European media want close-ups of capital-area housing crash

Larry O. Doss Monday, June 1, 2009

Home Front: European media want close-ups of capital-area housing crash

By Jim Wasserman

Europeans are making Sacramento a regular stop on media expeditions to the housing crisis that has been pounding their banks.

This year, Home Front has received inquiries from a Swiss newspaper, a German magazine, a Dutch television show and most recently a German public TV program about finding places that reveal California’s housing crash and the people who have endured it.

Know this: The big real estate meltdown that defines the Central Valley and the outer Bay Area suburbs is interesting to people who live nine and 10 time zones east of here. It’s more than curiosity. Big European banks are taking hits after investing in the risky mortgage-backed securities tied to California real estate.

Public broadcaster ZDF Television of Mainz, Germany, said it plans to show up this Memorial Day weekend in the capital region as part of a Northern California tour. Producers called last week from Washington, D.C., scouting for newer struggling neighborhoods marked by foreclosures and for-sale signs. The aim is to show the audience back home the thousands of homes financed with subprime and adjustable-rate loans sold by Wall Street to German financial institutions.

The Dutch public television current affairs program NOVA also initially planned to have a crew in California this week, but didn’t make it. It was looking for partially inhabited and bankrupt apartment buildings, and was scouting Sacramento for possibilities.

"We didn’t actually make it to California (yet)," said Lynn Berger, a journalist with the Hilversum-based current affairs show. "But although we didn’t make this specific report, we have reported about the California real estate situation in the past (about foreclosures, mostly). It is definitely a topic that has been, and will be, covered widely on Dutch TV and in the newspapers," he said in an e-mail this week.

Several weeks ago, Munich-based Focus Magazine sent reporter Stefan Wagner to Northern California for a magazine story on "effects of the financial crisis on Californians." Wagner planned a trip to Sacramento and the Central Valley’s foreclosure belt (Merced especially) to talk with people losing their homes.

A Google search hasn’t yet turned up his report yet. But if you see Germans with video cameras this weekend be friendly; wave your adjustable-rate mortgage for the viewers back home.

Expanding affordability

There’s more good news on the affordability front. On the heels of last week’s California Association of Realtors report that 80 percent of first-time buyers can afford the median-price starter home in Sacramento, a prominent national housing index says three-fourths of homes sold in the capital area are "affordable."

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index reported this week that 76 percent of homes sold in the first quarter of 2009 in El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento and Yolo counties were affordable to households earning the region’s median income of $72,800.

What’s most astonishing is how fast that ratio has changed. Just two years ago in the first quarter of 2007, only 13.4 percent of homes in the four-county region were affordable to households with a median income of $67,200.

Don’t miss credit deadline

There is one new thing Home Front should say about the state’s $10,000 homebuyer tax credit after a phone call from a buyer who missed the boat: Be sure to hound everyone involved in your sale to fax the application to the state Franchise Tax Board within seven days of closing escrow.

This caller said many real estate and escrow agents aren’t up to speed on the tax credit for buyers of new unoccupied homes. And he missed the deadline to apply, being busy with moving and paperwork. Goodbye $10,000 tax break.

The Franchise Tax Board says the builder’s people must complete a state form and give a copy to the buyer or escrow rep. The buyer fills out more details and then the escrow agent faxes it to the FTB. Advice from one who learned the hard way: Keep an eye on them.

Incidentally, a bill, AB 765, that would add $200 million to the tax credit allocation easily passed its first committee test – winning a 9-0 vote Tuesday in the Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee. It goes now to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for similar consideration.

Pulte dominates region

The giants are getting bigger and more powerful. If 2009 continues the trends of its first quarter, Pulte Homes will sell one in five new houses this year in the capital region.

Pulte, with its Del Webb subsidiary and pending merger with Centex Homes, had a 20.4 percent market share in El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Yolo and Yuba counties, reports market tracker Hanley Wood Market Intelligence.

The firm counted 148 sales by Michigan-based Pulte and its two affiliates among 725 January, February and March sales in the six-county region.

That level of market share is unprecedented in the region in the last 20 to 30 years, said Hanley Wood’s Sacramento analyst Kathryn Boyce.

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