Everything about Frank Fazio’s new two-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is decidedly average, including its price: a hair under $1 million.
With five rooms and about 1,050 square feet of space, the place is a nice size, by New York standards, but it is no mansion. There are no chandeliers, no soaring cathedral ceilings and no doorman downstairs to help with groceries.
"There is nothing that would make you say, 'Wow this place must have cost a million bucks,'" said Fazio, 42, a banker who relocated from Chicago.
Yet pay a million he did, something more Americans are doing these days.
For the first time, there are more than 1 million owner-occupied homes in the United States worth $1 million or more, according to a Census Bureau survey published late last month.
Once a symbol of unusual wealth, million-dollar dwellings now seem like a dime a dozen in some places. San Francisco alone has more than 20,000 of them. There are another 46,000, or so, in Orange County, Calif.
In Manhattan, even someone with a million dollars in their pocket can't buy luxury. The average price for an apartment in all but Harlem and the borough’s northern tip climbed above $1.2 million in the second quarter of 2005, said Gregory Heym, chief economist for Terra Holdings, an owner of real estate brokerages in the city.
"For a million dollars, you couldn’t get a two-bedroom on the East Side," Heym said.
The surge in high-end prices has happened quickly. The Census Bureau’s 2004 American Community Survey found 1,034,386 homes worth at least $1 million in 2004, compared to 595,441 in 2002 and only 394,878 in 2000.
Demand for housing is still outstripping supply in many U.S. markets, said John M. Clapp, a professor of finance and real estate at the University of Connecticut. Low interest rates have made it easier for people to afford more house, as have some new financing methods, like interest-only adjustable mortgages, which initially allow buyers to lower their monthly payments.
Even in land-rich cities like Phoenix, the demand for housing in mature neighborhoods has outstripped supply.
In a few exclusive communities, $1 million won’t buy you more than “an acre of dirt,” said Kristy Ryan, a broker at Re/Max Fine Properties in Scottsdale.
In other parts of town, $1 million is still enough to build a 4,000-square-foot villa with a pool and a three-car garage, but Ryan noted that the same house might have sold for $700,000 just five years ago.
"Some people are disappointed when they get here," she said of the northerners who continue to arrive in droves. "They don’t realize how much it has appreciated in the last few years."
How will homeowners fare?
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has warned that housing prices in some markets have been driven to “unsustainable levels,” and some homeowners have borrowed heavily against their homes’ equity to fuel their consumer spending. If mortgage rates rise, that spending will have to drop and homeowners will be forced to save, Greenspan said in a speech to a bankers group Monday. But he added that homeowners on average have enough equity to absorb the hit if home values drop.
The losers in this hot market, Clapp said, are people buying a home for the first time. At current interest rates, the monthly payment on an $800,000 mortgage is about $4,700 a month. The financial hit is especially bad in places like New York, where the city’s many condominiums and co-ops require monthly maintenance fees that often exceed $1,000 a month.
“I think they are stretched to the limit at this point,” Clapp said. “In some markets, renting makes more sense.”
Real estate has become so hot that the boom has spread to neighborhoods formerly written off by many investors as hopelessly impoverished.
Urban success story
In Bedford Stuyvesant, the section of Brooklyn that was the setting for Spike Lee’s 1989 film, “Do the Right Thing,” some owners were asking more than $950,000 this week for their brownstones.
The prospect that a neighborhood that experienced rioting in the 1960s and a crack epidemic in the late 1980s would fetch such high prices now is both an urban success story, and potentially dismaying, said Richard Weeks, an agent at Coldwell Banker Mid Plaza Real Estate.
If a working-class family can’t afford a home in Bed Stuyvesant, he asked, just where can they buy?
“As an African American, I worry about it,” said Weeks, whose listings include a limestone town house in a fast-gentrifying section of the neighborhood, priced at $975,000. “It is definitely going to become harder for the people who aren’t well off to purchase there.”
If prices stop rising, other potential losers could be speculative investors who were counting on a quick resale of a home at a profit to pay back debt. Economists have split over whether the rise in housing prices constitutes a bubble that could burst at any time.
“In the long run, things have to come back into equilibrium,” Clapp said.