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Home-Flipping Collapses in San Francisco, Losses Spread

Home flippers are hardy folks who dive head-first into housing markets to buy homes at a discount from estimated market value, rehab them if they have to, trim the trees and cut the weeds out front, and flip the unit in less than a year, hopefully at a premium over estimated market value. If all works out, they’re rewarded with fat returns on investment.

It involves leverage, so some of the risks get shuffled off to the lender. It involves skills, connections, knowledge, and a good dose of luck. Above all, it requires the ability to buy low and sell high. To take home some serious dough, flippers need to purchase at double-digit discounts below “estimated market value” (based on AVM) and add enough value to sell at a premium over estimated market value. In the intervening months, home prices must also jump. So double-digit home price increases over the last two years have made flipping a lot more profitable. And easier.

This is the magic mix. If the conditions are met, the equation works out. It not, it’s a leveraged bet that can go to heck in a hand basket.

But flipping has started to run out of air in much of the country. And in the multi-county metro area of San Francisco, flipping collapsed in the second quarter, and flippers for the first time in years, started wading into red ink.

Home sales in the US have been declining since last fall, with mortgage applications plummeting at double-digit rates year over year. All sorts of excuses were dragged out of the closet, from tight inventories to bad weather, until inventories started to balloon and the weather was gorgeous, and sales were still dropping. Now it’s perfectly clear even to the most recalcitrant economists why: soaring prices have moved homes out of reach for many potential buyers. At first, the swoon in unit sales didn’t seem to have any impact on prices. But now the inevitable is happening: over the last few months, price increases have shriveled before our very eyes, and in some markets, on a monthly basis, outright price declines have started to crop up.

On Friday, in a section ominously titled, “Price Drops: ‘There’s Blood in the Water,’”Redfin reported on the growing prevalence in July of sellers having to lower listing prices as homes, rather than stirring up bidding wars, sit around for weeks or months.

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