Where did all the people go?

No Rebound Expected This Spring in Home Sales – NYTimes.com

Across the nation, 19 million houses and apartments — nearly one out of every seven — are vacant, the highest percentage since the 1960s. But only about six million of those homes are for sale or for rent. That means millions more could still flood onto the market, depressing prices further.

For would-be sellers, the bad news keeps coming. This week, one new report showed that one in nine mortgages was delinquent or in foreclosure, while another showed that January contract signings for sales of previously owned homes fell at their fastest pace in two years.

Carlos Kozlowski, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Sacramento, said virtually every home he sold recently, including the one Mr. Punsal bought, was owned by the bank or a “short sale,” in which the price was less than the property’s mortgage.

Prices are down as much as 50 percent from a few years ago, and many properties are getting multiple bids, he said.
Many of the vacant homes are concentrated in far-flung suburbs in the Southwest and in Florida, which means that prices there may not return to their highs for many years. It also suggests that much of the country does not have as large an oversupply of homes.

Gosh, but that’s a crapload of houses and apartments. In a way it’s good news that so many are in exurban ghost-towns-to-be (albeit sad for the farms and woods that used to be there, and for all the wasted effort), because that means fewer real cities and towns going under. But still: one in seven. Where did 10 million families (allowing for speculation) go?

Housing stock usually has a life of 20-100 years, so we’re talking years worth of vacant inventory. Even if people are starting to buy because the mortgage is less than their rent, that only moves the problem to the rental sector.

Of course there are people living doubled and tripled up in horrible conditions, or living on the street, but making that kind of match is beyond the abilities of the usual market mechanisms. The mind just boggles. 19 million. That’s New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and probably a bunch more cities combined.


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