The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

Quick Takes: From Millennial Priorities to Roman Remains

Housing choices are going to the dogs. Literally.

That’s the gist of a new Harris Poll, which found that a third of millennial-aged first-time homebuyers made their decision of where to buy based largely on the desire to have a better space for their mutts.

Dogs ranked third among the top motivators for rookie buyers -- cited by more millennials than marriage or the expected birth of a child, according to the poll, conducted on behalf of SunTrust Mortgage.

The desire to have a yard for their pups was named as the prime motivator for 33 percent of first-time buyers ages 18 to 36. Only the desire for more living space, at 66 percent, and the chance to build equity, at 36 percent, were identified as more important.

Wedded bliss was rated as the major decision-maker by 25 percent of the respondents, and just 19 percent said their first kid was the game-changer.

“For (millennials) with dogs, renting can be more expensive and a hassle,” said Dorinda Smith, president and CEO of SunTrust Mortgage. “Homeownership takes some of the stress off by providing a better living situation.”

The bond between millennials and their four-legged friends is strong, even among young adults who have never purchased a home. The survey found that 42 percent of renters say that their dog -- or the desire to have one -- is a key factor in their wanting to buy a home in the future.

Fueled by a substantial increase in sales-dollar volume from Canadian buyers, foreign investment in U.S. residential real estate skyrocketed to a new high this year, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Nearly half of all foreign sales were in just three states: Florida, California and Texas.

NAR found that between April 2016 and March 2017, foreign buyers and recent immigrants purchased $153 billion of residential property, which is a 49 percent jump from 2016 ($102.6 billion) and surpasses 2015 ($103.9 billion) as the new survey high. Overall, 284,455 U.S. properties were purchased by foreign buyers (up 32 percent from 2016), and these purchases accounted for 10 percent of the dollar volume of existing-home sales.

Although China maintained its top position in sales-dollar volume for the fourth straight year, the significant rise in foreign investment in the survey came from a massive hike in activity from Canadian buyers. After dipping in the 2016 survey to $8.9 billion in sales (down from $11.2 billion in 2015), transactions from Canadians this year totaled $19 billion -- a new high for Canada.

NAR attributes the notable rise in activity to Canadians opting to buy property in U.S. markets that are expensive, but still more affordable than in their native land. While much of the U.S. continues to see fast price growth, home price gains in many cities in Canada have been steeper, especially in Vancouver and Toronto.

Buyers from China exceeded all countries by dollar volume of sales at $31.7 billion, which was up from last year’s $27.3 billion. Chinese buyers also purchased the most housing units for the third consecutive year (40,572, up from 29,195 in 2016).

The credit scores of approved borrowers are dropping. So does that mean it’s getting easier to purchase a home?

The median FICO score for borrowers approved for agency-originated loans (those backed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae) has declined from 742 in June 2016 to 725 in April 2017. The present level represents a new low after the 2008 housing crisis; the previous low was 726 in November 2015.

But this drop in FICO scores does not necessarily indicate that credit availability is improving. An analysis of agency FICO scores by loan purpose shows that the decline was driven almost entirely by refinance scores. Refinance credit scores fell 27 points from October 2016 (752) to April 2017 (725). Purchase FICO scores, in contrast, declined only 4 points (729 to 725).

One explanation for the refinance-driven reduction in FICO scores is that lenders, in the wake of rising rates, are approving more refinance applications from slightly less creditworthy borrowers to maintain volumes amid a shrinking pool of in-the-money refinance borrowers.

In the remodeling version of Murphy’s Law, once you remove a wall or floor, you never know what you’ll find. Ditto for homebuilding, where Murphy has it that once you put a shovel into the ground, you never know what you’ll dig up.

To wit, builders at a South London residential development recently unearthed a rare Roman sarcophagus. Only two other sarcophagi have been unearthed in England in recent years -- one in 2006 and the other 1999.

The excavation revealed a large “robber trench” around the coffin, and the lid had been moved, suggesting that the coffin was discovered and robbed in the past. However, it is possible that only the precious items were removed, and the less valuable artifacts, such as the body itself, still remain within the stone sarcophagus. The find is being taken to the Museum of London for further study.