Going Up, Down, and Sideways: Top 30 Cities to Watch

By Pat Curry

Ah, prognostication. It’s a time-honored profession and one that’s hard to beat in terms of job security. In what other profession can you get it wrong half the time and still be considered pretty good at what you do? If “Bob in accounting” had that kind of track record, he’d be out on the street before the second-quarter earnings were revised. But prognosticators can’t possibly be faulted for not knowing what hasn’t happened yet.

All of this is a fitting introduction to our forecast of the changing real estate market in the U.S. over the next few years — 10 markets where housing prices and values will continue to remain strong, 10 markets where appreciation will pretty much top out and the 10 markets that are most likely to experience a decline. We talked to experts, studied public and private databases, analyzed market trends and examined the analyses of many others — often contradictory.

The resulting lists are not intended to be numerical rankings, which would result in lists of markets located almost exclusively in California and Florida.

Nor are they intended to be be-all, end-all lists. In a recent quarterly metro-area, single-family home price report from the National Association of Realtors, a record 72 markets had annual increases in the double digits for median prices for existing, single-family homes. Only six areas had price declines out of 145 metropolitan statistical areas surveyed.

Plus, many reports we reviewed noted strong housing appreciation in the Gulf Coast areas impacted by the 2005 hurricanes. That’s completely understandable. When a significant portion of the housing stock has been destroyed, the law of supply and demand dictates that the remaining houses will dramatically increase in value. We chose to leave those markets out because we felt the gains didn’t reflect normal market conditions and would likely experience significant, unpredictable shifts during the next two years.

Finally, these are the markets Bankrate feels are most worth watching and are not intended to be lists on which to base your investments or take to the bank in any other sense. As Ingo Winzer, president of Local Market Monitor, a Massachusetts-based real estate analysis firm, says, “I thought that based on previous observations on price cycles, (prices) would have peaked two years ago, and they didn’t. There is always some factor that comes up that you hadn’t anticipated. It makes forecasting extremely difficult.”

Are you wishful or wary about a real estate bubble? Check these market groupings to see if your area makes it onto any of our top 10 lists.

10 Bubble Blowers — Appreciation Should Continue to Grow

  1. Boise, Idaho. Besides having a happy-sounding name, Boise is consistently mentioned as a small, but strong real estate market. Forbes magazine ranked it first on its 2005 list of the best places for business and a career; John Burns Real Estate Consulting puts it almost at the bottom of its list of markets headed for a potential housing bubble.

    John Schleimer, a real estate market consultant to major builders, says that both Boise and parts of the Idaho Falls panhandle will “hold up very well” housing appreciationwise.

    “They’re getting migration of people fleeing the blue states,” he says. Annual price increases on housing has been a modest, but steady 4 percent to 6 percent over the past couple of years, with a significant — but not out-of-proportion — increase of 14 percent in the last quarter of 2005.

  2. El Paso, Texas. Real estate market watchers have noted for some time now that Texas is a value buy. Local Market Monitor recently released a listing of overvalued and undervalued markets. Four of its 10 undervalued markets were in the Long Horn State, with El Paso the most undervalued market in the nation (the other undervalued Texas markets were McAllen, Dallas-Ft. Worth and Houston).

    “If I was an investor in real estate — and I’m not — I’d carefully consider Texas markets,” Winzer says. “They had a big boom and bust about 10 years ago. They’re at the end of that. They haven’t been great markets for awhile, but quite likely, as economies improve there, people will move there, especially since prices are relatively modest.”

    Fortune ranked El Paso third on its list of markets set for strong appreciation in the next two years; another Texas market, San Antonio, was first.

  3. Albuquerque, N.M. This is another city at the bottom of John Burns Real Estate’s Housing Cycle Barometer, a measurement of cities that are susceptible to a housing bubble. It’s also high on Fortune’s list of markets that should experience growth in the next two years and had a healthy increase (18 percent, according to the NAR) in annual price increase in 2005. Locals say the area attracts Californians trying to escape high housing prices; once they discover the mild year-round weather, they don’t want to leave.
  4. Seattle, Wash./Portland, Ore. The overall news out of the Pacific Northwest isn’t great. The area lost jobs in the tech bust and is still recouping. But in terms of housing price appreciation, the thing these cities have going for them is a restriction in supply. Tight controls on development have prevented the normal progress of builders going farther out from the city core to find cheap land in the suburbs. Hence, demand stays high for available units. (Forbes Magazine lists Seattle as the most overpriced place to live in the country; Portland was third on the list.)

    “Portland and Seattle have really benefited from California’s growth,” says Richard Gollis, principal of San Francisco-based real estate consultants The Concord Group. “Portland is starting to see the next generation of housing product, which is large-scale, high-density projects in downtown. The same thing is happening in Seattle. People who moved there 20 years ago for the tech market are older now and have a different lifestyle.”

  5. Salt Lake City Nothing drives housing like a stable economy and job growth. Salt Lake City has both. Job growth is up about 4 percent, unemployment is low, the housing costs-to-income ratio is moderate and Utah builders give buyers a lot of house for the money. Local Market Monitor reported an 11 percent increase in appreciation in the market between 2004 and third quarter 2005, and Money magazine ranked it 20th on its list of 100 markets for growth over the next two years.
  6. Raleigh, N.C. This city is right in the middle of the region that appeals to what real estate market consultant Schleimer calls the “halfbacks.” Those are people from northern states who moved to Florida, didn’t like it and then moved back, but only halfway. The halfback region includes Georgia, the Carolinas, parts of Mississippi and Tennessee. The seasons are more like what they were used to up North, without the harsh winters, and they’re closer to friends and family. John Burns Housing Cycle Barometer has Raleigh dead last on its list of markets that are susceptible to a housing bubble, and the NAR shows a healthy appreciation of 7.4 percent between 2004 and 2005. The median house price of $185,200 is well below the national average of $213,000, giving it nice room to grow. Fortune predicts the region will do just that, by about 5 percent per year over the next two years.
  7. Philadelphia Major northeastern cities may be the least expected on a list like this, so we were somewhat surprised to see Philadelphia show up in a favorable position on several reports. The NAR quarterly report showed a 12 percent increase in appreciation between 2004 and 2005, high enough to encourage people to buy homes, but not at such a dizzying rate as to spark panic purchases. The housing-cost-to-income ratio, at 31 percent, is quite favorable compared to other large northeastern cities (53 percent in Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J., and 72 percent in New York City) and while job growth is small, it’s moving in the right direction.
  8. Atlanta Home to several major corporations and the country’s busiest airport, Atlanta also is the second-largest housing market in the nation. Housing prices have enjoyed steady appreciation without the skyrocketing increases that have pushed other large markets toward a bubble. Commuters who have tired of long commutes have sparked resurgence in in-town development close to transit; the mixed-use development Atlantic Station has gained national attention as a true urban village with easy accessibility to jobs and cultural activities in downtown. Fortune predicts about 4 percent growth in values for the next two years.
  9. Little Rock, Ark. Surprised to see Little Rock on this list? If so, join the club. It’s not exactly on a lot of radar screens as a hot real estate market. But it popped up in a favorable way on just about every ranking related to housing appreciation, from the NAR’s note of a very respectable 7.7 percent change from 2004 to 2005 to Fortune’s prediction that that kind of increase should hold fairly steady for the next two years. This is Local Market Monitor’s position as one of the most undervalued markets in the country. At an average price of $155,900, housing there is running a good 17 percent below where it could be, Winzer says, making it a great value.
  10. Cincinnati, Ohio, and Birmingham, Ala. These two were too close to call. The NAR’s median price appreciation list gave a clear nod to Birmingham (4 percent increase from 2004 to 2005, to Cincinnati’s 0.7 percent), but Cincinnati kicked its butt on the Housing Cycle Barometer that predicts a market’s susceptibility to a housing bubble. (Cincinnati was 30 spots lower on the risk assessment.) Pricing in both markets is running about 12 percent under what the experts say it should be, giving them both plenty of room for nice, steady growth. The forecasters see that in the future for both markets.

10 Bubble Sitters — Appreciation May Have Peaked

  1. Washington, D.C. The D.C. market ranks 10th on John Burns list of markets facing a potential housing bubble, and home sellers in the metro market report that it’s taking longer to sell than it did a year ago. Plus, builders are offering significant incentives to try to move inventory quickly. Fortune’s survey suggests the market will decline slightly in 2007. Still, D.C. has a healthy economy and job market; Forbes ranks it fourth on its list great places for business and a career. And where there is business, there are home buyers.
  2. Ft. Myers/Cape Coral, Fla. Is it overvalued? Yes. Local Market Monitor reports annual housing appreciation of between 9 percent and 11 percent between 2001 and 2004 and then a 33 percent leap in 2005. Has the market topped out in housing appreciation? Not yet, but it can’t absorb much more, say the real estate gurus. The market is still affordable and more reasonably priced than Sarasota (43 percent overvalued) to the north or Naples (a whopping 72 percent overvalued) to the south, but the amount of building in the market is staggering — most of the country’s major builders have strong presences in Lee County — and land prices, once quite affordable, have increased as much as tenfold in recent years.
  3. Chicago The Midwest hasn’t had the kind of dramatic price increases as cities on the two coasts and those in the Sun Belt. As such, Chicago isn’t as susceptible to a pricing bubble as some of the other major urban areas of the country, the real estate pros say. However, the ratio of housing costs to income in the market far exceeds that of other markets in the state and job growth has been sluggish. “The big challenge in Chicago is work-force housing,” Gollis says. “We’re always looking at likely income growth and affordability growth or lack thereof.”
  4. Honolulu Because of its remote location, Honolulu is tough to compare to anywhere else. After a drop-off in population in the 1990s, people have started returning to the island, Winzer says, creating a housing shortage that has contributed to rapid increases in housing prices. In 2003, the median price of an existing single-family home was $380,000, according to NAR. By end of the 2005, it was expected to be at $620,000. Currently, the economy on the island is good, Winzer says, driven by economic conditions in Japan. Fortune predicts a small, but realistic increase in values this year followed by a slight drop-off in 2007.
  5. Tucson, Ariz. Tucson’s housing market is dwarfed by Phoenix — new construction is roughly one-fifth of the number of units built — it has joined its much larger neighbor in attracting the attention of real estate investors. The NAR reported a 32-percent increase in appreciation over 12 months. The current pricing is about one-fourth higher than it should be, Local Market Monitor says. The pros look for the market to stabilize in 2006, with an increase that roughly tracks the inflation rate, increase this year, followed by a decline in pricing in 2007.
  6. San Francisco. With a median home price of nearly $720,000 at the end of 2005, according to the NAR, San Francisco remains one of the country’s most expensive cities to live in, outpacing even Honolulu and New York City. Housing prices are unlikely to decline because of short supply — surrounded by hills and its famed bay — there’s just nowhere else to build anything less expensive in the city. But realistically, there aren’t that many people who can afford to buy at those prices, which should keep prices from going much higher.
  7. Detroit Detroit hasn’t been on anyone’s list of hot markets for a long time. In the most recent report from the NAR, Detroit was one of only six metro markets in the country to show a decline in housing appreciation in the past year, with prices down about a half percent. It’s a trend that Local Market Monitor has been tracking since 2001; annual price increases have dropped from 7 percent that year to just 2 percent in 2005. Fortune doesn’t predict any better performance in the market through 2007. John Burns Real Estate Consulting actually gives the Detroit market its worst possible grade, an F, based largely on a large loss of jobs and the highest unemployment rate of any metro market in the state.
  8. Minneapolis Minneapolis made our list for a couple of reasons. In a year when the majority of metro markets showed double-digit increases in appreciation, it barely surpassed the rate of inflation, according to the NAR. And for the next two years, the prediction is that appreciation won’t even see the left side of a decimal point.
  9. Baltimore Like its pricier neighbor to the south, Washington, D.C., Baltimore has seen double-digit increases in appreciation in recent years. But several reports indicate the market is overpriced compared to its history. Local Market Monitor indicates that prices are overvalued by 17 percent; Fortune’s number crunchers forecast a slight increase in values for this year, followed by a small drop-off in 2007, perhaps signaling that prices have leveled off.
  10. Denver Gollis has been big on Denver for some time, seeing it as a market that went through a rough time — it lost thousands of telecom jobs a few years back — but it is returning to a level state. The market has caught the attention of national builders in recent years, there is major construction underway and the Stapleton Airport redevelopment is one of the largest projects of its kind in the nation. Yet the NAR reports that in a year when the vast majority of markets showed double-digit increases in appreciation, Denver’s rate was 4.4 percent, and Local Market Monitor reports that it hasn’t been above 5 percent since 2001. The good folks at Fortune predict that for the next couple of years, Denver’s rate of appreciation won’t see half that number.

10 Bubble Busters — Values Expected to Decline

  1. Las Vegas What goes up must come down. Fortune lists Las Vegas dead last in its list of 100 metro markets for housing appreciation in the next two years, predicting a two-year combined decrease in housing values of nearly 13 percent. Local Market Monitor reported a 33 percent increase in appreciation between 2003 and 2004, and then a 14 percent increase by the third quarter of 2005, evidence that prices have begun to cool.

    “Las Vegas is a very interesting market,” Winzer says. “A lot of people moved in, but construction has kept up with the pace. For a long time until recently, I didn’t consider it an overpriced market. I don’t think the price increases will last. There’s really not an inability to produce new homes out there if there is a demand for it.”

  2. Sacramento, Calif. We’re not quite sure what Sacramento ever did to anyone, but it showed up on just about everyone’s list of has-been markets. Winzer’s Local Home Value Ratings rates the market as 59 percent overvalued and Burns Housing Cycle Barometer also lists it as overpriced.

    “Sacramento, we think, has topped out,” says Gollis of The Concord Group. “There is just so much (housing construction) in the pipeline. It’s a steady-as-she goes market and has always had consistent growth, but we think the land market has gotten ahead of itself.”

  3. Phoenix The bigger they are, the harder they fall, and Phoenix is the largest housing market in the country in terms of new construction. It’s been running at 65,000 new units per year, with housing appreciation increasing at rates of nearly 30 percent per year.

    “You can’t sustain 30 percent increases a year for very long,” Winzer says. “Of all the 100 markets we review, we think if you’re an investor in Phoenix, you should sell, because vacancy rates are already pretty high.” Gollis says his firm has been studying the market carefully and doesn’t like what it sees. “It’s had an incredibly unusual amount of growth,” he says. “The land market has accelerated dramatically and the lot price as percentage of the home price has gone up significantly. We have some concerns about going long in Phoenix.”

  4. Boston This one is in Winzer’s backyard, his firm is based in Wellesley, Mass., so he sees what is happening there every day.

    “Until about a year ago, homes would go on sale and be gone in a week,” he says. “Now they’re sitting on the market for a year.” He doesn’t see the prices dropping rapidly here — or in any market, for that matter — because while real estate prices escalate rapidly, they drop slowly.

    “In markets that are well-overpriced, prices don’t really fall because people just won’t sell,” he says. “The adjustment mechanism is skewed by people’s emotions getting involved. People will grit their teeth and hang on as long as they can to get the price they want.”

    They might not be able to hang on for long. Burns ranks Boston fourth on his list of markets likely looking at a bubble; Winzer’s analysis indicates the market is 33 percent overvalued.

  5. Los Angeles The City of Angels has been described as the poster child for how a lack of new housing near employment centers can hurt an economy. Affordable housing has been an issue in the market for years. It’s ranked as one of the least affordable places in the country to live, with housing prices consuming 91 percent of income, according to statistics from John Burns Real Estate Consulting. The median price of an existing single-family home was $568,000 at the end of 2005, the National Association of Realtors reports. Plus, job growth is virtually flat. Together, it’s cause for real estate market consultant Gollis to predict that the prices for California coastal markets are topping out in single-family homes. Fortune predicts a drop-off of nearly 8 percent in housing prices in the next two years, putting it in 95th out of 100 markets for growth.
  6. Naples, Fla. At 72 percent, Naples is No. 2 on Local Market Monitor’s list of overvalued markets in the country (Santa Barbara-Santa Maria, Calif., is No. 1 at 86 percent overvalued). In actual pricing, it outpaces other Florida markets by a good $100,000 margin. Plus, there is an abundance of more affordably priced options for buyers within a short driving distance. It is no understatement that entire cities are being built nearby. “The markets that are the most overvalued are the ones at greatest risk of a substantial correction,” Winzer says. “Naples is at the top of that.”
  7. Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Rapid, dramatic price increases over the past two years — and an extraordinary amount of new products being built in the condo market — is the reason many real estate market analysts think this market just can’t sustain much more in terms of price increases. The market probably won’t decline, they say, because the region remains attractive to South American and European buyers, but there just isn’t sufficient demand to absorb the entire available inventory. Plus, according to NAR research, affordability is an issue in the market, calling the home price to income ratio “unfavorable.”
  8. Edison and Newark, N.J. As far as the real estate analysts are concerned, these two cities have pretty big targets on them for a decline in appreciation. John Burns Real Estate Consulting ranks Edison seventh — ahead of Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, D.C., — as a market facing a potential housing bubble. It gives Newark an F on its local market grading scale, attributable largely to the loss of several thousand jobs and the highest housing-cost-to-income percentage in the state’s metro markets. Fortune predicts a very modest 1.2 percent gain in housing appreciation this year for Edison that would be wiped out in 2007 by a loss of 2.9 percent. The situation is similar in Newark, where Fortune suggests a 1.5 percent increase this year will be canceled out by a 1.8 percent loss the following year.
  9. Nassau/Suffolk, N.Y. Otherwise known as Long Island, this market is No. 2 in the country on real estate consultant John Burns’ list of locations facing a potential housing bubble. (Modesto, Calif., has the top spot.) Similarly, Fortune predicts a loss of about 6 percent in housing values over the next two years.
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