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Bargains said disappearing for distressed properties

Bargains on bank-owned homes are quickly vanishing in the country’s most competitive markets.

Since the start of the mortgage meltdown, repossessed homes have been considered the discount aisles of real estate. Now competition among investors and first-time home buyers for affordable digs is making those distressed properties less affordable, a new analysis by Zillow.com shows.

“They will get somewhat of a deal, depending on the market,” Zillow chief economist Stan Humphries said. “But, just generally, you are going to get less of a deal today than you would have gotten in late 2009 or early 2010.”

The shrinking discounts underscore how real estate has recovered this year as low interest rates and high affordability have sucked buyers back into the market. The number of for-sale homes has also fallen to levels not seen since the housing boom as foreclosures ease and homeowners - many who still owe more on their properties than they are worth - hold off on listing their houses for sale.

Zillow looked at sale prices of bank-owned homes and used a model to determine what that property would have brought if it had not been sold by a bank. In Las Vegas and Phoenix, for instance, a foreclosed home in September sold for the same price as a regular property.

Certain Midwest and East Coast cities appeared to have the biggest foreclosure discounts. The Pittsburgh area had a discount of 27.4 percent, with Cleveland at 25.8 percent, Cincinnati 20.2 percent and Baltimore 20 percent.

Analysts figured the national foreclosure discount at just 7.7 percent. That’s a big difference from the dog days of the housing bust, when people snapping up foreclosures could expect a discount of 23.7 percent, Zillow said.

Home shoppers looking for dime-store values now face a frustrating hunt. Gary K. Kruger, a real estate agent in Hemet, Calif., has seen buyers consistently bid on homes above the asking price and still struggle to make deals. One of his clients, a first-time buyer looking for a home in Vista, Calif., has bid on three properties - one a regular sale, one a bank-owned home and one a short sale - and lost each time.

Properties that are good for rentals or first-time buyers, along with properties priced in the lower-end of the move-up market, are “very, very hot,” Kruger said.

“I have not had a successful person purchase a foreclosed home that was not an investor for months,” he said. “Things are selling so quickly.”

The story is similar in the Las Vegas region, said Keith Lynam, a real estate agent and chairman of the Nevada Association of Realtors’ legislative committee. The number of foreclosed homes on the market in the Las Vegas area has dwindled to less than 300, compared with about 7,000 at its peak, Lynam said.

One of his clients, a potential buyer with a sizable down payment, has made half a dozen unsuccessful offers in the past six months.

“There is just zero inventory,” Lynam said.

Experts are also revisiting the notion that foreclosed homes really drag down property values. A working paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta published in August found that although the homes of troubled borrowers did drag down values of surrounding homes, the effects were small.

That paper also found that the worst declines occurred before the home was repossessed, indicating that the declines stemmed from people abandoning their homes or letting them fall into disrepair.

Sean O’Toole, a real estate investor and founder of the website ForeclosureRadar.com, agreed with the Zillow analysis. Previous studies failed to take into account the nature of most foreclosures and their geography, he said. Typically, and particularly during the past five years, foreclosures have been concentrated in more traditionally affordable areas. So comparing the median home price of all foreclosed homes during the bust with the median home price of non-foreclosed homes results in an apple-to-oranges comparison, he said.

“The results that Zillow got make perfect sense to me, because there is actually more demand for REO and foreclosures, because people believe they are a deal,” O’Toole said, using shorthand for the term “real estate owned,” which is how banks refer to the properties on their books. “There is more demand for those.”

Michael Novak-Smith, a real estate agent in the Riverside, Calif., area who specializes in listing foreclosures for banks, said the market has reached a frenzy few would have expected so soon after the bust. One bank-owned home he listed about two weeks ago for $145,000 attracted 157 offers. The seller took an all-cash offer.

“That is really telling, because a lot of these buyers think they’ll just go out and get a repo,” Novak-Smith said. “But buyers need to come in strong with their best offers, because you will get beat right out. An entry-level house with 157 offers? That’s just mind-boggling to me.”

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