Sacramento-area man called the housing crash

Larry O. Doss Friday, September 4, 2009

Hats are off today to Sacramento’s Michael Choe, 43, a supervising engineer with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control. This week he earned his second appearance in Time magazine since 2005 – for making good calls in this crazed real estate market.

Choe sold high in 2004.

He rented for four years.

He bought low in 2008.

As the housing crash continues, Choe’s is the ultimate wish-we-had-done-that tale.

In September 2004, as the market soared (the median price was 25.6 percent higher than the same time a year earlier in Sacramento County) Choe sold his house in Natomas.

"The (price) acceleration was increasing and that really scared me," he said this week. "I thought this is something that is going to end badly."

He sold the house he had bought in 2001 for $192,500 – for $369,00. He warned others he knew to do the same. He commented on blog sites then springing up that foresaw a massive housing bubble.

"There were very few people who did something about it," he said. "I put my money where my mouth was. I sold the home, and I took a risk by selling it. People were telling me I was crazy, that it would double in two or three years. I said, ’It’s going to come back to 2000 levels soon.’ "

Time magazine found Choe on the blog sites and profiled him in June 2005 (the median sales price in Sacramento County was then 22 percent higher than the same time a year earlier). The magazine’s cover that week showed a cartoon man hugging his house and the title: "Home $weet Home, Why we’re going gaga over real estate."

Time noted that Choe had sold and moved into a rental. It asked: "Is he serious? Choose to rent when owning seems a sure way to riches?"

The rest is history. Choe, his wife and two sons rented in El Dorado Hills as what scared him out of Natomas in 2004 came to pass. Then, a year ago, he jumped back in. Choe paid $281,000 for a bank repo in Sacramento that sold in July 2006 for $437,500.

He was too early, he concedes. Said Choe, "I’m still pessimistic about the housing market. I told my family we’re buying now, but I know it’s going down further. I’m going to lose money on this deal. It has gone down. But I made enough money on the sale of my original house that I can absorb any more losses."

The real story was that his son was ready to start school. Otherwise he would have waited two more years to buy.

"I wanted to get him in a good school district. I wanted to be stable in that way."

This week Time magazine revisited with Choe, recalling his 2004 decision and his 2005 interview. "Exceedingly smart move," said the magazine.

Time noted his decision to buy, and asked, "Is this smart move No. 2? In other words: Is it really time to buy?"

What does Choe think now?

"My prediction," he said, "is when it hits bottom it will stay flat. I would say a good five to 10 years. I’ve been looking at Japan, too. They stayed flat more than 10 years. There’s no way that things are going to bounce right back. This was, in my opinion, a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

That’s Choe’s call. Anyone can be wrong or right. But the state engineer has been right so far. (He also yanked his money out of the stock market with the Dow at 13,000). That gives him satisfaction. For posterity, Choe is on the record in a national magazine as having called it correctly.

"I can tell my kids that your dad predicted the housing crash and nobody believed him at that time," he said. "They believed I was a lunatic. It turned out I did make the right call."

Interest rates ease again
News is improving on the interest-rate front. Rates for benchmark 30-year fixed-rate mortgages are headed back toward 5 percent as inflation remains in check, Freddie Mac reported Thursday. The federal mortgage giant said interest rates nationally averaged 5.08 percent this week, down from 5.14 percent last week.

The new average is the lowest since the week of May 28, when U.S. rates averaged 4.91 percent. Mortgages rates have remained below 5 percent for 12 weeks this year, mostly in March, April and May.

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