estate brokers are more focused on the qualifications of the buyer than ever before. “Flexibility of terms,” “limited contingencies,” and “paying with cash” have become well-used phrases in the current home-buying process.

Here’s an article I penned for the current issue of Elliman Magazine. It’s about the concept that the terms of a sale are now just as important as the price.

The latest issue of Elliman Magazine, including my article, as well as the most recent market reports we author are available in the Elliman App.


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Luxury Real Estate as the New Global Currency

November 18, 2012 | 5:46 pm | | Articles |

[click to read article]

Over the summer Camilla Papale, Douglas Elliman’s CMO asked me if I would present something about the state of luxury real estate for their Elliman Magazine (and iPad app!). The finished result contained 3 parts:

  • I wrote a brief piece about the influx of international demand as high end consumers were seeking a safe haven from the world’s economic problems. I called the piece: “LUXURY REAL ESTATE AS THE WORLD’S NEW CURRENCY” This post’s title was my working title which I also liked.
  • Plus I did a little research on housing prices across the globe using Knight Frank’s resources and
  • I moderated a discussion on the subject with Dottie Herman, President & CEO of Douglas Elliman, Patrick Dring, Head of International Residential at Knight Frank, and Liam Bailey, Head of Residential Research at Knight Frank. They all provided great insights to the subject.

Here’s the full piece in Elliman Magazine . I’ve inserted a portion of the presentation below in 2 parts:


Since the beginning of the global credit crunch in 2008, luxury real estate has morphed into a new world currency that provides investors with both a tangible asset and a cachet that cannot be found within the financial markets. It’s as if these emboldened investors zoomed out of their local Google Earth view to discover the wider global perspective on luxury real estate.

HOW DID WE GET HERE? The US dollar has weakened in the years following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the onset of the global credit crisis. The S&P downgrade of US debt in August 2011 from its benchmark AAA rating brought a flood of investors into US financial securities. That meant that our currency allowed us to buy less abroad, and the strength of other currencies provided international buyers with large discounts when purchasing property in US dollars. But it went further than that.

THE RISE OF LUXURY REAL ESTATE AS A “SAFE HAVEN.” The volatility of global financial markets and the resulting political fallout shook investor confidence, which in turn spurred a rise in foreign buyers seeking a safe haven to protect their assets. A wave of international buyers from Europe, South America, and Asia entered the US housing market, helping set record prices and revive luxury markets including New York, The Hamptons, and Miami.

SUPPLY-DRIVEN DEMAND. The luxury real estate market has become defined by the supply of available properties. While demand has remained constant and elevated, inventory has become a critical variable, particularly at the very top of the market, where surging international demand for one-of-a-kind properties has surpassed the limited supply. The resultant record-breaking sales of “trophy” properties have enticed more owners of luxury homes to make them available for sale.

THE RISE OF THE “TROPHY PROPERTY.” The trophy property has become a new market category that does not follow the rules and dynamics of the overall marketplace. One stratospheric price record is being set after another, and it is not only the list prices that are defining these record sales; the rarity of location, expanse of the views, quality of amenities, and the sheer size of these unique homes have all played an important part in attracting the interest of foreign buyers.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? Driven by the global credit crunch and political instability, the two factors that are expected to remain unchanged for the next several years, the US luxury housing market is expected to remain a “safe haven” for foreign investors for quite some time.


I sat down with Dottie Herman and our friends across the pond, Patrick Dring, Head of International Residential, and Liam Bailey, Head of Residential Research at Knight Frank, to chat about the state of real estate in the prime markets across the globe and the rise of a foreign investment phenomenon.

JONATHAN MILLER: Douglas Elliman has a broad coverage area that includes some of the most affluent housing markets in the US. Are you seeing any short-term issues that may influence luxury investor decisions over the coming year?

DOTTIE HERMAN: At the end of this year, we may see a repeat of the consumer behavior we saw at the end of 2010 when US capital gains tax rates were expected to rise. Ultimately, the rates did not increase, but many consumers in the luxury market took preventative action before the potential tax increase and raced to close their sales by the end of 2010. Despite the ups and downs in the quarters that followed, the luxury housing market was not adversely impacted in the long-term.

JM: Paddy, according to Knight Frank’s Global Briefing blog, housing prices in central London are up sharply, but the pace of growth appears to be slowing, perhaps because of the new stamp duty (a tax on properties priced at £2M–the equivalent of $3.15M–or more). What does this mean for the luxury market?

PADDY DRING: In short, the £5M ($7.85M) market is up year-on-year. The new stamp duty on property sales above £2M seems to be having an impact only on the band just above the new £2M threshold. Foreign demand remains high and, notably, we have sold to over 62 different nationalities within the last 12 months. They are less affected by the changes in stamp duty, since the rates in London are still in line with many other European countries.

JM: Dottie, your firm has sold a large number of luxury properties this year, despite a lukewarm economy and tight credit conditions. Record sales and listing prices are becoming nearly commonplace and a significant portion of this demand for luxury real estate is coming from abroad. Do you see this developing into a long-term trend?

DH: It’s certainly been a year of records and I do think we are embarking on a period where luxury real estate has the potential to outperform the rest of the housing market. Several of the markets that we cover, Manhattan and Miami in particular, have been firmly established as highly sought-after international destinations. As much as we fret about how slowly our economy is recovering, the US has proven itself as a “safe haven” for many international investors who are concerned about the turmoil of the world economy and political stability. Luxury investors from much of Europe, Russia, Asia and South America have been buying here at the highest pace we have seen since the credit crunch began.

JM: Liam, the US is seeing a higher-than-normal influx of real estate demand from foreign investors who seem to be focusing on the upper end of the housing market. These investors are well represented from Europe, Asia and South America. Are you seeing the same phenomenon when it comes to luxury properties in the UK? What are the primary regions where this demand is coming from?

LIAM BAILEY: The focus of demand continues on London and its easily accessible suburbs. London is facing even higher global demand than New York, with the top end strongly led by Russia, Europe, Canada, and the Middle East, and demand in the new development investment market very much led by Asia.

JM: In the US, access to financing is a key challenge to domestic purchasers, including luxury investors. What are some of the key challenges facing your clients who are looking to purchase real estate outside of their own countries?

PD & LB: Financing remains a consideration for many, although mortgages are more available in many of the markets than people are led to believe. Of course, the property needs to be quality and in a core location and have a more conservative loan-to-value ratio, however, many of our clients purchase in cash, so they are more affected by market sentiment and, of course, liquidity if they need to sell unexpectedly in the future. Factors affecting market sentiment include the usual considerations, such as exchange rate, a stable political base, as well as a sound legal system that guarantees clarity of title and tax considerations. The latter of course is affecting not only the cost of acquisition (stamp duty), but also, in some countries, the cost of holding (wealth tax) and ultimately selling (capital gains tax). Access, infrastructure, and climate (if lifestyle-driven) all remain key, as do low crime rates as people become more aware of their privacy and personal safety.

JM: Since the beginning of the credit crunch, you’ve constantly stressed to your clients that the terms of a sale are just as important as the price of a sale, given the challenges of obtaining financing. How do international buyers fi t into this new world defined by tough lending standards?

DH: Despite mortgage lending in the US remaining tight, luxury markets in the areas we cover have improved quickly. I can only imagine how much stronger the US housing market would be if we saw credit ease to historically normal levels. International buyers tend to pay cash or obtain financing from their native countries, which has given them an advantage over many domestic purchasers. Combine the ability to pay in cash with both the weakness of the US dollar against many of their native currencies and a volatile global economy, and you can begin to understand why we are seeing a strong presence of international buyers in our markets. Like our friends at Knight Frank, these luxury investors are interested in our proven core markets that already have a large concentration of luxury properties. Overall, we continue to be excited about our market’s expanding presence in the global luxury housing market—there are many opportunities out there for this new international investor to explore.

Luxury Real Estate as the World’s New Currency [Miller Samuel (pdf)]
Luxury Real Estate as the World’s New Currency [Douglas Elliman]
Elliman iPad App [iTunes]

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[Three Cents Worth DC #214] The Real Reasons House Prices Are Rising

October 24, 2012 | 7:00 am | | Articles |

It’s time to share my Three Cents Worth (3CW) on Curbed DC, at the intersection of neighborhood and real estate in the nation’s capitol. And I’m simply here to take measurements.

Read this week’s 3CW column on @CurbedDC:

…I wrote this post a few hours before the third presidential debate and since the topic covers foreign policy and the first two debates (plus the VP debate) had only scant mention of housing, I didn’t think I’d get anymore insights on what our policy makers think is happening in the housing market. Both parties clearly see no bonus points in bringing up a complex subject that won’t score any points (and only happens to be our nation’s largest asset class).

So I am asking the question – Why are housing prices rising in the DMV (and the US)?…


[click to read column]

Curbed NY : Three Cents Worth Archive
Curbed DC : Three Cents Worth Archive
Curbed Miami : Three Cents Worth Archive

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