MONEY Housing Stocks

Smart Ways to Play the Uneven Housing Recovery

Home Depot shopping cart in store aisle
Jim Young—Reuters

While shares of homebuilders remain iffy, there are other attractive stocks in the broader real estate recovery.

The U.S. housing market roared in July, but investors may want to tiptoe rather than jump into the sector.

That’s because much of the 15.7% increase in new home construction in July, the first gain in two months, came from apartment buildings, which tend to attract lower income renters and do not generate as much overall economic activity as single-family homes.

The appeal of apartments to millennials, a generation laden with student loan debt that may make it difficult to afford a down payment on a home, is one reason why some noted investors, such as DoubleLine Capital’s Jeffrey Gundlach, have said they are betting against the shares of homebuilding companies.

Fannie Mae on Monday downgraded its outlook for home sales and construction, estimating that 1.4 million single-family units will be constructed during 2014 and 2015 combined, compared with an earlier forecast of 1.6 million units.

“From an investment standpoint the homebuilder trade has been one of the most hotly anticipated trades over the past few years. Yet it continues to be nothing spectacular,” says James Liu, a global market strategist at J.P. Morgan Funds.

Fund managers, as a whole, are not taking a rosy view of the homebuilding segment. Actively managed U.S. mutual funds, on average, devote just 1.06% of their portfolio to companies such as Toll Brothers TOLL BROTHERS TOL 1.9293% and KB Home KB HOME KBH 1.2027% , according to Lipper. That was unchanged from the end of 2013.

Yet analysts and strategists say there are some attractive pockets of the housing market.

Housing-Related Retail

Phil Orlando, chief equity strategist at Federated Investors, built up positions in select retail stocks throughout the summer in expectation that a slowly improving housing market would help retailers such as Home Depot THE HOME DEPOT INC. HD 0.7277% and apparel and home fashion company TJX TJX TJX 0.3157% , parent of TJ Maxx and HomeGoods.

Both companies should benefit not just from new home construction, which accounts for approximately 8% of the housing market, but from rising home prices, which could spur homeowners to upgrade their appliances or otherwise put more money into their homes, he says.

“I’m very comfortable that when the dust settles we will see a resurgent consumer in the back-to-school season,” he says.

Home Depot on Tuesday reported a higher-than-expected 6.4% increase in same-store sales in the United States and raised its full-year forecast. Shares of the company are up nearly 8% for the year, or nearly one percentage point more than the broad S&P 500 index.

Apartment Buildings

To be sure, some investors have already done very well betting on a 2014 multi-family housing market. Exchange-traded funds focusing on residential real estate investment trusts, which typically hold apartment buildings and other multi-family developments, have been on a tear this year. The iShares Residential Real Estate Capped ETF is up 22.3% year-to-date, while the Vanguard REIT ETF is up 17.6%.

Those gains raise the possibility that shares of the companies in the multi-family sector already reflect the boom in apartment buildings and have little room to run, analysts say.

“The data remains inconclusive and uneven, says Dan Veru, chief investment officer at Palisade Capital, “and that’s the nature of the housing recovery right now.”

TIME real estate

This Could Be the World’s Most Expensive Apartment

Courtesy of NBCNews.com

Behold: A 3,300-square-meter, quintuplex "Sky Penthouse"

The tiny principality of Monaco, nestled on the French Riviera, is best known as a playground of the rich and famous. But it could soon garner a reputation for more than its glamourous Grand Prix and numerous casinos. It’s now home to what could become the world’s most expensive apartment: the 3,300-square-meter, quintuplex “Sky Penthouse” in the soon-to-be-completed Odeon Tower. Developed by Groupe Marzocco – a luxury real estate company – the double skyscraper of 70 apartments will tower over the principality at 170 meters high…

Read the rest of this story at NBC News.

MONEY Education

You’ll Never Guess the City Where Private School Is Most Common

Ben Affleck, Randall Batinkoff, Matt Damon, Brendon Fraser, Cole Hauser, Andrew Lowery, Chris O'Donnell in SCHOOL TIES (1992).
Paramount—Courtesy Everett Collection

Whether a family sends its children to private or public school can be influenced by a number of factors, and it's not always about money.

Private school versus public school isn’t an option for most Americans. The average annual cost of a private education is $10,940, and only about 20% of students have parents willing or able to pay that freight.

Knowing that, one would expect the city that sends the highest percentage of its children to private school to be among the richest in the country. Manhattan perhaps? Somewhere in Connecticut? Wherever the prep school in School Ties was located?

Nope. According to a new study by real estate website Trulia, the city with the highest proportion of private school enrollees is New Orleans. A whopping one-fourth of all students in the Big Easy attend a private institution—and it’s not the only Louisiana city in the top 10 for private school enrollment. Baton Rouge ranks fourth, with just under 20% of all students going the private route.

Many of the cities you might expect to see don’t even make the list. While the East Coast generally sends a higher than average percentage of students to private school, its only cities to place in the top 10 are Philadelphia (18.4%) and Wilmington, Del. (17.6%). The rest of the list is dominated by Midwest cities in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Missouri, as well as outliers like Honolulu and San Francisco.

Why do some areas choose private school at a higher rate than others? According to Trulia, metros that are largely more wealthy, more educated, more white, and more Catholic are the most likely to have their children privately educated. Faith is especially important, because most private schools are religiously affiliated, and half of those schools are Catholic. New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Cleveland all have a large Catholic population.

Dr. Jan Daniel Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the New Orleans archdiocese, was surprised to learn that her city led the nation in private school enrollment rate, but had no doubts about why New Orleans’ Catholic schools were so popular. “New Orleans is a very Catholic area,” said Lancaster. “People want a very strong academic education that is embedded in the catholic faith, and Catholic schools are so strong academically.” Another reason might be the example set by prominent members of the community. Lancaster says two state senators, the mayor, and the local district attorney, among others, all received a Catholic education.

Courtesy of Trulia

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Public school quality matters too. After adjusting for neighborhood demographics, Trulia found that students in areas with the worst public schools were four times as likely to attend private schools than their peers in areas with the best public education. Areas with high income inequality also showed an increased percentage of private school students, which the study speculates could be caused by more affluent families wanting to keep their children out of public schools with greater income diversity.

Screen Shot 2014-08-12 at 8.03.41 PM

Some public schools are so good that even the wealthiest families choose them over private options. However, those areas aren’t exactly cheap to live in. After looking at affluent Zip codes where over 90% of students received a public education, Trulia determined these areas had housing prices that were more than twice the national average on a square-foot basis. In fact, housing prices were directly correlated with the quality of local public schools.

Home prices in the worst school districts were 41% lower than the national average, while areas with top-tier instruction were 32% more expensive. That means anyone hoping to move from a terrible district to a great one could face a 73% price increase.

Screen Shot 2014-08-12 at 8.07.17 PM

 

It’s interesting (and a little depressing) to see how expensive living near a good school can be. Where families ultimately decide to send their children “really depends on the specific neighborhoods you’re considering, how much house you need, and the type of private school you’re considering,” says Jed Kolko, Trulia’s chief economist. “But I think a larger point is that both private and public schools can cost a lot of money.”

MONEY home prices

These Places Have the Best Housing Bargains in the Country

Scioto River and Columbus, Ohio skyline at dusk.
Columbus, Ohio, skyline at dusk. VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm—Getty Images

As the market tries to adjust to a post-recession world, there are plenty of deals to be had. But there are also plenty of markets where housing is more unaffordable than ever.

With housing price growth slowing down nationwide, and a gradually improving economy, many Americans who’ve been waiting to make a decision on a home are wondering if it’s time to buy or sell.

Here’s some data that might help with those decisions: A new study by RealtyTrac determined which housing markets are more and less affordable relative to their historical averages. The real estate data firm computed the numbers by determining what percentage of an area’s median income would be needed to make payments on a median-priced home in over 1,000 counties, and then compared that to the county’s historical price-to-income ratio over the past 14 years.

So which areas are looking like a bargain? RealtyTrac identified 66 counties with a combined population of 16 million (about 5% of the total survey area’s population) where home prices are lower than historical averages and the unemployment rate was 5% or lower—well below the national unemployment rate of about 6.2%.

This, according to RealtyTrac, is the best way to measure affordability because many markets with cheap housing don’t have quality jobs to offer to new residents. Some undiscovered markets are “undiscovered for good reason because their economies are struggling,” says Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac. “A good example of that is Detroit. Affordability alone isn’t an indication that a market is a good one to buy in or invest in.”

The study found Columbus, Ohio; Oklahoma City; Tulsa; Akron, Ohio; Omaha; Greenville, S.C.; and Des Moines, Iowa, are among the markets with an advantageous combination of employment and affordable housing.

Courtesy of RealtyTrac

Why is housing in these areas undervalued? Basically, the overall real estate market is still recovering from the recession, and prices have yet to adjust in certain markets as investors are slow to discover lesser-known areas with strong economic growth. This pro-buyer environment might not last much longer, though. Blomquist says there’s been an uptick of institutional investor purchasing in Columbus, which means prices are set to rise in the near future.

There’s good news for prospective sellers as well. Prices in over one-third of the counties surveyed are less affordable than their historical averages, suggesting homes there may be over-valued. These cities include San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; Austin; San Antonio; Houston; and Atlanta.

Courtesy of RealtyTrac

Should sellers jump at the high prices? If you’re a homeowner in one of these markets, a lot of things are going your way. As prices rise, institutional investors are rushing to invest in these markets, inflating values even further. But there’s also a lack of supply because builders are still reluctant to start new construction.

“It’s a sellers market still [in these areas] because you have a combination of strong demand from this new breed of buyers and low supply because builders are very hesitant,” says Blomquist. “If you’re a seller, you’re not competing against too many others and you have a long liner of buyers.”

However, he cautions that for sellers looking to buy another home in the same market, less affordable home prices may be a double-edged sword. “The catch-22 is if you’re trying to buy too — if that’s the case, then it’s not a great market to buy in.”

MONEY mortgages

WATCH: How You Can Benefit from Easier Mortgages

Mortgage loans are easier to get now. Here's how you can take advantage of it.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Can Rental Income Save Your Retirement?

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Is rental income a good way to diversify my retirement portfolio?

A: For some people, yes. “Rental property can provide another stream of income, a hedge against inflation if rental prices rise and an asset that hopefully will appreciate over time,” says Diann McChesney, a certified financial planner at Asset Strategies Inc. in Avon, Conn. But being a landlord isn’t for everyone and not all properties are a good investment, says McChesney.

To get the most out of a rental property, be judicious about where you buy. Like most things in real estate, location is critical. Buy in a place where there is strong demand for housing so you can command a good rent and you don’t have a hard time finding tenants. You may not want the hassle of owning it in your older retirement years, If you plan to sell it down the road, it’s important to own a property that will be attractive to other investors.

A good rental property has many of the same things you look for in a home: A nice neighborhood, well-regarded schools and jobs that attract people to the area. Be careful about buying a fixer-upper. Unless you are handy or have a lot of time to handle repairs, maintenance problems will eat into the income. Today’s low interest rates make taking on a mortgage reasonable but the real key is ensuring that the rental income generates positive cash flow. If you want an income from the property, rent should more than cover your mortgage, property taxes, maintenance and repairs, says McChesney.

Keep in mind that banks require a larger down payment for—20% to 25%—and charge higher rates. It’s also an illiquid asset, so you won’t be able to tap your investment as easily as you can money in, say, an IRA. While you can get a tax break writing off expenses while you hold the property, once you sell it you’ll pay taxes on that depreciation.

The bottom line: A rental property can be a good way to diversify your retirement portfolio and provide another source of income in your later years. But “there’s a lot more to it than collecting rent,” says McChesney.

MONEY Millennials

The 15 Most Affordable Cities for Millennials

Greeting Card from Augusta, Georgia. ca. 1943
Universal Images Group (Lake County Discovery Museum)—Alamy

Finding an affordable place to live is one of the biggest challenges for millennials. This list should make it easier.

Last week, we told you about the 15 most expensive cities for millennials to live in based on a recent study by RealtyTrac. This week, we bring you the other side of the story: the 15 areas that are the most affordable, and the most attractive, to young people.

To quickly review how this list came to be, RealtyTrac ranked counties with at least 100,000 people by the percentage of median income one needs to spend in order to make a median housing payment or pay an average rent bill on a three-bedroom property. To make sure these cities are actually places young people would want to live, the company only included areas where millennials make up at least 24% of the population, and where the percentage of millennials has increased over the past six years.

So which area wins the most-affordable crown? It depends if you’re renting or buying. As is often the case, renting is significantly more expensive than making payments on purchased property. The best county for buyers—Richmond County, Georgia, which includes the city of Augusta—will cost an owner 10% less of their median income than if they were renting in Bossier Parish, Louisiana, the most affordable area for leasing.

For renters, Bossier Parish, home to Bossier City, will cost about 20% of the area’s median income. Average rent on a three-bedroom is a paltry $943. There aren’t as many familiar names on this list as its less affordable cousin, but some relatively major cities do make an appearance. Dane County, ranked ninth, includes Madison, Wisconsin; a beautiful city that also houses one of the nation’s top universities. Franklin County, home to to Columbus, Ohio, also offers a great city for millennials to live. Minneapolis, Minnesota’s Hennepin County even squeaks in at number 14.

Those willing to purchase a home are going to see a very different ranking. While Baltimore and Philadelphia are some of the least affordable places to rent, they’re actually one of the more affordable cities for buyers. Philadelphia County and Baltimore City rank 5th and 6th respectively, and payments will cost buyers around 14% of their area’s median income. Other highlights are Milwaukee, Minnesota, which comes in 9th, and Columbus’s Franklin County, which makes another, more highly ranked appearance.

Want the whole list? Here it is:

MONEY Millennials

The 15 Most Expensive Cities for Millennials

Skateboarder on the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California
And the "winner" is...the City by the Bay. Jordan Siemens—Getty Images

Finding an affordable place to live is hard, especially when you're just starting out. Here are 15 cities where you'll be pinching pennies.

In June, I moved out of my college dorm room into what I thought was a reasonably priced apartment. I need two roommates to afford the monthly rent, and my room lacks space for anything more than a bed and tiny desk. But I figured those were luxuries my peers in other big cities gave up in their first apartment, too, right?

Wrong.

A new report from RealtyTrac ranks New York, my home town, as the one of the least affordable areas for millennials in the entire country. The study ranked counties with at least 100,000 people by the percentage of median income one needs to spend in order to make a median housing payment or pay an average rent bill on a three-bedroom property. In order to focus on young people, RealtyTrac only included areas where millennials make up at least 24% of the population, and where the percentage of young people has increased over the past six years.

When it comes to least affordable counties to buy a house, four of NYC’s five boroughs take up almost a third of the list, with Manhattan (New York County), Brooklyn (Kings Country), the Bronx (Bronx County), and Queens (Queens Country), each “earning” a spot.

The West Coast isn’t off the hook, either. Beating out Manhattan for the dubious honor of most expensive city for young people is San Francisco. Buying a median-priced three-bedroom house—$950,000 as of this April— in the City by the Bay will cost median income earners more than 78% of their wages.

In terms of renting, the picture changes—but only slightly. Bronx county is the least affordable of the nation’s millennial-heavy areas, not because three-bedroom rent—averaged at about $1,850 a month—is particularly expensive, but because median incomes are relatively low. In 2014, the median Bronx household is estimated to make only $32,891.

For residents of San Francisco, renting is actually relatively more affordable than buying. Leasing an apartment will take about 40% of a median earner’s income, almost half of what the usual housing payment would take away.

OK, we all knew New York and San Francisco were going to be expensive (just maybe not this expensive), but there are some surprising names on the list, too. Our nation’s capital takes up two spots on the most unaffordable homes list, and snowy Denver, Colorado, comes in before Portlandia‘s notoriously expensive namesake.

(No word on whether Denver has restaurants that inform you how many friends your chicken dinner had growing up.)

Renters will also notice that some cities they thought were cheap are a lot less affordable than expected. Baltimore, home of The Wire, is the the second least affordable city, behind the Bronx. Philadelphia comes in third, but the good news is that millennials have been surging into the city recently. From 2007 to 2013, Philly’s young-person population has increased by a fourth. At least you’ll have people your age to complain to about the rent.

What’s also notable are the cities not on this list. Hubs like Boston, San Antonio, Chicago, Houston, and San Jose are nowhere to be found. That doesn’t mean they’re cheap, but their prices might be more manageable than most people realize.

Check out the full list below for even more information.

More: The 5 Cities That Have Recovered Most—and Least—From the Recession

 

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Best Yard Tools for Your Money

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: We just moved out of the city and are gearing up for our first yard work. How do we decide what type of lawnmower, hedge-trimmer, leaf blower, and other machines to buy? Our options include gas, plug-in and battery-powered.

A: Welcome to suburbia! As you begin to enjoy the many benefits of lawns and foliage, you’ll also likely quickly discover yard work needs to be done weekly during much of the year, taking anywhere from an hour to a whole day depending on the chore at hand and the size of your property.

You might shell out $1,000 to $5,000 on the equipment you’ll need, but assuming you stay with your do-it-yourself plan for perhaps five years or more, that investment will more than pay for itself compared with hiring a pro to tackle the work. (If you’ve never before used mowers, string trimmers, leaf blowers and such, get a friend who owns them to give you a lesson before you buy.)

Gas-powered equipment is the gold standard. You get virtually unlimited run time (as long as you keep your gas can full), with plenty of power. There are downsides though: Gasoline engines need regular service (technically every year), and they’re bulky and loud. They may require a strong arm to start, especially as they age.

Plug-in machines, on the other hand, start with the flip of a switch and need no maintenance, other than sharpening blades perhaps once or twice a decade. They weigh less than a gas tool and cost less too. The price for a handheld machine, such as a leaf blower or hedge-trimmer, comes in at just $50 to $70, compared with $130 to $250 for gas. The problem is that plug-ins lack the power of gas, plus you have to drag long extension cords around to use them. That’s why Chris Bolton, of the giant Michigan equipment retailer Weingartz, doesn’t recommend plug-in tools for anything larger than a postage-stamp-size lot.

Battery-powered machines have long been the also-rans of the outdoor power equipment world. Thanks to new battery technology, though, they’ve leapfrogged plug-ins and now offer a middle ground between burning gas and dragging cords in terms of power, weight, and convenience. The downsides: They are pricey, with a high-quality handheld coming in at $400 to $500 (perhaps twice the price of an equivalent gas machine), and the batteries typically only last 4 to 5 years. Replacements run about $80 apiece.

As long as you’re able-bodied enough to handle their weight and power, go with gas for your mower and snow thrower (if you need one), which are jobs that demand maximum power, says Bolton. If you prefer batteries for other tools, go with the same top-of-the-line name brand for them all. That way you’ll get plenty of power and the batteries will be interchangeable. Buy two so that when you’re using one, the other can be charging. Also spring for the quick-charger upgrade so you never have to wait on a battery and can get back to enjoying your new yard as fast as possible.

MONEY home prices

Backlash Against Foreign Home Buyers Takes Off

Foreigners are paying cash for U.S. real estate. Turns out some of that money is laundered. Fuse—Getty Images

It’s no secret that outsiders are collecting homes in cities around the country. Often the mystery is who they actually are, and where their money comes from.

Updated: August 1, 2014 11:00am

Foreign interest in U.S. real estate continues to grow, according to a report released this month from the National Association of Realtors. International sales rose from $68.2 billion to $92.2 billion over the past year, thanks to favorable exchange rates, affordable home prices, and rising affluence abroad.

In the wake of the housing bust, foreigners helped revive many U.S housing markets by scooping up properties when Americans were running scared. Despite the rise in prices since then, the attraction doesn’t seem to have soured. Experts estimate at least one-third of newly developed apartments in Manhattan go to international buyers. Other metropolitan areas including Los Angeles and Miami are also seeing demand, as well as even second-tier cities in places like Arizona and Texas.

Investors have been flocking from all over the map: China, Russia, The UAE, Switzerland. The industry catering to these faraway landlords—in charge of everything from managing payments to choosing lighting fixtures—has ballooned, since many of the apartments are rented out or sit empty.

Sales of ultra-high-end pads have received much of the media attention. Publications ranging from CBS News to Vanity Fair paid attention when two years ago a family member of Russian fertilizer oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev purchased the most expensive condo in Manhattan, for $88 million. But you’d be wrong to think it’s only billionaires that want a place on American soil. Buyers regularly hunt for homes and apartments at more mainstream prices (although, to be fair, the median price of a condo in Manhattan runs nearly $1.4 million). The National Association of Realtors reports that more than one-quarter of agents have worked with international clients. Chinese buyers spend $425,000 on average on U.S. homes, with about two-thirds of the deals being all-cash.

The Backlash

No surprise, the out-of-towners have earned a bad rap from many locals, who are losing bidding wars to the cash offers and feeling squeezed by the inflated prices. The outrage had grown strong enough in New York that in February writer Diane Francis, a Canadian who owns a place on Manhattan’s 57th Street, penned an opinion piece in the New York Post proclaiming that foreign real estate buyers in New York are not the enemy. She pointed out that she and her husband pay at least $25,000 a year in property and sales taxes but don’t cost the state’s schools, hospitals, or jails a dime.

Last month New York magazine fueled the rage with its cover story, “New York Real Estate Is the New Swiss Bank Account,” suggesting that wealthy foreigners are using property to hide—and sometimes launder—their rubles and yuan. Another story a few days later from the Nation, both part of a joint project that included the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, piled on. A few tidbits from New York magazine:

As New York magazine noted, it’s often anonymous LLCs and bank accounts behind the purchases:

“There is nothing illegal—at least from the destination nation’s perspective—about sending money from an anonymous offshore bank account to purchase property in America. On the contrary, it’s an everyday occurrence.”

Sometimes not even building managers or the best neighborhood snoops know who the mysterious owners are, or where the money came from.

“With a little creative corporate structuring, the ownership of a New York property can be made as untraceable as a numbered bank account…. Those on the New York end of the transaction often don’t know—or don’t care to find out—the exact derivation of foreign money involved in these transactions.”

While not all of the foreign money coming in is laundered, some of it is, and public officials so far haven’t taken up the issue. From the Nation:

“U.S. authorities don’t put up many roadblocks for foreigners who want to launder money through American real estate. Escrow and real estate agents aren’t required to find out the true identities of property buyers—the real people behind the front men or corporate shells.”

Will enough outrage boil up that politicians feel obliged to make buying less attractive for foreigners? The capital-gains tax rules were recently modified in London, dimming future returns for foreign investors (and likely sending more buyers to this side of the Atlantic). Yet Adam Davidson, writing in the New York Times Magazine, points out one upside:

“I initially felt anger and disgust at the idea of absentee billionaires hoarding Manhattan real estate, making the city even more unaffordable while they live like princes in Moscow or Hong Kong or wherever. But then I did the math. Assuming that their money has to go somewhere, it’s not so bad that these billionaires choose to put a chunk of it here. Any city official in Dayton or, for that matter, Philadelphia would do anything to have such problems.”

The trend may slow on its own, particularly at the ultra high end. Developers looking to cash in on the world’s wealthy may oversaturate the market. There is, after all, a fixed number of people worldwide who want—and can afford—to plunk down upwards of $20 million for a pied-a-terre. The New York Daily News recently pointed out that sales in at least one building on Manhattan’s West 57th Street, so-called Billionaires’ Row, have slowed.

Then last week, the conversation about luxury real estate shifted from shady foreign buyers to an issue much closer to home for most of us: the question of whether non-ultra-rich residents of a new luxury development on Manhattan’s Upper West Side will have to enter through a separate door.

 

Correction: A representative of Dmitry Rybolovlev stated in an e-mail to MONEY that the Manhattan apartment was purchased by Rybolovlev’s daughter, not by Rybolovlev, as the article originally indicated.

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