uploads///FHFA HPI Geographic

Home Prices Dropped in a Quarter of States in 1Q16

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May. 26 2016, Published 5:21 a.m. ET

All real estate is local

The real estate recovery has been uneven, with some parts of the country outperforming others. Home prices in the Pacific and Mountain states have outperformed prices in the rest of the country over the past two years. Meanwhile, the Mid-Atlantic and New England states appear to have underperformed.

We’ve seen a lot of foreign buying of residential real estate, especially on the West Coast and in the Mountain states. Many Chinese investors are looking to diversify their exposure to US dollar–denominated assets. This trend helped bid up property values in these locations.

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Regulatory differences

The FHFA (Federal Housing Finance Agency) House Price Index breaks down home price appreciation by region and state. From March 2015 to March 2016, the Pacific states took the lead at 9.5%, followed by the Mountain states with a gain of 8.5% and the South Atlantic states with a gain of 6.9%. The Middle Atlantic brought up the rear with a gain of only 2.3%.

Interestingly, we saw declines in some states. FHFA Supervisory Economist Andrew Leventis stated, “While the overall appreciation rate was robust in the first quarter, home price appreciation was somewhat less widespread than in recent quarters. Twelve states and the District of Columbia saw price declines in the quarter—the most areas to see price depreciation since the fourth quarter of 2013. Although most declines were modest, such declines are notable given the pervasive and extraordinary appreciation we have been observing for many years.”

The report doesn’t break down which states are beginning to see declines, but the District of Columbia was certainly a highflier and may have peaked. The other states experiencing declines are a mystery. The report doesn’t break them down. Still, that’s an astounding number of states in decline. Home prices declined in a quarter of states.

Geographic exposure

Real estate companies such as Colony Capital (CLNY) and NorthStar Realty Finance (NRF) invest in non-guaranteed mortgage-backed securities. These companies take credit risk. This separates them from agency REITs such as American Capital Agency (AGNC).

If you’re interested in trading the real estate sector through an ETF, you can look at the iShares Mortgage Real Estate Capped ETF (REM). Separately, if you wish to make direct interest rate bets, you can consider the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT).

While being underwater doesn’t necessarily mean a borrower will stop paying (in fact, the vast majority of underwater homeowners are current on their mortgages), it does mean that the severities, or losses, rise if the lender has to foreclose.

While examining these companies, you should determine what sort of geographical concentration they have. Diversification can certainly help.

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