Don't Worry, It's Different This Time: Home Flipping Frenzy Matches Pre-Crisis Highs

For our latest installment of "it's different this time", where we examine the revival of financial products or market trends that contributed to the crises of yesteryear, we bring you a report from the Wall Street Journal about how house flipping - the practice of buying a home for speculative purposes, with the hope of turning a short-term profit - is officially back in vogue, thanks to mortgage rates that have been mired near cycle lows (and, thanks to Trump's lobbying for a rate cut, could move lower in the not-too-distant future).

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Those who were around during the run-up to the great financial crisis (or have at least seen the movie/read the book "The Big Short") should recall that a flipping frenzy helped fuel the destabilizing speculative bubble in the American housing market, as cocktail waitresses, strippers and gardeners all rushed to take out 'liar loan' mortgages to buy homes in Nevada, Florida and other particularly hard-hit markets, with the hope of turning around and selling them at a profit because housing prices could only rise.

That turned out to be a terrible miscalculation with serious consequences not just for the borrowers who succumbed to their adjustable-rate mortgages, but for the global economy that suffered the consequences of the gold rush to securitize them.

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Google searches for 'how to flip a house' have soared in recent years.

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But according to CoreLogic, the analytics firm that provided the data for the WSJ story, the odds of another crash are slim, even as speculative transactions presently comprise the largest share of the market since 2006, just as US home sales have become mired in a serious slump.

But a new analysis from CoreLogic Inc. suggests most of the current flips are less risky than the ones more than a decade ago, making today’s flippers less likely to cause market volatility if prices decline in the next few years.

Some 10.6% of homes sold in the U.S. in the fourth quarter of 2018 were flips, defined as having been owned for less than two years, according to CoreLogic. That is near the level of the first quarter of 2006, when 11.3% of homes sold were flips, and the highest fourth-quarter level in the two decades since CoreLogic started tracking the data.

One reason why CoreLogic is confident about the risks is that home-flipping today is more profitable than it was during the Bush era (though, as other data providers have recently noted, home-flipping profits have been sliding over the past few months).

The study, however, shows that flippers today have much larger profit margins than flippers at the peak of the previous housing cycle. By one measure, the trades are more than twice as profitable as the flips made in 2006. That offers current flippers more of a cushion if home prices begin to flatten or fall.

And it's also dominated by professionals who have a better understanding of the market, are mostly looking to buy older homes in need of renovation. Also, companies like Redfin have started business lines where they buy homes from people who don't want to wait for a private buyer to come along, hoping to flip them later.

This time, the market is dominated by professionals who are purchasing older homes that likely need work, appealing to buyers’ desire for a move-in ready home rather than one needing months of renovations. At 39 years old, the median age of a home flipped is the oldest it has been since CoreLogic has been tracking. Flipped homes today are about a decade older than they were in 2006.

"Flippers are very different today than they were in the past," said CoreLogic Deputy Chief Economist Ralph McLaughlin. "Even though we see hype and hysteria in popular culture, this isn’t necessarily something to worry about.”

But the caveat is that a serious drop in home prices would likely leave flippers in a difficult position, possibly even at risk of default, since most need the recoup their capital in the short term to pay off bridge loans.

Plus, buying older homes often comes with unforseeable risks.

Rachel Street, a real-estate agent with a home-flipping company, said there are significant financial risks to buying older properties.

"Every house I’m just going to do a cosmetic rehab. Then you open the wall and you find that every joist is rotted. That is never fun," she said.

And the business is getting more difficult, as deals in urban markets like New York City and Philadelphia (one of the hottest markets for the latest wave of flippers) become harder to find. "A year or two ago I could have walked out and found deals all over the place," said a former opera singer who has a home-flipping business. Today "there are six other people waiting."

But we're sure WSJ is right and there's nothing to worry about. After all, there's a whole new crop of millennials who are getting ready to settle down and start families. They'll all want homes, right?