Category Archives: Analysis

To buy or not to buy…

That is the question.

That may not be Hamlet’s question, but that is certainly the question looming over potential buyers as they try to decide whether or not to purchase a home right now. I’ve said before that comparable rents is a key indicator of market fundamentals and I still think that holds true today. To truly account for all the pieces of the puzzle, prospective buyers should take all the factors into consideration. That means property taxes, HOA fees, maintenance, insurance, mortgage payments and the whole works.

While that may be the best way to go, it requires multiple calculations and as far as I know, most people don’t bring a laptop with them to open houses. Enter the GRM – gross rent multiplier. It’s a simplified version of the calculations that investors have been using for years. It’s not a precise analysis (as it doesn’t take into account paid utilities, taxes, insurance etc), but it wasn’t meant to be more than just a gut check. Using the GRM would give you a quick overview to determine whether the rental cost will cover the cost of ownership. This is a good tool for investors, but also very useful for potential buyers looking to evaluate RE values.

Overall Annual formula
Market Value/Annual Rental Income = GRM

Monthly formula
Market Value/Monthly Rental Income = GRM

There as been much debate as to what magic number is the “right” GRM. I tend to think there is a GRM range instead of a single value since it’s really just an estimate. Many have used the overall annual GRM of approximate 15 (15 x 12months/yr = 180 monthly GRM) for rent savers and approximately 8 to 10 (9 x 12months/yr = 108 monthly GRM) for cashflow investors.

Let’s apply this quick calculation to some Arcadia properties that are both for sale and for rent.

#1) 900 Victoria Dr. 91007
4bed, 2bath, 2034 sqft in Peacock Village
Rent $2900/month (Craigslist)
Asking Price $880,000 (Redfin)
Annual GRM: 25.3
Monthly GRM: 303.5

#2) 130 W. Longden Ave. 91007
4bed, 4bath, 2913 sqft in central Arcadia
Rent $3900 (Craigslist)
Asking price $1,328,000 (Redfin)
Annual GRM: 28.4
Monthly GRM: 340.5

#3) Similar New Construction Townhomes
3bed, 2.5bath, ~1865 sqft off 2nd St.
Rent $2850 (42 Diamond St. Craigslist)
Asking Price $750,000 (50 Genoa St. #B Redfin)
Annual GRM: 21.9
Monthly GRM: 263.1

These are good examples how the gross rent multiplier can be useful. Although not a precise evaluation, these GRM numbers are so far beyond the traditional, acceptable range of 160-200 that there’s no point in even considering a purchase. Surely one can argue that the GRM is just an arbitrary number, but it only takes a few calculations to show that the ownership carrying costs for these properties are more than double that of the rental cost. It makes absolutely no financial sense to buy these homes at these prices when you can rent them for much, much less.

There’s a long way to go before rent savers and investors jump back into the market to create a bottom. The NAR will probably call the bottom five or six times before the actual bottom even begins to form. Sit back, grab a drink and enjoy the show.

Santa Anita Races

Despite all my years in Arcadia, I’ve never been to a race at the Santa Anita Race Track. I hear it’s fun and quite exciting to cheer on your horse all the way to the finish line. The thrill of a race and potential to strike it rich on a lucky bet is more than enough to get your heart pumping. For those trying to sell their home right now, that’s probably the same feeling they’re experiencing except there’s no more potential to make any money for years. With every lowball sales transaction that goes through, the comps in that neighborhood are pulled lower from the previous week and it’s making the sellers very, very nervous.

I made the usual Sunday rounds and saw this race in a cluster of condos within a mile of each other. Traditionally, condos feel the pinch of the market before single family homes and it’s the same this time around. Some of these homes are next to each other on the same street and some are even part of the same development complex.


35 Lucille St. #A – $644k, 3bed/2.5ba, 1551 sqft, $415/sqft, 82 days
33 Alice St. #B – $718k, 3bed/2.5ba, 2084 sqft, $345/sqft, 180 days
40 Alice St. – $488k, 3bed/2.5ba, 1241 sqft, $394/sqft, 32 days
45 Alice St. #J – $478,888, 2bed/2.5ba, 1483 sqft, $323/sqft, 172 days
50 Genoa St. #A – $758k, 3bed/2.5ba, 1865 sqft, $406/sqft, 87 days
42 Genoa St. #B – $758k, 3bed, 2.5ba, 1886 sqft, $402/sqft, 67 days
41 Genoa St. #C – $686k, 3bed/2.25ba, 2144 sqft, $320/sqft, 16 days
28 Fano St. #A – $689k, 3bed/3.5ba, 2350 sqft, $293/sqft, 74 days
153 Fano St. #A – $469k, 3bed/2.5ba, 1240 sqft, $378/sqft, 131 days
598 2nd Ave. #A – $849,950, 3bed/3.5ba, 2297sqft, $370/sqft, 33 days
600 2nd Ave. #A – $799,950, 3bed/2.5ba, 2185sqft, $366/sqft, 33 days
139 El Dorado #A – $858k, 3bed/3.75ba, 2126sqft, $404/sqft, 35 days
141 El Dorado #A – $838k, 3bed/3.5ba, 2034sqft, $412/sqft, 35 days

I’ve listed 13 properties above – which one will buckle and succumb to market forces first? The new construction, vacant homes are most susceptible because their carrying costs are killing them. Their investors’ money is going down the drain with each passing day and they do not have the luxury of holding out. Owner occupied units have more of an emotional factor compared to vacant ones and traditionally hold out longer before reducing prices.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. We’ve seen it in the past and we’ll see it again this time around. Owners do all that they can to keep the asking price as high as they think their house is worth regardless of what the current market is willing to pay for it. The naive action of lying to oneself continues until a comparable home in the neighborhood lowers the price to sell while their house is still sitting without an offer. Only then will the seller budge a little and lower the price to match the comps, except by that time, the comps have shifted even lower from recent sales as potential buyers expect even better deals.


This cycle repeats as the seller chases down the market as his asking price is reduced bit by bit late in the game. If he had only priced it right in the first place, the knife catchers that bought his neighbor’s house would have put an offer in on his place instead. Many make the mistake of listing their home at 2006 prices because they believe it’s worth that much. Well here’s news for them: it was worth that much when crazy people were willing and able to sign up for suicide mortgages. Lenders aren’t giving away free money anymore and buyers are starting to realize that real estate doesn’t always go up after all.

Remember, a house is only worth what buyers are willing to pay. With more and more listings flooding the market each day, the competition gets tougher. During the boom, buyers were racing to make offers in fear that they’ll be priced out forever and in turn drove prices up way beyond fundamental, sustainable means. The market will experience a similar phenomenon as it will soon become a race to the finish with sellers trying to sell their property as fast as they can by lowering prices, offering incentives and pushing for short sales. Whether the banks will approve those short sales is another issue, but one thing is clear – the longer a seller waits to drop the asking price, the longer it will stay on the market. With so much inventory and so few qualified buyers, sellers have to face the reality that their home may not sell for a very long time.

What Created the Housing Bubble?

A financial bubble by definition is the unsustainable growth of a market due to deviations from certain market fundamentals. These bubbles, much like the ones your 5-yr old blows out in the backyard, will pop. That’s just the nature of the beast. Today we will examine several major contributing factors to the expansion of the recent US housing bubble. It’s unlikely any single factor could have fueled such a massive bubble, but the combination of such factors clearly illustrate that it is more than just the sum of its parts.

A) Lax Lending Standards

What lending standards? Oh, that’s right – I almost forgot about that part of the equation. During the past few years everyone and anyone could get a loan for a house. Even if you had a bad credit score, no down payment, no assets, credit card debts, low/non-documented income or a combination of any of the above, you could apply and be approved for a home loan in a snap.

A person’s credit score is a measurement of his or her financial responsibility. Albeit not a perfect system, it’s the system we have to work with. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that lending big wads of cash to financially reckless people is a huge risk. The lax lending standards dictated by the mortgage industry flooded the market with a huge (and new) sector of buyers – under qualified buyers. A person with a 590 credit score and $17,000 in credit card debts at 18% interest has no business in applying for any loan, let alone a large loan for a house. The Feds added fuel to flame when it tolerated this and quietly swept the issue under the carpet as their Wall Street cronies enjoyed the bull run.


An abnormally large influx of first time buyers created an opportunity for the market to expand and grow at an abnormally fast pace. Now that investors realize that these people cannot make their payments, as evident in widespread foreclosures across the nation, lending standards will tighten and rid the market of this buyer group. Reducing the buyer pool certainly tips the scales of supply and demand.

B) Innovative Loans

As an engineer and US patent holder, I revel at innovation. It stems from creativity and marks a new age in the way we live. Unfortunately for us, the innovative loans developed in the past few years only served to prop up over-valued properties and the paychecks of fraudulent brokers, real estate agents and lenders.

Adjustable rate mortgages are not new to the market. They’ve been around and used for years, but not to the extent that it was during this rally. About a third of all new or refinanced loans made in California during the last few years have some form of payment options. That’s astounding.


Since the vast majority of the general population cannot buy homes with cash, the purchasing power of the buyer is limited by the amount of money he can borrow. Low teaser rates loans at 1%-4% allowed buyers “buy” more home than they can afford because they are borrowing money at an artificially low interest rate for the first couple of years. This fueled a silly bidding frenzy as people can borrow more money than normal for a relatively low monthly payment until the loan resets. This is not just a subprime problem; there are plenty of Atl-A and prime ARMs as well.


The IO, or interest only, loans are self explanatory. Making payments on the interest only does nothing to reduce the principle amount borrowed. The delusional buyer is really just renting from the bank. So instead of renting a residence, the buyer has to pay HOA fees and be responsible for any maintenance work as well.

Another horrendous option loan is the negative amortization loan. In a traditional amortized mortgage, you’re paying a large percentage of interest to the lender, but still making a dent in the principle amount over the course of the loan. With neg-am loans, you actually owe the bank more money than you original loan amount because the monthly payment doesn’t even cover the interest on the loan! So the remaining amount gets added to the principle and the borrower owes more and more money each month. It’s like not paying off your credit card payments in full every month, but on a much bigger scale.

C) The Growth of the Secondary Mortgage Market

The above-mentioned loans only exist because there’s a market for it. Most banks don’t hold the mortgage in their portfolio, but turn their profit through fees and points and just sell the loan to another lender. Even with lax lending standards, the banks and their stockholders are only willing to risk so much. But the home prices keep increasing so what do they do? Welcome the birth of the second mortgage.

The conforming loan amount is $417,000. A borrower who needs a bigger loan is slapped with a higher interest rate because they represent a higher risk investment. To combat that, buyers turn to a different lender for the portion of the loan over $417k to keep the interest rate down. This too pushed home prices up because it gave buyers more borrowing/buying power than risk-adverse investors are willing to tolerate. The NAR is pushing for the Feds to increase the conforming loan amount. I am against that because it does nothing to fix the affordability problem we’re facing right now.

There’s a good reason why proven fundamentals exist to keep things in check. Unjustifiable risky investments are bad investments. When the market starts to deviate from market fundamentals, trouble brews and stupidity ensues.

D) No Down Payment, No Problem

Zero down loans is the crux of it all. A 20% down payment used to be the admission ticket to home ownership. It proved the borrower is financially responsible and prudent. It also gives confidence that they are willing and capable of making the mortgage payments.


With no money down, there is zero risk to the buyer because he has no stake in any of it. This is every flipper, speculator and shady investor’s wet dream. They can “buy” a house with hopes of double-digit appreciation without any risk whatsoever. If the market tanks like its happening now, they simply return the keys and walk away with nothing more than a dinged credit score. The lender is left holding the bag with an asset worth less than what they paid.

These were the big players that caused the rally in home prices and it will be the removal of these same factors that will result in the collapse of housing market. There are no more liar loans, secondary mortgage markets nor zero down home purchases. When it’s all said and done, the banks left standing will revert back to what they know works and that is verified, documented income with 20% downpayment required.

Interest Rates vs. Purchase Price

Everyone except those in denial knows that home prices are going to take a tumble crash until it’s back to fundamental normals. Great news for buyers on the sidelines right? Well, what about the offset effects of rising interest rates? Rates have been at historic lows the past few years and it looks like Bernanke and his cronies are going to continue dropping rates in hopes of preventing a full blown recession.

Realtors will try to spin this off and sell it to uninformed buyers that low interest rates is a great reason to buy right now. I hear this argument often and it’s simply not true. Even if the Feds continue to lower rates all the way down to 1% to keep the economy afloat, it doesn’t mean it’s a good time to buy just because you can land a low interest loan. Yes, interest rates won’t stay low forever and will eventually go up quite a bit. So what does that mean for potential buyers?

Let’s take a closer look at what’s more important when it comes to your monthly mortgage payment – interest rates or purchase price? Since there are no more liar loans nor secondary mortgage market, I have assumed the traditional 20% downpayment requirement and 30-yr fixed rates. No more nilly willy lending free money. Also, for the sake of simplicity I did not differentiate between jumbo and non-jumbo loans in this example – just assume a higher rate if your loan amount will be above $417k. For the income requirement column, I’ve assumed a purchase price-to-income ratio of 4X.

All monthly payment estimates were taken from this simple mortgage calculator. As shown below, it’s clear that purchase price is more important when it comes to saving you money.

Example 1: A $320k loan at 10.5% (10.5%!!!) still has a lower monthly payment than a $480k loan at 6.5%.

Example 2: A $480k loan at 8.5% still has a lower monthly payment than a $640k loan at 5.75%.


So when everyone says it’s the “worst time to buy” because home prices have been falling for several years straight and interest rates are high (perhaps much, much higher by 2012), it’s actually a GREAT time to buy. Interest rates and home prices are on opposite sides of the seesaw because interest rates dictate how much money buyers can borrow and by extension, what home prices will be.

I’ll be okay buying a home at say 10% fixed for 30 yrs because that will mean house prices have fallen considerably from their peak prices. You can always refinance to a lower rate because rates will change over the course of 30 yrs, but you cannot change the purchase price of your house after you sign papers.

Therefore, it’s better to buy when interest rates are high and prices are low than when interest rates are low and prices are high.

The Future of Real Estate Agents

Do you take pride in your work? Dan & Joy Blanding of REMAX Realty obviously don’t because their downed RE sign has been in front of this house for at least 4+ months. It was removed temporarily and then resurfaced in the exact same position about a week later.


Do you make people angry? Do you have unsatisfied customers? Fazian Bakali (also of REMAX) apparently pissed off someone enough to warrant vandalism of his RE sign. This piece of junk has been in front of 622 Longden Avenue for months.


Real estate agents are people who make a living off 3% commission by representing a buyer or seller. In exchange for their paycheck, agents do market research, show homes to clients and drafts offers. There isn’t much skill involved in being an agent and that’s probably why everyone and their brother has a real estate license these days.

This profession has been around for a long time mainly because of access to information. Before the internet, it was fairly cumbersome and difficult for the general public to find listings if you did not belong to a group such as the NAR or CAR because they essentially owned the listings database. That remained true until recent years when the internet granted public access to many listings.

When I sit down to write a post, I almost always start by looking at Redfin, Zillow, ZipRealty or any of the free listing websites. They provide me access to current listings, asking price, square footage, number of bed/bathrooms, colored photos, previous sales history and a host of other valuable information. With that, any buyer can scout and screen homes as well as do market research on comparable sales in the desired neighborhood. And now with companies like Redfin and Help-U-Sell, you can even use their agents to attend open houses and draft offers for a mere 1% fee.

Will Redfin and ZipRealty do to RE agents what Expedia and Travelocity did to travel agents? I don’t think the profession will get wiped out because there is some value in qualified, respectable agents. Let’s face it, buying or selling a home is a very emotional and stressful time and it’s nice to have a representative during negotiations. In my opinion, there is a need for good real estate agents, but they should work for a flat fee instead of a percentage commission.
A 3% commission on a $600k home is $18,000. Looking up a few homes and drafting an offer doesn’t sound like $18,000 worth of work to me. Also, it doesn’t require anymore work to find and buy a $300k home than it does a $600k home – so why should I pay $18,000 for the realtor to do the same work as he/she would have done for $9,000 on a $300k house? That doesn’t make a bit of sense.

If the realtors work for a flat fee, they would have more incentive to actually work in the buyer’s interest instead of always trying to push a sale in order to get paid. The current system is dysfunctional because there is a direct conflict of interest. The higher the sales price, the more the agent get paid so how can they possibly work in the buyer’s best interest? However, if the agent gets paid a flat fee based on customer satisfaction, there would be no conflict of interest. A good, valuable agent will have repeat customers and benefit from customer referrals while a bad realtor will simply get screen out of the industry altogether.

Real estate agents are not certified financial advisors, analysts or economist and do not have the qualifications to give financial advice any more than I do. Customers need to understand that just because they’re real estate agents doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. Most of them are under-qualified people looking to make a quick buck.

I don’t like to make generalizations, but you must question the validity and accuracy of their advice when their income directly depends on you making a transaction. You must question their motives. I wouldn’t take anything a realtor says for more than just a grain of salt. Besides, when was the last time you heard a realtor say it wasn’t a good time to buy a home?

Market Fundamentals

A financial bubble can be defined as the inflated, over-valued state of a market by unsustainable means. It is important to distinguish between what an asset is worth compared to its fundamental value.

A house is worth what a buyer is willing to pay for it. During the past few years, a typical single family home in Arcadia could be worth $1MM because people were willing to pay that dollar amount. On the other hand, its value is determined by its intrinsic offering – whether that is the shelter it provides or the cash flow it can generate. When I say “market fundamentals,” I am referring to the factors that contribute to its value, not worth.

It is important to define and understand market fundamentals because it helps illustrate the state of the market and how far away are we from the stable, historical trend. In this post we will take a deeper look at three big factors that are tied to proven fundamental values:

  • Comparable Rents

  • Income

  • Supply & Demand

Comparable Rents

Comparable rents are directly related to market fundamentals because it gives a baseline measurement of the value and worth of a property. Whether you rent or own your house, you have a place to live – that is its worth. Its value comes from how the rent and home prices are tied. If you are an investor, you have to rent it for more than it costs you to own it on a month to month basis.

After all, it makes no financial sense to purchase a home when you can rent it for a fraction of the cost, giving the renter a chance to invest the extra money in another financial market at a higher yield. Then again, most people buy property based on emotional, not financial justification. Contrary to popular belief stemming from the lies of the National Association of Realtors, real estate is generally a poor investment in terms of rate of return. We will have to discuss this another time.


Incomes are directly tied to rents. That’s a fact. Why? Because most people pay rent with their salary/wages. Last I checked, there aren’t too many folks born with a golden spoon and just live life off daddy’s payroll. On top of that, have you ever heard of anyone applying for a $500,000 loan at the bank to pay rent? No. Rents are paid with after-tax, net, disposable income.

In my opinion, this is the single most important factor in market fundamentals. It’s at the very core of how much house one can afford to rent or buy. Interest rates are also important, but are secondary players since you don’t need a loan to rent a place.

Supply & Demand

As home prices go up and people realize that it’s cheaper to rent than to buy, the pool of buyers dwindle and supply of homes move up. When home prices drop back in line with the rental rates of comparable properties, the scale shifts and an increase in buyers join the market to absorb the supply of homes for sale. It’s basic supply and demand.

We can analyze it until we all turn blue in the face, but it all boils down to where to put the money. Spend it on an depreciating asset and strap yourself to the house because you can’t afford to do anything else? Or rent a comparable place for much less, invest the difference and add to the future-home-down-payment piggy bank? I think you know where I stand.

Arcadia home prices are falling and will continue to drop until it reaches its market fundamental value. This will take years.

A Serious Affordability Issue

The Fed’s brilliant stimulus plans includes raising the conforming loan amount from $417k to upwards of over $700k depending on the area. Great, so the government’s idea to solve this massive credit crisis for its nation of debtors is to further encourage consumer spending and debt! The American people are swimming in debt and they certainly don’t need more of it. There is an affordability issue here and someone needs to tell the folks in Washington D.C. that we need LOWER housing prices, not higher ones.

According to, the folks in Los Angeles County spent 30% of their income on their mortgage payment in 1997 and that number grew to a whopping 63% by 2007! Most financial advisors don’t recommend spending more than 35% of one’s income on housing (buy or rent).


To be conservative, one should buy a house priced at no more than 3 to 4 times their annual income. Ratios from 2.5X to 4X income is considered affordable, 4X to 5X income presents an affordability problem, 5X to 6X income is very unaffordable and 7X+ is financial ruin. Over the past few years, this ratio has been on the rise at an unsustainable rate from 4.4 all the way up to over 10!


The data for Arcadia is not much different than that for all of LA county. Actually, it’s worse because the price-to-income ratio for Arcadia starts at 5.1 in 1999 and increases to over 11 by 2007. Can you imagine buying a house that costs over 11 times your annual income? Anyone who says prices are not going to come down and that the market is going to “rebound” anytime soon is a liar. Without a substantial increase in income, home prices are destined to decline back to sustainable values.


It seems that there’s a lot data out there for LA County, but not much specifically on Arcadia. In the coming months, I plan to do more in-depth analyses on fundamental values, affordability and other measures of the market so if anyone has Arcadia specific data on median home prices and incomes for the past 10-20 years, I would appreciate it if you shared that with me.

So with that in mind, where do you think we are now? Denial, Fear, Depression, Panic, Capitulation or Desperation?


Submit your vote for the poll on the right sidebar.