Fueled by low interest rates and a historic housing shortage, California’s median home price in September reached $712,430, closing out four straight months of record highs.
The state’s housing market briefly cooled in the early months in the coronavirus pandemic, but by June, they were fully on the rebound, with the median sales price reaching $626,200, the highest ever at the time, according to a report from the California Department of Finance. For the next three months, as mortgage rates stayed below 3 percent and many buyers looked to upgrade to larger homes, that number would continue to climb. In August, it exceeded $700,000 for the first time in history.
“A lot of people think the pandemic equals the market is suffering, but that’s just not the case,” said Ryan Lundquist, an appraiser based in Sacramento. “It’s the perfect storm of low rates, a housing shortage that we already had and is getting worse, plus heightened demand.”
There has been much talk of the exodus triggered by California’s inflated cost of living, which has seen Californians trickle outward to states with a lower cost of living — states like Texas, Nevada, and Arizona — for more than a decade. But while the state did lose 650,000 residents last year, “We have 39 million people here,” Mr. Lundquist said. “It’s a drop in the bucket compared to how many people are here, and builders haven’t been able to build fast enough to satisfy our population.”
Those builders also haven’t been able to — or haven’t chosen to — build the kind of properties that the majority of the population needs.
“New home construction skews luxury. We aren’t building enough affordable new homes,” said Jonathan Miller, of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel. “Most of the sales growth in single family homes in California is above the $600,000 mark. When it comes to inventory, there is more lost in affordable and modest-priced housing, year over year, than in the upper-level housing market.”
In Los Angeles alone, the contraction of the lower end of the condominium market speaks volumes. Condos priced above $500,000 are flooding the market; those priced below are becoming significantly more scarce. It’s a trend, Mr. Miller said, that isn’t unique to California, but is more pronounced there.
“California is a proxy for what we’re seeing nationally,” he said. “Since the pandemic, the action has been on the higher end. And that makes sense because the unemployment picture is heavily skewed against lower wage earners, which tend to be starter-home buyers, or renters.”
It has been a whiplash year for the Golden State, where the pandemic pushed unemployment numbers to a staggering 16.4 percent in April. By October, however, employers had added 145,500 jobs — the third-highest single-month job gain since 1990 — and the unemployment rate dropped down below 10 percent for the first time since the pandemic began. The median home price cooled slightly in October, as well, slipping 0.2 percent to $711,300.
Such small adjustments are not enough, Mr. Miller said.
“The housing market needs disruption,” he said. “This cocktail of mortgage rates below 3 percent and some of the lowest inventory rates in history is reducing the affordability of housing at an alarming rate. This picture is not sustainable.”