An Iron Bubble: Housing Market Isn’t Deflating

Russian-born finance billionaire Leonard Blavatnik isn’t used to being rejected.

So when the board at 927 Fifth Avenue told him that he couldn’t buy Mary Tyler Moore’s 5,740-square-foot prewar co-op on the eighth floor, even with $18.5 million in hand, it must have smarted.

Soon insult was added to injury, when the board of Central Park West’s San Remo co-op board told Mr. Blavatnik that he couldn’t buy and combine three units into a massive aerie overlooking the park.

It’s just one way the real-estate market in Manhattan is different from the rest of the country. Elsewhere, who would turn away an investor with money to burn?

These days, though, the real-estate talk in Manhattan is the same as everywhere else: It’s all about the Real-Estate Bubble.

The chatter reached a summit when, on May 25, The New York Times ran a front-page news story about the bubble, followed two days later by Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman’s gloomy economic forecast. The Princeton professor jumped right into the current real-estate fray, the “final, feverish stages of a speculative bubble.”

As in many other “bubble” articles, Mr. Krugman focused primarily on nationwide housing statistics.

But what plays in Peoria, Miami or Syracuse may not play here. And when it comes to watching real estate, there are only three factors to consider: location, location and location.

That, at any rate, is the story the Manhattan real-estate world is eager to tell.

They say the tendency of co-op boards-a major force in the Manhattan market as nowhere else in the country-to weed out speculative investors is a major factor. So, too, are the city’s low crime rate; steady increases in population and immigration; and mounting construction costs. These factors, they say-and not the kind of speculative distance from real value-are what have been driving Manhattan’s real-estate values to dizzying heights. And while it won’t last forever, neither, they say, will it come crashing down on our heads like it did in the late 1980’s.

The Co-op Board

One study, conducted in September 2004 by Business 360, an economic-research firm regularly hired to issue assessments for corporations and investors, confirmed something New Yorkers have long believed: that Manhattan real estate operates on a fundamentally different economy from the industry in the rest of the country.

Training its focus on Manhattan, the study found that over 80 percent of co-ops in the United States are located in New York; what’s more, co-op apartments make up about 80 percent of New York’s residential real-estate market.

“One thing that makes the New York market different is co-op boards,” said Frederick Peters, president of Warburg Realty Partnership. “There’s built-in protection in the co-op market against the kind of panic selling which is one of the byproducts of a bursting bubble.”

Co-op boards don’t like financial “adventurers”; prospective buyers’ long-term financial security is as important as their bank balance at the time of purchase.

And the boards like it even less when investors come in to rent out or “flip” apartments-meaning they have no plans to occupy the place themselves, only to turn around and resell the place at a higher price than they paid themselves.

“The situation in New York is different in the sense that we don’t have the rampant speculation, the property-flipping,” said Jonathan Miller, president and chief executive of Miller Samuel, a real-estate appraisal and consulting firm. “It pales in comparison to what is going on nationally.”

Unlike in other hot markets, New Yorkers are primarily buying property for personal ownership rather than to turn a quick profit.

In the heavily investor-driven South Florida market, which has been a major focus of recent coverage, Mr. Miller believes that roughly 60 to 70 percent of sales are speculative purchases.

“I know Miami is a highly speculative market,” said Pamela Liebman, president and C.E.O. of the Corcoran Group. “This is not Miami. This is people who want to be here. It’s not a flipper mentality in New York.”

Indeed, in Manhattan, investors represent less than a quarter of apartment buyers, and most homeowners will ride the ebbs and flows of the market from the safety of their living room.

“People feel secure; they’re willing to invest their money,” said Michele Kleier, president of Gumley Haft Kleier. “You’re buying something that, worse comes to worst, you’re going to live in.”

The activism of New York’s co-op boards is one reason the Manhattan real-estate market seems to correlate so poorly to the stock market.

“[T]here has always been a propensity to correlate the housing market to the stock market, and they’re fundamentally different,” said Mr. Miller.

For one thing, real-estate transactions take significantly longer than stock transactions. Co-op boards present difficulties regardless of capital that no stockbroker would present. And devalued stocks cannot provide a roof and four walls in the event of an economic downturn.

“Real estate has intrinsic value,” said Mr. Peters. “Unlike tech stocks, there is always a there there.”

But the more speculative the purchases-the greater the proportion of investing in real estate to actual home buying-the more the resemblance holds up.

“Up until 2000, it was the conventional wisdom that real estate followed the market,” said Mr. Peters. “Real estate really is functioning as a separate asset class which doesn’t parallel the stock market.”

In the past few years, many records have been shattered, especially in the high-end market, with Rupert Murdoch’s $44 million purchase of Laurance Rockefeller’s penthouse triplex at 834 Fifth Avenue being just the latest example.

But high demand-as long as it’s coupled with a limited inventory- can create a hot market without inflating a bubble.

Indeed, one of the downsides of this booming market has been the response time granted to potential buyers, who are forced into bidding over the asking prices, in many instances without time for careful consideration. There is some speculation that this could lead to an increase in shoot-from-the-hip stock-market-style speculation in real estate.

“In a normal market, it takes four to five months to sell an apartment in New York City,” said Jacky Teplitzky, executive vice president at Prudential Douglas Elliman. “In the first quarter, it used to take 24 hours. Or 48 hours.”

“It’s not just buying a few shares in G.E.-for the vast majority of us, it’s the most significant investment you are going to make in a lifetime. Now more than ever, in this turbo-charged market, people believe they have to bid instantly,” said Sylvia Shapiro, author of The New York Co-op Bible.

But even then, the feverish sell-offs that characterize a stock-market crash seem unlikely.

“It’s an asset that takes, at a minimum, 60 to 90 days to trade,” Ms. Liebman said. “The cycle of selling it doesn’t lend itself even to be spoken of as a bubble. You don’t have thousands of houses crowding the market because, one night, someone said the market crashed.”

I Am an Island

Full-scale housing busts have occurred here before. But the bust of the late 1980’s happened under very different circumstances.

That crash was catalyzed by excessive condominium conversions during the Koch years. When the stock market dropped by a quarter (over 500 points) in October 1987, the supply of condominiums far outweighed the demand.

In today’s market, however, there is still a constrained supply.

“One of the factors that stimulates the market is supply and demand,” said Daniel Douglas of the Corcoran Group. “Nobody told me about Manhattan getting enlarged. It’s a limited landmass. There’s a limit to the amount of things you can do.”

Donald Trump’s theory is a bit different.

“That was driven by tax deductions,” he said of the 80’s real-estate bubble. “This is driven by a market which is much safer. The late 80’s was driven by tax deals, and when they ended the tax deals rather abruptly, the market came to a screeching halt. The government actually made a big mistake, because it took down a lot of banks-a lot of people went down the tubes.”

But he agrees with everyone else on at least one important factor that separates Manhattan from the rest of the nation: water.

“It’s a small little island surrounded by water,” he said. “Anything on this island is going to become more and more valuable over time. In other places, you have stretches of land that go thousands of miles. Here, you have just a very small little island.”

Unlike the housing market in Omaha, Neb., expansion must be vertical rather than horizontal. There are some areas slated for redevelopment-former factories becoming shabby-chic artists’ lofts-but Manhattan doesn’t offer developers miles of untapped land to build a few thousand McMansions.

“I think New York is a very unique marketplace,” said Ms. Liebman. “We like to think of it as the capital of the world. It is an island. And it does not suffer from overdevelopment. We feel the demand in Manhattan is very strong and is still far outweighing the supply, which is causing the market to have a 23 percent increase in prices this year. Our company has had a record-setting sales month in March, April and now in May. All this talk of the bubble is purely fueled by the press.”

But how long can the party really last? Will inventory always be in such short supply in Manhattan?

Some point to the fact that, last year, 25,208 new residential units were approved for construction granted-the most in over 30 years. Just 10 years earlier, only 4,010 were permitted. This is one area where there could be a substantial glut of new residences in the next few years, with the downtown condominium market viewed by some in the industry as a place to watch closely.

“There might be some concern down the road just because [downtown] has been the focus of development over the last five years,” said Mr. Miller.

Indeed, most industry insiders agree that boutique condos, costing upwards of $2 million to $3 million, could be in jeopardy if supply begins to outweigh demand.

Recently, there has been property flipping in several new luxury-condominium developments (where savvy investors purchased sponsor units from floor plans), but that marks the exception rather than the rule.

“Because there is less financial scrutiny, [condo] buyers may have financial issues down the line,” said Ms. Shapiro. “Co-ops are definitely better-protected than condos.”

Slowdown Imminent

“There is no bubble! What has happened is, the incredible price escalation is a result of property being tremendously undervalued for a long period of time,” said Leonard Steinberg of Prudential Douglas Elliman, a luxury property broker.

O.K., that might sound a bit crazy. But the Business 360 study concluded that the price of housing-still recovering from the early 1990’s decline-is indeed undervalued. The authors of the report predict that prices will rise about 10 percent per year through 2007, followed by a 5 to 8 percent annual gain through 2010.

There’s no question about it: That’s a slow-down.

“The experience we are currently having is a decrease in the rate of increase. The reason that leads to price reductions [is that] sellers invariably price ahead of the marketplace,” said Mr. Peters.

While brokers may have obvious reasons to dismiss the rumors of an impending housing bust, many are willing to admit that the market has slowed down, which is admittedly not such a bad thing. Continuous double-digit gains, quarter after quarter, are a strong indicator that prices are inflated, and the market could then drop significantly. And although the percentage gain may drop a few points, it must be noted that there is still a net gain: Prices may rise, albeit not as quickly as in the previous quarter.

Another broker agrees that a slight slowdown isn’t the end of the world and should be expected in any market-but that, in such a case, properties would not be losing any value, only increasing in value at a slower rate.

“The market has slowed down, but what said has it slowed down from?” said Mr. Steinberg. “Has it slowed from a Ferrari to a Mercedes? Yes. It’s still going pretty quickly, it’s still going pretty actively, but it cannot be at full-throttle acceleration forever.”