The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

Odd Lots: Parking, Neighbors, Holiday Houses

When the conversation turns to the nation’s affordable housing crisis, the talk is usually about ever-higher house prices and the cost of regulations. Rarely does the discussion mention parking. But it should, says Brian O’Looney, author of the new book, “Increments of Neighborhood.”

O’Looney says parking requirements drive up construction costs, “turning cities into storage areas” for our vehicles and keeping home prices “prohibitively high” for consumers. They add costs, not just terms of the actual parking, but also in the opportunity cost lost when parking displaces potential residential development, he told me in an email.

The author says two-thirds of suburban land in commercial and retail areas is dedicated to parking. And since retail parking is designed for peak loads, lots run at only 45% to 50% capacity for most of the year.

As O’Looney sees it, parking rules are “often more of a pseudoscience, with little to no statistical basis and more a political calculation.” He says changing parking requirements can increase commercial land values by 30% and lower development costs by 25% -- or up to 30% in urban areas.

Whether or not homeowners are thinking about putting their places on the market, most of us wonder what our houses are worth. But we’re just as curious about what our neighbors’ homes would bring -- particularly when the “For Sale” sign comes down and the “Sold” sign goes up.

Now real estate agents are being offered a new tool that gives their clients a map showing recently sold houses in their areas, complete with the final sales price. You’ll have to connect with an agent who has the program, but most should welcome an inquiry because you could be their next client.

The “Recently Sold” map is being offered by the Delta Media Group as part of its automated valuation page. It lists up to 10 sold listings within a 1.5-mile radius from the user’s address. Delta’s Michael Minard thinks it could go a long way toward solving real estate’s No. 1 challenge: the lack of inventory.

“Brokerages are discovering that showing local homeowners the real final sales price -- not just the asking price -- can help motivate some owners to become sellers,” Minard says.

Sales of vacation properties are soaring, according to the National Association of Realtors. But if buyers are intending to cover their costs by renting out their holiday digs, they could be in for a rude surprise -- at least until the pandemic runs its course.

A report from Stock Apps, a financial education website, says the vacation rental market has taken an “enormous financial hit.” Worldwide, holiday rentals will be off by $35 billion this year, which is a drop of 42% from 2019, it says.

Individual owners and small property management companies aren’t the only ones taking it on the chin. Outfits like Airbnb, Booking.com and Expedia saw a 90% plunge in reservations as people stayed home, the company says. “The initial wave of COVID-19 caused massive cancellations of stays, with even the market’s biggest players witnessing colossal reservation drops,” said the report.

Meanwhile, NAR says sales of houses intended as vacation getaways totaled 109,100 in the third quarter, a 44% jump from the same period last year. In comparison, the sale of primary residences rose just 13% over the same period.

Not only were more second homes sold in the July-to-September period, they sold faster when compared to historical norms. Nearly 60% sold within one month. A year ago, only 25% sold that quickly. (The norm is about 30%, says NAR economist Gay Cororaton.)

As usual, the vast majority of holiday houses were snapped up by Americans. But because of virus-imposed travel bans, the number of foreign buyers fell from 3% to less than 1%. Of those who did buy here, 13% came from Europe and 12% from were China.

Borrowers who want to refinance their mortgages to take advantage of record-low interest rates should not fear being turned down by a lender. According to a survey by LendingTree, 86% of all refi applications are approved.

Of course, those whose houses have appreciated in value and have higher credit scores are more likely to be approved. But there are always exceptions and other factors that are considered, says Tendayi Kapfidze, the mortgage search engine’s chief economist.

In the third quarter, refinances accounted for the majority of home loans, according to Attom Data Solutions. Lenders issued 1,955,668 residential refinance mortgages during the period, up 15.7% from the second quarter and 84.5% from the same period last year.

Overall, lenders were busier than ever. “The housing market (is) still operating as if the recession brought on by the pandemic didn’t exist,” says Todd Teta, Attom’s chief product officer. “Buyers and owners, lured by low mortgage rates, kept lining up for loans at levels not seen in more than a decade.”