Huge Loss in Home Values Craters Bay Area Economy

Bay Area homes have lost more than a third of a trillion dollars in value since the housing bubble burst about four years ago. And in the process, they have taken a big chunk of the economy with them.

During the boom, homeowners borrowed against that mountain of money, fueling a huge surge in everything from yacht sales in Silicon Valley to home heating upgrades in Antioch. Later, when home prices collapsed, their loss of money and confidence crushed those same businesses. Adding more strain, while the equity went away, the debt remained, further hobbling those who hung on to their homes.

While the devastation of the housing crisis has been well reported — foreclosures; people stuck in homes they can’t sell; houses sold for a fraction of their value — one issue that has received less attention is the remarkable loss of housing values and its impact on the economy. Home equity loans, for example, are running at about one-tenth the level they hit four years ago.

But it’s probably not overstating the issue to say that the economy’s ultimate recovery depends on restoring stability to the housing market. “Consumer spending won’t fully recover until the housing market stabilizes and people feel that their main assets — their home — will grow in value,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist with the real estate website Trulia. And consumer spending makes up about two-thirds of the American economy.

Reversal of the “Wealth Effect”
Homeowners spending freely during the bubble because their home equity made them feel rich, the loss of equity when the bubble burst “magnified the income and jobs effect in the recession,” he said. “Both of those hold back consumer spending. It especially hurt industries that served a local market — retail, restaurants and local services.”

The loss in home value in five Bay Area counties from 2007 to 2011, calculated by DataQuick for this newspaper based on the average price per square foot paid for housing, was $387 billion, a 33 percent decline. That figure is necessarily an estimate, because it’s based on the value of houses sold, and the types of homes sold in both periods.

Contra Costa County was hit the hardest, followed by Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco in that order. There was a wide variation within counties, with some areas hit harder than others.
From 2007 to 2011, homes in Oakland lost an average of $350,000; Concord $289,000; San Jose $267,000 and San Francisco $205,000, according to an analysis by the San Diego real estate information company. That was equity homeowners tapped for kitchen remodels, new boats and trucks, vacations and college tuitions. It also served as a security blanket for those nearing retirement.

Businesses Struggle
The collapse has hit business hard — everyone from remodeling contractors in the wealthy enclaves of Silicon Valley to heating and air conditioning installers in hard-hit Antioch have felt its sting. “It’s all changed since the equity money died,” said George Sikich, a yacht and ship broker whose Bay Area business dramatically slowed when the housing bubble burst. “There’s no doubt — the business is down.”

Four years ago, Sikich’s customers were only thinking about buying a bigger boat than the one they had. “They were using their home equity, buying boats a lot. They had an ATM in their home,” he said.
Since 2008, boat prices have plunged along with sales, he said. “I have a little market niche and I expect to muddle along and be OK,” he said. “I don’t see things changing a lot until we see the money flowing again. I don’t see things turning around for a year to two.”

The steady slide in home value has also slowed real estate sales. The Santa Clara County Association of Realtors dropped from 9,370 members in 2007 to 6,200 today, the association reported. “People have lost confidence,” said Ken Rosen, chairman at the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at UC Berkeley. “No one thinks prices go up any more.” But housing prices already are beginning to stabilize in some parts of the Bay Area, he said.

That can’t happen soon enough for Jeff Scalier, who owns Blue Star Heating & Air Conditioning in Antioch. Scalier said he’s doing mostly repairs to furnaces that should be thrown out, and installing few new furnaces.
“In the old days, one or two people a week would drop their credit card down on the table and buy a new air and heating system for their families. Now it’s more ‘How much to fix it?’ And when you give them prices to fix it, they always cringe. No one asks to replace it. No one upgrades anymore. People only buy what they need to buy and very little else.”

Scalier says the company he worked for five years ago is out of business, as is one of his competitors. His business “went from having work every day, day in and day out, to the point where you don’t have work every day, you don’t know if you have work for the rest of the week. And if you have work, there’s generally less profit.”

Wary Consumers
Taxable sales, an indicator of business health and consumer spending power, were down 17 percent in Alameda County and 14 percent in Contra Costa County between the third quarters of 2007 and 2010, the latest period for which the Board of Equalization has data. There has been a recovery since a low in 2009, but consumer spending has undergone a permanent change, according to some economists.

“Consumer spending is going to be lower going forward for two reasons,” said Jon Havemen, chief economist with the Bay Area Council’s Economic Institute. “Consumers have waked up to the fact that ‘Wow, I need to save for retirement, and not only do I need to save, but I don’t have all this money in my house.’ ”

Fewer Lines of CreditNew home equity lines of credit originated by banks have plunged in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties by nearly 90 percent, from $6.1 billion issued in the second quarter of 2007 to $674 million in the third quarter of this year, according to DataQuick. That has starved remodeling businesses — among others — for customers. The East Bay has seen a 37 percent drop in the number of specialty contractors since 2007; the Silicon Valley has seen a 28 percent drop.

Antonio Perez, 43, of San Jose, had a flourishing custom cabinet business until work dried up early in 2008. His business is shuttered and he’s back in school, taking courses in San Jose State University’s business department. “A lot of people I know in the industry are forced to do things they’ve never done before, and take jobs they had never done before. My brother, one of the greatest finish carpenters I know of, is reduced to building fences,” Perez said.

“It’s rough to watch — such fine talent that used to work for me reduced to lot of menial tasks. Someone who spent his whole life in a trade, refining his skills, and there’s no demand for it. You can have the greatest skills, but it’s all supply and demand.” The struggling small-business man is sometimes also a struggling homeowner wondering when the spiral of equity loss, debt, business hardship and job loss will end.

If there’s anything positive to say about the state of the housing market, it’s that if you have the money, it’s a great time to buy. “We’re going to see prices stabilize,” said Rosen of UC Berkeley’s Fisher Center. “It’s already happening in pockets like Silicon Valley and San Francisco. If you want to buy a house, it’s probably the best time in California in 30 years.”