Home Front

A blog about the economy and the Sacramento-area real estate market.

April 28, 2010
Sempra to pay $410 million over energy crisis

Sempra Energy, the parent of San Diego's electric utility, announced today it will pay $410 million to settle charges stemming from during the California energy crisis.

The charges have to do with business practices at Sempra's electrical-trading company, not its retail utility San Diego Gas & Electric. The money will be refunded to California consumers.

"The settlements will put hundreds of millions of dollars back into the pockets of California energy consumers who suffered blackouts and great economic harm during the energy crisis," said Attorney General Jerry Brown in a press release.

The charges have to do with Sempra's wholesale electricity trading practices. Sempra was accused by the state of "Enron-style gaming" and "a pervasive pattern of market manipulation and abuse."

Sempra's chairman and chief executive, Donald Felsinger, called the settlement "a fair and reasonable outcome for both our shareholders and the state of California." The agreement will cut the company's first quarter earnings by $96 million, or 38 cents a share, after taxes. 

The state has obtained billions of dollars worth of settlements over the crisis.

April 27, 2010
"Global" financial crisis is an Atlantic issue, Asians say


Asians swagger in these days when Americans still lean toward fear. They're like Dallas here with an even bigger D. At the International Media Conference in Hong Kong they move with a great sense of destiny - it is their turn now in the great game of economic growth.

Financial crisis? We've moved on, they say.

It is amusing, being a California who presumes we are the center of the universe, to hear an Indian economist and newspaper editor huff at the very idea of Americans always calling it a "global financial crisis." (which I do routinely in stories).

"I call it the Trans-Atlantic financial crisis," said Dr. Sanjaya Baru, editor of India's Business Standard. The message: our housing meltdown and broken economy is not a worldwide financial phenomenon. He talked about the continuing rise of Asia and "the relative decline of Europe and the U.S."

It appears we've become like Japan, another giant stumbling after the bursting of its real estate bubble. While we're running deficits in the U.S., the Chinese have $2.4 trillion in surplus reserves, including $500 billion in mortgage-backed securities issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That means the Chinese own the mortgages on a lot of homes in the Central Valley. Be nice.

April 27, 2010
CalPERS: keeping the pressure on

Fresh off a breakthough agreement on management fees with Wall Street powerhouse Apollo, executives at CalPERS are continuing to put pressure on other private equity firms to fall into line.

Joe Dear, the pension fund's chief investment officer, made a splash at a Milken Institute conference in Beverly Hills on Monday. As reported by Reuters, he said, "It just drives me nuts when I think about managers who are generating profits off the management fees."

Last week CalPERS extracted  a big concession from Apollo Global Management, its biggest private equity partner (and the biggest client of controversial placement agent Alfred Villalobos, the former CalPERS board member): Apollo will lower its management fees $125 million over the next five years. Apollo also promiised not to use agents again when soliciting money from CalPERS.

Dear wants to use the Apollo deal as a template for others. Speaking in Beverly Hills, he said, "That's a significant step forward and we intend to take that to our other significant private equity relationships.

"If we don't take advantage it's a missed opportunity," he added.

April 27, 2010
China considers property taxes to stop a housing bubble


HongKong1.jpg Through a great turn of fortune I find myself this week in Southern China, looking at housing and growth in one of the world's great boomtowns. The ticket is an East-West Center Asia Pacific fellowship. It is my first time in Asia, attending the International Media Conference of 200 reporters in the U.S. and Pacific.

I spent some time as a panelist, assigned to explain the housing crisis that has wracked California and the U.S. Our terrible experience in Sacramento drew a lot of interest here - because the Japanese are still digging out from a real estate crash 20 years ago, and China is trying to contain a real estate bubble. I wished the Chinese in the room much luck, because "you don't want to live through what we've lived through."

China is Sacramento in 2003.

Property values rose 11 percent in the past year, said Jing Ulrich, a managing director of JPMorgan in Hong Kong. Ulrich, who helps steers global investments into China, said people are speculating. They're buying second and third houses or apartments, presumably to flip.

"There's a shift in government policy toward real estate, reining in supportive policy toward real estate and trying to contain an asset bubble," she said.

Ulrich said real estate remains the most important industry in China, the one that generates employment, makes money for local government and fulfills the aspirations of a new middle class.

But in the government there's growing criticism of speculators and developers. The government is dictating that investors need up to a 50 percent down payment to buy a second house. They're charged higher interest rates on the other half, too. Banks are instructed NOT to lend to some investors seeking third homes.

And most radical of all, the government is considering American-style property taxes. Just the idea has already cooled the frenzy. Real estate interests are predictably crying foul, according to the Wall Street Journal Asia edition. "Opponents fear new taxes would shatter confidence in the real estate market, leading to a bust that would damage the entire economy," it says.

"Property transactions collapsed in the past few days," said Ulrich.

It's amazing to hear about this from a Sacramento perspective. What if government here had stepped in early? Would it all have turned out differently?

This trip involves a few more days in Hong Kong, then short stays in Singapore and Taiwan. Check back for new posts on similar topics. Wish you were here.

April 22, 2010
New car sales rise

New car sales, after a crippling downturn, are starting to come back.

Sales increased 19.8 percent in California in the first quarter, the California New Car Dealers Association said today.

Business got better as the quarter progressed; the increase for March was more than 30 percent.

"Pent up demand and manufacturer incentives have returned new car buyers to the market," said association Chairman Tom Hoffman.

The results are comparable to national sales figures reported by the major automakers recently.

April 22, 2010
Rents rising again at Sacramento-area apartment communities

Average asking rents at 76,000 apartments in Sacramento, Placer, Yolo and El Dorado counties rose to $924 in the first quarter of 2010 - the first hike after five straight quarters of declines, a new report says. The new figure is up from $915 in the fourth quarter of 2009. That was the lowest since late 2004.

But even with the hike rents at the region's largest apartment communities, rents remain at late 2005 levels now. Apartment brokers say the long period of declines have led to severe distress for owners who bought complexes at high housing boom prices. Some complexes are being unloaded to other investors through short-sales, in which banks accept less than their owed. Others have become bank-owned.

We'll be checking with brokers today to see what is driving the slight increase in asking rents. But the report notes that occupancy is up a little - to 92.6 percent across the region. It was 92.1 percent in Q4 2009. Higher occupancy rates give a little more bargaining power to landlords.

  Novato-based apartment industry tracker said it saw the same rise in rents across much of the United States. It attributed the improvements to modest gains in employment nationally.

It's hard to imagine that's the case regionally. Sacramento's unemployment picture remains grim, with 13.1 percent joblessness. Analysts say apartment communities are feeling pressure of people having an abundance of vacant homes to rent - and also doubling up or moving back with their parents in a rough economy.

Here's details straight from RealFacts:

First, a synopsis of the Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Roseville MSA.

Second, a  news release with regional and national overview.


April 20, 2010
Sacramento region up to 56,000 foreclosures since this began

La Jolla researcher MDA DataQuick released its Q1 foreclosure statistics today, showing that the number of defaults has fallen for four straight quarters and - foreclosures are following.

That's both in the Sacramento region and statewide. A count for Amador, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties showed 4,331 new foreclosures and 7,222 new mortgage defaults.

The new number raised the total foreclosure tally since the start of 2007 in this region to 56,319. Statewide, California has now had almost 700,000 foreclosures since this all started.

We have a detailed story tomorrow saying that it's odd to see foreclosures falling as delinquencies have risen for a year amid soaring unemployment and widespread state employee furloughs. Trouble now stalks a record one in eight area mortgages.

 But it suggests, the analysts tell us, that the banks are using different approaches now and that government barricades to foreclosures as steadily bringing them down. Finally, even DataQuick suggests that, at least in the short term, we may have seen the worst - and will likely avoid a feared tidal wave of new repos that will once again shred home values.

April 16, 2010
Sacramento's homebuilders still in a rut

Folsom's Gregory Group released its First Quarter 2010 report on new home sales and prices in the Sacramento region today - showing 616 sales in El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties. That's the continuation of a long slowdown in construction as builders try to compete with discounted distressed sales.

 These kind of sales numbers are down 90 percent from the same time in 2004, when builders sold more than 5,000 houses. 

Check out all the numbers  at this link. (New home sales by city, prices by city)

Gregory Group President Greg Paquin said builders saw a nice bounce in March after a couple of really slow months in January and February.  He said the region's builders have opened 13 new projects in the quarter - first time in two years to see that kind of new activity.

Interesting to note that that one-third of new-home sales are in Roseville alone. 


April 16, 2010
Office market still stagnant

The market for office space is still weak.

The latest report from Colliers International shows the overall vacancy rate for all types of office space in greater Sacramento crept up to 16.2 percent in the first quarter.

That compared with 15.9 percent in the fourth quarter, and 14.9 percent a year ago.

Not all areas of Sacramento are feeling it equally. The Point West area, the region around Arden Fair mall, has been clobbered by the loss of USAA's call center, according to Colliers research director Garrick Brown. Vacancies are at 28.6 percent.

The overbuilt Roseville-Rocklin area isn't doing much better, with a 26.6 percent vacancy rate.

At the other end of the spectrum, downtown Sacramento remains healthy. Vacancies are a mere 8.3 percent.


April 16, 2010
Jobs rebound, but California unemployment at 12.6 percent

California's unemployment inched up to 12.6 percent last month even though the state added 4,200 jobs, the federal government reported today.

The numbers from the Employment Development Department are further evidence of the economy beginning to stir.

It's not unusual for the unemployment rate to keep rising because some unemployed workers, encouraged by the news that employers are hiring, resume their job searches. Because there aren't enough new jobs to go around, these workers are counted among the unemployed again.

Still, this marked the third straight month that California has added jobs.  So far this year the state has gained a total of 32,400. The unemployment rate was 12.5 percent in February.

A similar phenomenon took place last month in Sacramento. The region enjoyed job growth but unemployment shot up past 13 percent again, landing at 13.1 percent. Taht was two-tenths of a percent higher than in February.

The area added 3,400 jobs in March. Construction added 1,100 jobs - slightly higher than usual.



April 15, 2010
March home sales climb dramatically in Sacramento region

March saw a spring burst in Sacramento-area home sales, as 3,431 new and existing houses closed escrow, researcher MDA DataQuick reported Thursday.

Here are the numbers in eight area counties.

 Sales climbed dramatically from February's 2,464 count, and outpaced the same time last year in Amador, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties. It was the region's first year-over-year sales gain in eight months.

Median sales prices also continued to steady for existing homes. Three area counties - Placer, Sacramento and Yolo - showed higher prices than March 2009.

Sacramento County's $175,000 median was 9.4 percent higher than the same time last year. Yolo County's $240,000 median was 9.1 percent higher than March 2009.

Placer County's $287,000 median price was up 1.4 percent from the same time last year. Median is that point where half of homes cost more and half cost less.

Analysts suggested the gains will continue into April. Michael Lyon, head of Sacramento-based Lyon Real Estate, credited a rush to claim a soon-expiring $8,000 federal tax credit, largely flat prices and still-low interest rates. Rates averaged 5.07 this week nationally before points for 30-year fixed mortgages, Freddie Mac reported Thursday. That was down from 5.21 percent last week.

DataQuick said Thursday that new homes represented 7.7 percent of March escrow closings across the region.


April 14, 2010
A banker's answer to life's big mortgage question

River City Bank President and CEO answers the big question: "Should I walk away from my mortgage?" 

April 13, 2010
Defaults down in California, but foreclosures are up

The newest report from ForeclosureRadar says banks are stepping up the number of foreclosures again, especially compared to the same time last year. That's even as the number of loan defaults are lower than a year ago. The info is for March.

Here is the report with details from all of California's counties.

Interesting note: the foreclosure process is getting ever longer. Over the past year the time from Notice of Default to Notice of Trustee Sale (Foreclosure) has risen from 142 days to 188 days. That's about six months now.

Says Foreclosure Radar CEO Sean O'Toole: "Despite efforts to promote foreclosure alternatives like loan modifications and short sales, the simple reality is that there isn't a program for everyone. Unraveling trillions in excess debt will take time, and foreclosure is part of the solution, not the problem."

April 13, 2010
March sales-price numbers start to roll in from California

Median sales prices of $285,000 are up 14 percent from a year ago in the six-county Los Angeles region, researcher MDA DataQuick reported this morning. It cites fewer foreclosure resales and rising activity in the higher end of the market.

The newest report is at this link.

The number of sales rose 33 percent from February, following the usual seasonal bounce.



April 13, 2010
CalPERS, CalSTRS might revise housing policies

CalPERS and CalSTRS are moving to prohibit controversial real estate investments that rely on raising rents on housing units that had been subject to rent-control laws.

Critics call such investments "predatory equity" and have blasted CalPERS in particular for investing in these deals. Two big ones blew up in CalPERS' face in the past year, one in East Palo Alto and one in New York, costing the pension fund a combined $600 million. CalSTRS lost $100 million on the New York deal.

CalPERS' investment committee next Monday will take up a staff proposal to ban many of these investments. "These investments have exposed CalPERS to risks including, but not limited to, damage to CalPERS reputation as a responsible investor," staffers said in a written proposal to the investment committee.

The move comes several weeks after Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, introduced legislation to bar both pension funds from making investments like this.

Tenants' rights advocates gave the CalPERS staff propopsal a cautious endorsement. "It's a step in the right direction," said Dean Preston, executive director of San Francisco advocacy group Tenants Together. But he said he believes the proposal could go further. For instance, it only affects multi-family housing. In East Palo Alto, CalPERS invested in a huge cluster of single-family rental homes.

In New York and East Palo Alto, the plan was to liberate the units from the rent controls. Generally, rent-control units become free-market when a new tenant moves in, and existing tenants were complaining they were being harrassed and illegally evicted.

CalSTRS is working on a similar prohibition but hasn't yet enacted it, according to staff memos circulated last week. The new policy "will make clear our desire to not invest in strategies that are dependent on reducing the affordable housing units," staffers said in a memo to the teachers' fund's investment committee. 

April 12, 2010
Gov. Schwarzenegger signs mortgage debt relief bill

The governor has just signed a bill eliminating state taxes on forgiven mortgage debt from 2009 through the end of 2012. That means many won't have to pay those state tax bills they've been getting for $7,500 or more.

Details are here in the governor's news release.

Here is an  update from the Franchise Tax Board on what happened and what to do now.


April 12, 2010
Factories bouncing back?

We know that California's manufacturing sector took a pounding when Toyota's NUMMI plant shut down at the end of March. But there's evidence that all is not lost in this industry.

A survey of purchasing managers by Orange County's Chapman University suggests the factory sector is recovering. The survey's composite index, which takes in inventory, production, employment and other factors, clocked in at 62.0 for the second quarter. That's the highest level since the end of 2005.

The figures are in line with national surveys showing manufacturing activity picking up.

April 8, 2010
Sacramento ranks third for distressed sale market share

The four-county Sacramento region ranks third nationally behind Riverside-San Bernardino and Las Vegas for the share of distress sales in its real estate market, data tracker First American CoreLogic reported Thursday.

The firm said 58 percent of January sales in Sacramento, Yolo, Placer and El Dorado counties were foreclosure properties or short sales, in which the bank takes less than owed. Distress sales were 62 percent of sales in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and 59 percent in Las Vegas.

Such sales represent a negative influence on home prices, First American said.

But the good news: distressed sales share fell more than 10 percent the past year, the firm reported.

The Sacramento region ranked second behind San Diego for short sales market share. They were 19 percent of San Diego sales in January and 18 percent in Sacramento.

April 8, 2010
There will be no state taxes on forgiven mortgage debt
 Finally, thousands of people across the Sacramento region and all of California can relax a little. They no longer face a double whammy of losing their homes - and then a big state tax bill on the forgiven debt.

 Not long ago state lawmakers passed legislation that will exempt borrowers who lost their homes to foreclosure or short sales in 2009, or got certain types of loan modifications from state taxes that can run into thousands of dollars. And spokesman Mike Naple for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he will sign it.

Reaction came pretty fast on the Home Front.

Sacramentan Debbie Wong , who sold her Elk Grove condo last year in a short sale, said she got a recent state tax bill for $7,500.The forgiven debt on her sale gave her a state taxable income of $108,000 when her salary was $13,000, she said. She's relieved.

So is Sara Sara Palasch, who sold her Bakersfield house through a short sale last year and lives in Georgia now. Weeks ago, she got a state tax bill for $10,500.

The bill, SB401 by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, passed 47-24 in the Assembly and 24-9 in the Senate.
 We are preparing a detailed primer on the bill and how it affects people for tomorrow's paper. In the meantime we asked the FTB what people should do now when filing their state taxes:
Here is the word from FTB directly:

  "Once the Governor signs this into law, California taxpayers will not have to do anything. If they qualify for federal relief on the mortgage debt forgiven, then they will also qualify for state income tax purposes. California Form 540 starts with federal adjusted gross income so there will be no adjustment necessary to properly reflect the state adjusted gross income amount for this issue."

April 7, 2010
Sacramento outpaces state and U.S. or late mortgage payments

 February ended with 12.3 percent of Sacramento-area mortgages more than 90 days delinquent, somewhere in the foreclosure process or tied to a bank-owned home for sale, industry tracker First American CoreLogic reported Wednesday in this news release.

That was a record high for the metro region of Sacramento, Placer, El Dorado and Yuba counties. In February 2009, 8 percent of mortgages were in similar trouble, the real estate data giant reported.

Delinquency rates have risen steadily alongside the capital region's high unemployment rate, which stood at 12.8 percent in February.

Sacramento-area mortgages are performing slightly worse than California as a whole. Satewide, 11.7 percent of mortgages are seriously delinquent, in the foreclosure process and tied to bank-owned listings. Nationally, 8.7 percent of mortgages are in that condition, First American reported.


April 6, 2010
California Dept. of Real Estate warns of short sale fraud

As short sales become a bigger part of the landscape the potential grows for fraud and shenanigans. Here are a couple of recent alerts and updates from the California Department of Real Estate on the subject.

Here is the  Consumer Alert.

And here is a longer legal analysis of what people in real estate should be observing.


April 6, 2010
Short sales spread to a Sacramento apartment complex

 It's not news in the least that short sales are a routine now in Sacramento's distressed housing market. But we got a report this afternoon of possibly the first for an apartment complex.

 That is Bradford Pointe Apartments with 72 units near Sacramento's Arden Fair Mall. It  closed escrow at the end of March for $2.9 million. That was well below more than $4 million owed on the property, according to TRI Commercial executive John Gallagher.

Gallagher said the transaction is one of the first apartment short sales in the area, an assertion backed up by others in the business.
"The bank really did not want to foreclose on the asset, and saw this as a better means of disposing of its problem," said Gallagher, senior vice president of TRI's Apartment Advisory Team, along with apartment specialist Dean Bagneschi.

In short sales, banks take less than owed to avoid the higher costs of foreclosing and re-selling in a falling market.

Gallagher, as is typical in these deals, wouldn't name the buyer, seller and the bank that agreed to the short sale.

But we ran a public records search of the address and identified the lender as Puerto Rico-based Banco Popular. The seller was Bradford Pointe LLC, a Santa Cruz County partnership.

Gallagher said the bank declined another buyer's offer to assume the existing loan. He said, "The lender wanted to cash out of the transaction."

The lender's loss of more than $1 million in the deal represents a new phase in an increasingly weakened commercial real estate market. Across the region more than 100 apartment complexes are in financial distress, said Marc Ross, a senior Sacramento associate at commercial broker CB Richard Ellis.

April 5, 2010
Freedom from taxes on forgiven mortgage debt imminent

It is looking better for thousands of Sacramento homeowners hit with big state tax bills for mortgage debts forgiven in 2009. Representatives of state lawmakers said Monday they plan to cancel those state tax obligations with vote Thursday in the Assembly and Senate.

Legislation forgiving the taxes would go immediately to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has regularly said he supports the idea.

There is a lot of politics under the bridge with all this. Let's just say that Californians who got unexpected tax bills of $10,000 or more in recent weeks could soon be off the hook. Most are borrowers who received loan modifications last year or lost their houses to short sales. In all cases, lenders forgave some of the debts owed them, a process that opens them to taxes.

Home Front has taken numerous calls in recent days with people freaking out over $10,000 state tax bills as the April 15 tax deadline looms. We''ve been able to reassure them that they probably won't have to pay it. Many across the state are anxiously waiting for the state to resolve the issue - or have filed extensions while waiting.

Typically the state and federal governments view forgiven home loan debt as additional income and tax it accordingly.The bill being considered this week, SB401, would forgive state tax obligations for forgiven mortgage debt through the 2012 tax year. Same as the feds have already done.

SB401 is being amended today for a hearing Tuesday in the Assembly Revenue and Tax Committee and Wednesday in Assembly Appropriations. It is set for a full Assembly floor vote Thursday. The Senate plans a full floor vote, as well, if all stays on track. Then it would go to the governor. It's possible this will all be done by the end of the week, just days ahead of April 15.

April 2, 2010
Sacramento a Top 10 destination for U-Hauls in 2009

Do-it-yourself mover U-Haul reported Friday that Sacramento ranked eighth nationally last year on a Top 50 list of destinations for its moving trucks. The firm tracked 1 million moves using its rental trucks and put Sacramento high on the list of where people went in 2009.

Houston was first, followed by Las Vegas, Chicago, San Antonio, Orlando, Austin and Atlanta before Sacramento.

Here is the news release.

It hardly seems possible given rising unemployment all year that topped out at more than 12 percent. But maybe it's because Sacramento has gotten relatively inexpensive again as a place to live. Rentals are abundant and costs are falling. So it goes for buying houses, too. Repos accounted for more than half of sales all last year. And maybe the 20-somethings really are migrating back to their old rooms at home.

What do you think is behind it?

In 2008, the capital ranked 15th on the U-Haul list of "Top 50 U.S. Destination Cities."
During the housing boom glory days of 2004 through 2006, wildly popular Sacramento ranked fourth or fifth on the top 50 list. Whatever the reason, we're back.

April 2, 2010
Inquiry commission calls Greenspan before the cameras

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, challenged with getting to the roots of the housing crisis and global financial meltdown, gears up again Wed., April 7, with the first star witness being former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

This three-day session focuses on subprime lending, along with roles of secondary mortgage market buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Watch for it on C-Span

April 2, 2010
Is it OK for Sacramento-area real estate agents to double dip?

We are getting more reports from the bank repo front about real estate agents who are double dipping on sales commissions. The allegation is that they represent the bank and also represent buyers looking for those kind of houses - usually investors.

So.... maybe you put in an offer, even a really good offer. But the listing agent ignores it so she can sell it to her own buyer - and make two commissions.

Apparently this is causing houses to sell for less than they would otherwise, which drags down neighboring property values that much more. The bank gets less because it was never informed it could have gotten more. And a lot of first-time buyers are getting shut out of good deals.

I have calls in to see if this is illegal, or merely unethical. Reports on other blogs like Sacramento Landing indicate that it's widespread.

I am looking for a little help getting to the bottom of this. If you have insight please call me at 916-321-1102, or send an e-mail to jwasserman@sacbee.com. Thanks in advance.

April 1, 2010
Pacific Ethanol loses money but makes progress

Sacramento's Pacific Ethanol Inc., which is trying to bring its production plants out of bankruptcy, reported a huge fourth-quarter loss. But the numbers indicated the company made some progress.

In results released late Wednesday, the company said it lost $245.6 million in the quarter, but that was largely driven by a $250.2 million non-cash loss to reflect a write-down of its bankrupt production plants.

Otherwise, the company reported a "gross profit" of $1.4 million, vs. a loss of $29.2 million a year earlier. The progress came even though sales fell in almost in half, to $87.9 million from $160.4 million.

Pacific Ethanol put its four company-owned plants into Chapter 11 bankruptcy last spring after the bottom dropped out of the ethanol market.

Earlier this week, it released a reorganization plan that would surrender ownership of the plants to lenders. The company would retain plant-management and marketing contracts, and would keep a share of the profits from the facilities.

Shareholders responded negatively to the plan, driving the stock price down. But they welcomed the earnings report. The company's stock rose 29 cents to $1.40 in morning Nasdaq trading.

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