Fayetteville Arkansas, University of Arkansas--Old Main Overview

Fayetteville Arkansas, University of Arkansas--Old Main Overview
Overview of Fayetteville, AR

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Some Positive News for the NW Arkansas Housing Market

There are a couple of events that I try to attend on a regular basis, because I get validation for my “feelings” about the market gleaned from my own business and from anecdotal evidence from other realtors. It’s “my homework” so I can stay apprised of trends in the market (in addition to the data I pull from the NW Arkansas MLS) and the effects of the economy on our area.

One event is the quarterly Skyline breakfast that Arvest bank sponsors for realtors, developers, builders and others in the housing business in NW Arkansas. Kathy Deck from the Center for Business and Economic Research at the U of A provides information about new home construction, absorption, and the economy of NW Arkansas. Mostly the report for Arvest deals with residential real estate, but normally there are also segments on multifamily housing and commercial real estate as well.

A second similar event is the quarterly Streetsmart breakfast coffee hour sponsored by that organization. Streetsmart is a commercial venture which provides similar data for profit to developers, builders and other real estate investors. They tend to focus more on commercial real estate, but they gather all kinds of data on residential and multifamily as well.

The third is the quarterly economic breakfast sponsored by the Center for Business and Economic Research at the U of A. This provides more general information about the economy with only limited information about the housing market itself. But what’s happening in the local (and national) economy influences housing, so it also becomes important for my personal quest for information.

The 3rd quarter Skyline breakfast was held about 3 weeks ago. Kathy Deck, the director of Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, was cautiously optimistic about the residential housing market, but we’re not out of the woods yet because of national economic trends, which also influence us here.

Third quarter 2009 numbers show signs that demand is beginning to lower the number of new homes available (decreased inventory), but the absorption rate has slowed, not because of over-supply such as occurred at the peak of our housing bubble here a few years ago, but rather because there are fewer people moving into the area.

Kathy always starts her talks with unemployment figures, because job growth is what fuels the demand for housing. As long as there is positive job growth in NW Arkansas people will be drawn here and thus purchase homes. However, the number of people moving here is about 1/3 of what it was at the peak several years ago. Nationally there has been a loss of 8 million jobs in every sector except health services and education. The latter are strong sectors here and the only sectors which have shown positive job creation. There have been some job losses here but not on the scale of the nation as a whole.

Nevertheless, sales of new-but-never-occupied homes increased 30% in the third quarter over the second quarter of 2009. Correspondingly, the available inventory of complete but unoccupied homes fell by 27%. But this is partially because building permits are way down.
The average price of homes continued to decline in the third quarter. The average price per square foot of homes sold in Benton County was $80.26 in the third quarter compared to $97.16 in the third quarter of 2006. In Washington County, the average price fell from $103.63 to $86.28 per square foot.

Other factors in the economy nationally have also affected the housing market in NW Arkansas. These include consumer sentiment--people are saving their money instead of spending it in part because they are being forced to (credit is less available now than it was in the past). Loss of employment have also made people cautious, so they are not buying things. Normally this is a good thing, but if everyone does it (as they are now) then the economy suffers. Retailers are putting fewer products on the shelves, “rationalizing SKUs”, and home builders are not building a lot of new spec homes.

The positive numbers regarding home sales have been spurred by income tax credits of up to $8,000 for first-time homebuyers. These credits were due to expire November 30, 2009 but have now been extended into 2010. And now a new credit is available to current homeowners who wish to buy another home. (For more information on either of these credits, read my blog below, “Homebuyer Tax Credit Extended! Hurray!” posted November 15, 2009.

My suspicion that the multifamily and commercial sectors are suffering was borne out at the Streetsmart Coffee Hour held last week. Tom Reed of Streetsmart spoke and presented some additional economic data which basically supported what Kathy Deck had to say. Hotel/motel tax receipts are down, and those for restaurants are the same as for last year in the 3rd quarter. Job creation has declined—non-farm jobs in NW Arkansas are down by 1.4% or about 3000 jobs. This is better than the state and national figures (2.4% state decline in non-farm jobs and 4% national decline) but compared to past years when we had a job growth surplus, the decline is not good news.

For residential housing, building permits are down—there’s been a 23% decline when comparing Q1-3 of 2009 to Q1-3 of 2008. Also home prices have declined by 8.1% when Q3 of this year is compared to Q3 of last year in Benton County and by 6% in Washington County. However, the amount of decline is less than what it has been in previous quarters, leading one to believe that perhaps prices are leveling off. But the number of home sales is up.

An interesting fact mentioned by Reed was that there were a substantial number of home sales recorded in the county records which were not in the Multiple Listing Service. When asked to account for the large number of homes not listed or sold by a realtor, Reed speculated that these were sales by banks. Essentially the number of new home sales in the first three quarters of 2009 (as recorded in the MLS) was doubled when non-MLS sales recorded in the country records were counted: 287 new home sales reported by the MLS of 526 new home sales in active subdivisions recorded in the county records in Benton County and 170 new home sales reported by the MLS of 340 new home sales in active subdivisions recorded in the county records in Washington County.

According to Reed, the bottom line for residential home sales in the 3rd quarter showed new construction activity slow but building permit totals increased during the year. There will need to be some housing starts or the time will come when there are no new homes available. There was a continued reduction in inventory of complete but not occupied dwellings—the number of these decreased by 23.5% from the 2nd quarter. Interest rates remain low and the home buyer credit appears to be having an effect in increased buyer activity. Lot sales were up significantly in Q3.

For multifamily the situation is that there is an oversupply—in Fayetteville the vacancy rate is almost 18% due to a number of new apartment complexes which have come on line recently. Siloam Springs has a 16% vacancy rate, Springdale 14%, Rogers over 12% and Bentonville approximately 11%. Basically it is too high in all markets in NW Arkansas. Lower end homes for sale are competing with multifamily rentals. This could be an effect of the tax credit for first time buyers.

There is also an oversupply of commercial space. Nationally the vacancy rate for class A and B office space is about 15-16%. In NW Arkansas the vacancy rate is about 19-22% (varies by town). According to Reed, if office space to be absorbed, jobs need to be created. Office space is directly tied to job creation. The situation is similar for retail space. The vacancy rate for class A and B retail space nationally is about 11.5-12%. In NW Arkansas it is about 15-16%. And occupancy rates for hotels here is declining due to many new hotels constructed in the past few years.

Of particular concern in the commercial arena, according to Reed, is the amount of maturing commercial debt. Nationally, of $3.5 trillion of outstanding debt in mid-2009, $1.56 trillion of that debt will be coming due within the next 36 months, when loans will be re-set/refinanced. In past recessions, small businesses have been responsible for growth with a loss of only about 9% of jobs. In this recession there has been a 45% job loss in small businesses. Because of the linkage of small business with local community banks, small businesses will be in trouble if community banks cannot give them loans. Ultimately job creation must improve for absorption of vacant commercial space.

Bottom line from these two reports is that the increase I have noticed in residential activity is not a figment of my imagination. I would suspect that the 4th quarter numbers will show some more positive trends. As I mentioned at the beginning, we’re not out of the recession yet but the picture is not all doom and gloom.

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