Op-Ed
Op-Ed

Is L.A. in another real estate bubble?

As home prices rise ever higher in Los Angeles, some are beginning to wonder if the region is in another housing bubble, one that's ready to burst. Real estate blogs add to the hysteria by pointing to the most ridiculous listings, the million-dollar bungalows in need of a complete renovation, the $3-million teardowns. But the data suggest that the market is not, in fact, on the brink of collapse.

Using the all-transactions house price index from the Federal Housing Finance Agency, I examined price history in Los Angeles County, adjusted for inflation, from 1975 to the present — 1975 being the first year data were available. Along with some short-term fluctuations, we can see four major housing price cycles in Los Angeles since 1975:

(1) Bull market (first quarter of 1975 through the third quarter of 1980): real home price increased by 69% over 23 quarters.

Bear market (1980 Q4 to 1984 Q2): real price decreased by 9% for 15 quarters.

(2) Bull market (1984 Q3-1989 Q4): up 67% for 22 quarters.

Bear market (1990 Q1-1997 Q2): down 37% for 30 quarters.

(3) Bull market (1997 Q3-2006 Q4): up 166% for 38 quarters.

Bear market (2007 Q1-2012 Q2): down 43% for 22 quarters.

(4) Bull market (2012 Q3-2015 Q1): so far the price is up 27% for 11 quarters.

Can these past cycles help us predict the future? To some degree, yes. Unlike the stock market, real estate dynamics tend to hold over time, in part because transaction costs keep prices from bouncing around wildly in response to external events.

If history is any guide, the L.A. housing price cycle seems to last about 12 years on average, of which seven years is spent in the bull market with at least 65% real price appreciation, and five years is spent in the bear market. We are three years into the housing recovery that started in 2012, with 27% appreciation so far. On average, there will be four more years or 38% more price growth before we reach the turning point.

Of course, it's possible the bear market could come earlier or later than four years, but that is quite unlikely to happen in the very near future.

How can I be so sure? Often, during a bubble-making period, we see an accelerating rate of home price appreciation, as in 1988-89 and 2004-06. In the last two years, we haven't seen that kind of rapid appreciation in Los Angeles.

Another way to understand housing price cycles is by looking at building permit numbers. Speaking roughly, if developers are investing in new properties, that's a good sign that demand, and prices, are rising or keeping steady. If developers are holding back, that suggests demand, and prices, will soon fall.

L.A. housing permit units peaked in 1977, 1988 (50,500 units) and 2004 (26,900 units), one to three years ahead of the real housing price peaks in 1980, 1989 and 2006. Permits bottomed in 1982, 1993 (7,300 units) and 2009 (5,700 units), a few years before the housing price troughs in 1984, 1997 and 2012.

Over the last three years, we have seen L.A. building permits increase from 11,200 units in 2012 to 18,200 units in 2014. The 2015 number will most likely be higher than 2014. Therefore, we can predict the next home price peak is at least two years away.

Yet another measure of rational housing value is a simple price-to-rent ratio. The ratio is calculated by taking the median home price over the annual median rent in L.A. If the ratio is high — meaning that home prices are beyond their fundamental value based on expected rental revenues — that points to a bubble. Again, let's look at history.

Two previous peaks were in December 1989, with a ratio of 14.8 to 1, and in February 2006, with a ratio of 24.4. According to Zillow, the current price-to-rent ratio in L.A. was 17.1 in May, which is far below the 2006 bubble level but still higher than any time before 2003.

That doesn't worry me, though. A high ratio doesn't spell danger for Los Angeles because, similar to New York (ratio: Manhattan 25, Brooklyn 23) and San Francisco (ratio: 21), it's now a "superstar" city. L.A.'s size, amenities, weather and geography make its houses an investment target for the global elite. Wealthy individuals from all over the world don't care that it might make more financial sense to rent, because they're not simply buying Los Angeles houses to live in them, they're also trying to diversify their financial portfolios.

Even though Los Angeles is one of the least affordable cities in the U.S., all factors indicate that it is not in a housing bubble. Of course the bull market will end eventually, but that doesn't mean we're heading for a devastating crash, like in 1990 or 2007. Whether you should put up a million bucks for that bungalow is another story.

William Yu is an economist at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

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