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New York City Real Estate: A Safe Haven?

Remember the Great Recession of ’08? You know, the one where the housing market bubble popped and millions found themselves holding and sometimes even abandoning real estate whose value had plunged underwater, a few thousand leagues under the mortgage? Yeah, it’s not something you’d likely forget if you found yourself drowning in that whole mess. Well now seven years has passed and unemployment has dropped to 5.1% from its peak of 10.2% in October, 2009. With more jobs and steady income, could today be a good day to invest in New York City real estate? Or is it reckless to buy now and hope that there’s not a bubble later, and that the place rises in value instead of crashing?

Or might it instead be wiser to stuff spare change inside a mattress or maybe purchase commemorative coins honoring 9/11’s First Responders?

For those last two approaches, probably not. (Mattresses aren’t FDIC insured, and remember, not all commemorative issues increase in value.) There’s the old saw that real estate makes a smart investment, since they’re not making any more land. And yet there’s the line from a New York Times review of the recent film of the mortgage crisis, 99 Homes, a nagging reminder that history repeats itself: “[Owners]…find themselves underwater, trapped in treacherous and complicated loans…. ”

Just Look At The Numbers

But check out these numbers: Since August 2014, Harlem has led the city in market growth, with an increase of 20% in just over a year, driven by the surge of newly constructed residential buildings in the area. Harlem’s Studio Non Doorman, Studio Doorman and One Bedroom Doorman unit averages respectively experienced increases of 4.0%, 5.0%, and 4.5%. Doesn’t sound so bad? That’s in one month.

The median sales price is very close to the $1.025 million high of 2008. Does that mean another bust is likely? No, say experts in Crain’s New York Business, because the last bubble was created by loose credit, and today’s mortgages have much more rigorous standards.

In the fourth quarter of 2015 Manhattan was in the throes of a construction boom, with the inventory of homes near the record low during the last quarter of 2013. Compared with the last construction peak, during 2008’s hard landing when developers kept cranking out greater supply than demand, a number of factors have come together to change the economics of owning and selling a home in Manhattan and the other boroughs. In some parts of the city, real estate brokers report slowing sales. Market uncertainty is certainly a factor, with early 2016 reflecting buyer nervousness. A return of confidence will likely unleash some pent-up demand, especially if coupled with even slightly lower prices, which experts say is a typical blip. Short term blips don’t disturb long term trends. they tell us.

Now Look At Some More Numbers

There are 850,000 apartments in this crowded city. During the first quarter of 2015, only 5,200, or slightly more than one half of one percent, were for sale. That’s 26% below the historical average and just 25% above the low of 4,164 in 2013. Why is the number so minuscule? Manhattan is a renter’s town; rentals make up more than 75% of the apartments in the five boroughs. The rest are almost all coops and condos. (Earlier this year, Warburg Realty estimated that there were fewer than 2000 single-family houses left in all of Manhattan that hadn’t been split up to make rentals.)

Sounds like a great market for sellers. Except for this: Selling would give owners cash to upgrade to better digs, yes, but exactly because when the real estate market is tight sellers are nervous that they won’t be able to find another home. Even if they do, those better apartments will also cost more. Result: Resale inventory of existing homes is stagnant. And heading forward, that will likely keep upward pressure on prices. (Although a mortgage interest rate increase triggered by the recent Federal Reserve move might slow down price escalation somewhat, experts remind that there is pent-up demand ready to jump in when/if prices soften.)

When unemployment is low and salaries become more competitive, businesses have to pay up to retain skilled workers “who can keep the city’s economic engine humming,” says Crain’s. But retaining and recruiting employees grows more difficult when housing is unaffordable. As President of the Partnership for New York City Kathryn Wylde points out, “Recruiting talent to support our leading institutions and our universities is increasingly difficult because they can’t afford to live or find suitable housing in Manhattan.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio made the need for affordable housing a centerpiece of his last campaign and continues to entice and bully developers to include it in new construction projects.

What About All The New Construction?

Usually the best way to keep prices from skyrocketing is to add supply. But in Manhattan, building new apartments has served only to further escalate costs. The occasional penthouse often comes with a price-tag of $100 million or more, so New York residential real estate seemed to be a safe place for the global rich to park their cash – read: investment money from China and other points overseas – which has affected the market for everybody else in the process. The same thing has happened in London. There’s your Trickle-Down Theory in action – perversely. Individual units have become investments, virtual storage units for money rather than residences, which is why so many even stand empty, never occupied.

The Bottom Line

If anytime is the best time to buy, it may be now. Yesterday might have been even better, and tomorrow may cost even more. But prepare to spend the cash. (Brokers consider listed prices up to $2 million the lower market price point for Manhattan.) Most of all, take to heart another line from 99 Homes: “Don’t get emotional about real estate.” Not all of us can afford a penthouse view

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