Merced, Calif., is a quiet, residential city an easy drive from Yosemite National Park and Pacific Coast beaches. It's also a perfect case study for the aftermath of the housing crisis.
Homes at the median level in Merced have lost 62 percent of their value from the second quarter of 2006, when they peaked at $336,743, the biggest drop anywhere in the country, according to data provided to Forbes by Local Market Monitor, a Cary, N.C.-based real estate research firm. Earlier, home building and buying grew exponentially in Merced, but the metro now suffers from a whopping 16.4 percent unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, reflecting a drop-off in building industry jobs and a grim housing market.
Providence, R.I., where values sank the most in the Northeast; Detroit, the hardest-hit market in the Midwest; and Port St. Lucie, Fla., the biggest loser of value in the South, have also suffered from their local market's slide.
It's not news that Las Vegas, where value has dropped 48 percent, Miami (down 38 percent), and Orlando (down 31 percent) saw a burst of homebuilding fueled by bad loans and rampant house flipping between the years of 2002 and 2006, and that those building bubbles subsequently collapsed. But it's the exurban cities just outside of easy commuting distance from the most desirable West Coast and Sunbelt metros where home values have taken the biggest pounding.
In many of these relatively affordable bedroom communities, subprime lending was rampant. As families clamored to buy homes, prices inflated to match their exuberance. But when the mortgage market disintegrated, these outer-fringe cities were left with a glut of new housing, and the value of these once-desired homes took a nosedive. Bay area satellite cities Stockton and Modesto, where home values have dropped 54 percent and 53 percent respectively, appealed to middle-to-low income buyers — and subprime lenders.
“There was such pressure on housing in the Bay Area that people were being pushed to the outskirts, and prices went up a lot there,” says Cynthia Kroll, senior regional economist at the Fisher Center of Real Estate and Urban Economics at the Haas School of Business, University of California Berkeley. “They were areas where a lower-income population was trying to buy homes, and they were the target for subprime loans.”
To find the cities where home values fell the most, Local Market Monitor (LMM) pinpointed 10 Metropolitan Statistical Areas — as defined by the Office of Management of Budget and used by the federal government to collect statistics — in each census-defined region (Northeast, South, Midwest and West) where the Federal Housing Finance Agency's Home Price Index had fallen the most from that market's peak, to the third quarter of 2009. The FHFA index is derived from data on all mortgages bought or backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The numbers show that housing markets at the heart of the boom on the West Coast and in Florida had much farther to fall than in the Midwest and Northeast, where most of the damage to values was done by rising unemployment and deteriorating business environments in the wake of the financial crisis.
On average, markets on the West Coast have lost 21.6 percent in home values since their peaks, and Florida alone lost 31 percent. By contrast, the Northeast lost an average of 8.6 percent and the Midwest only 5.6 percent. To put it another way, Merced, the biggest loser of value in the West, and in the country as a whole, lost 45 percentage points more in value than the biggest loser in the Northeast, and 32 percentage points more than the biggest in the Midwest.
There is also a broad spread in how early the decline began in different cities. Although the national peak in home prices occurred in the second quarter of 2006, according to Case Shiller, individual markets, such as Ann Arbor, Mich., peaked as early as the second quarter of 2005 and as late as the third quarter of 2009 in a number of Texas and Iowa metros. The tide changed during the same quarter in markets scattered around the South and Northeast, proving that cities underwent housing recessions timed as much by local economic factors as the national climate.
“There are timing differences here,” says Susan Wachter, a professor of real estate at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. “There are regions that went into the recession earlier, and those are coming out earlier.”
The cities that lost the most home value in the South are, unsurprisingly, concentrated in the Sunshine State, where exuberant developers went on a construction binge, unfettered by strict zoning restrictions. Port St. Lucie, the city with the greatest value loss in Florida (46.4 percent), and a striking example of the overzealous building in the state, seemed almost to spring up whole during the housing boom. New homes began, in the 1990s, to occupy what had previously been a desolate tract of sand, and prefabricated communities sprang up in earnest as the housing market heated up. Similarly, the retirement and resort communities of Cape Coral, where homes are down 46.4 percent from their peak and Naples, where they're down 44.6 percent once showed seemingly endless promise to builders. Those metros now feel the pain from that era's speculation.
“In Florida, it's not a pretty situation,” says Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida. “Without strong job growth it will take a significant amount of time to absorb that inventory.”
In the Midwest and Northeast, however, the loss of home values is a slightly different story. Here, the financial pummeling taken by the entire country sent values sinking, but because subprime lending and overbuilding were less prevalent, home prices didn't shoot up as dramatically, and didn't have as far to fall. Most housing woes here were a result of long-building economic distress and a declining manufacturing industry. That is evident nowhere more than in Detroit, where housing prices peaked early, in the second quarter of 2005, and began a dramatic slide in tandem with its sinking auto industry. Home values there are down 31 percent.
“In the Midwest, you're looking probably more at economic factors than just housing speculation and subprime loans,” says Kroll. “These are older, industrial areas that were churning before the subprime market hit.”
Regardless of whether subprime lending, rampant speculation, underlying economic decline or, most likely, a combination of the above, triggered local market meltdowns, the fact that some cities have lost over half their value gives pause, even amidst the drumbeat of bad housing news.