Is 2009 The Year to Buy Santa Cruz Real Estate?

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This is a question that I get asked, and find myself asking, quite a bit these past couple of weeks. I am working with a number of buyers who are skittish and waiting for prices to hit just the right point. After all, what’s the sense in buying a depreciating asset? Who wants to buy something that they know is going to lose them money – maybe a lot of money – within a few months after buying it?

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One of my clients sent me a link to a great web site – Housing Crash Continues, Bubble Pops. It lists 14 great reasons why this is a terrible time to buy real estate. It’s pretty strong stuff, with lots of inflammatory statements like, “Realtors just lie outright about…”. Well, I always say, never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. I don’t think that Realtors are habitual liars, but it’s true that many of us are not as perhaps informed as we might be.

I won’t address all 14 points that the The Housing Crash guy brings up, but I would like to make a few comments. The Housing Crash guy says:

A landlords’ rule of thumb is that a house price should be a maximum of 15 times the annual rent for that place, yet in coastal areas, houses are still selling for 30 times annual rent

I think he’s got a good point there – which goes to underscore my belief that prices in Watsonville are actually very reasonable at the moment. Looking at Craig’s List rentals for Watsonville, I see you can rent a 3-bedroom condo in Apple HIll for $1,875 a month. Those condos are now selling for around $190,000. So at $1,875 a month, that’s $22,500 a year, or $337,500 over 15 years. Hmm…so does that mean according to the Crash Guy, we should all be moving to Watsonville?

Put another way, how much does it cost to own that same condo which rents for $1,875 a month? Let’s say you put down the minimum 3.5% as required for an FHA loan, and that you are paying 5.75% interest per month, which includes the allowance for the FHA insurance. You’d need a down payment, then, of just $6,650, and you’d have a loan of $183,350. Your fully-ammortized 30-year loan payment would be about $1,070 per month. Then you’d have property tax of about $175/month, and then of course your HOA fee for that unit of about $290/month. That comes to $1,535 per month. Hmm. It costs less to buy in Watsonville than to rent.

I know, I know – you don’t want to live in Watsonville. You’d rather pay a premium and live near the beach, or closer to your job in Silicon Valley, or closer to your friends who all live near downtown, or maybe you don’t want to live in Watsonville because you’re spooked by los pandilleros, or you want your kids in a better-performing school district. Whatever your reason, I can accept that you might be interested in buying somewhere other than Watsonville (even though I think real estate there is a an exceptionally good value at the moment).

We all know that prices in Santa Cruz are a lot higher than in Watsonville, but let’s see some examples. Let’s start by looking at Craig’s List rentals in Santa Cruz. Wow, they’re a lot higher than in Watsonville! Thank Goodness for UC Santa Cruz, drivin’ that rental market right through the roof, eh landlords? Looking over the ads on Craig’s List, it’s safe to say that a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom house would rent for about $2,400 a month in Santa Cruz, assuming it was in a not-so-great location. That’s a pretty conservative assessment, having looked at what’s available.

At $2,400 a month, that’s $28,800 a year – times 15, that’s $432,000, which is the maximum that The Crash Guy says you should pay for a house if it rents for $2,400 a month. Are there any 3/2 houses in Santa Cruz for $432,000? No, of course not! Don’t be silly. But there are presently six 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom houses in the city of Santa Cruz under $500,000.

Does that mean that housing prices are still too high in Santa Cruz? According to the Crash Guy – yes. According to me – yes. I do think that prices in Santa Cruz (and Capitola, and Soquel, and Aptos, etc.) are higher than they will be towards the end of the year. Does that mean you shouldn’t buy a house in Santa Cruz in 2009?

Good question. Let’s look at the payment for a $500,000 house – but let’s assume you’re putting down a reasonable 10% instead of the FHA minimum of 3.5% – so you’d have a $450,000 loan, again at about 5.75% because with only 10% down, you’d still need to pay mortgage insurance. A 30 year fixed loan at 5.75% would run you $2,626 a month – plus $458/month in property tax, plus about $75/month for insurance, leaving you with a monthly payment of about $3,159.

However, you mustn’t forget about your mortgage interest tax deduction – of that $2,626 per month, about $2,100 is interest (gulp) – plus the $458 in property tax (which is also deductible), means you have a monthly tax deduction of $2,558. Let’s say you’re in a tax bracket of 25%, and you can figure you’d save about $640/month in federal and state taxes, bringing your effective monthly after-tax payment to about $2,519 per month, or just about $120 more than renting.

Is $120/month too high a price to pay for the benefits of ownership vs. renting? You tell me.

Here’s what I will tell you: it seems clear to me that there are many properties in Santa Cruz county which now make economic sense to buy, and that number is increasing, and will continue to increase throughout the year. There is no shortage of blogs to read (try here, and here, for example) suggesting prices will continue dropping beyond 2009. I admit – quite possibly, this is true.

However, I would argue that if you want to live in Santa Cruz, and you have the option of either renting or buying, that for many people, the numbers will soon pencil out to where buying may, in fact, be the right choice for you in 2009. There. I’ve said it. But I won’t be offended if you want to take that with some salt on the side.

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