By Herbert Lash
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A housing shortage, strong economy and robust demand have pushed many homes in major U.S. cities over $1 million, offsetting buyers' concerns about the reduced benefits of owning a pricey property under President Donald Trump's tax reform, data show.
Home sales at $750,000 and above have surged by double digits annually in the past three years, closings data from realtor.com show for 30 counties on the east and west coasts.
Sales below $750,000 are down in the past two years due to a scarcity of homes priced around $500,000 and below and the lower end’s larger market size has pulled down overall sales, the data show. While the Trump tax plan affects homes for sale above $750,000, the fact that overall sales fell suggests the new tax law is not the main culprit for the decline.
The new law caps the deductibility of mortgage debt at $750,000 and annual property taxes at $10,000. This was expected to hurt home sales as fewer people would be able to utilize mortgage interest and property deductions when paying taxes.
Overall sales in 30 counties with million-dollar homes that realtor.com examined fell 8.5 percent in December from a year ago and 7.0 percent year-over-year in January.
But the number of homes sold above $750,000 actually grew in December and January, though they slowed to single-digit gains of 7.9 percent and 4.8 percent from a year earlier, respectively.
Ten counties accounted for three-fourths of the 4,268 sales in January above $1 million, while half or more homes sold in San Mateo, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties in California and New York county, which is Manhattan, were above that mark.
"Our data suggests that in these high-priced markets there was enough momentum in demand and enough inventory toward the end of last year and the beginning of 2018 to power sales growth in the $750,000 plus segment," Javier Vivas, director of economic research at realtor.com, told Reuters.
For an interactive graphic showing high-end versus low-end sales, click: https://tmsnrt.rs/2HzBLGU
The stock market boom and higher property values have helped propel the high end, said Russell Price, senior economist at Ameriprise Financial Services Inc in Troy, Michigan.
"Those that can afford a $1 million-plus property have seen their net worth benefit from asset price inflation over the last several years," Price said.
"This is a marked difference when compared to most working class Americans that primarily see their spending power and home affordability as a function of wage gains alone."
The 30-county data from realtor.com represent 98 percent of final closings unlike the less comprehensive, but more timely, samplings often used to indicate real estate activity. The counties account for 10 percent of all home sales and 60 percent of sales above $1 million, but just 1 percent of U.S. counties.
The new tax code created a pause among home-buyers in December and is much discussed, said Paul Breunich, president and chief executive of William Pitt-Julia B. Fee Sotheby's International Realty in Stamford, Connecticut.
"It's definitely having some effect but consumer confidence and the economy are overriding the tax costs," Breunich said.
An overall sales decline in the 30 counties in December and January prompted an outcry from realtors about the tax reform's perceived impact.
The falloff was in line with declining nationwide home sales during those two months, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), and sales rebounded in February, it said.
Preliminary realtor.com data for the 30 counties still show an overall, though slower, decline in February. But sales rose at the high end that month too, highlighting the supply constraint at the low end and strong demand for pricier homes.
The variance is due to an accelerating decline in sales below $750,000 in the 30 counties and the shrinking size of that segment, which was almost three times larger than sales above that threshold in 2014. By last year it was less than double the size of the higher end where sales are still rising.
TAX LAW TAKES BACK SEAT FOR NOW
The supply-demand imbalance is proving to be less acute at the higher price points and the overall pool of buyers in this segment remains large, Vivas said.
"While many that were on the fence of buying a million dollar home many have had to reassess their move," Vivas said. "For many this year the purchase decision will be driven by finding the right home more than the new tax code."
Most buyers see around $1 million as a "sweet spot" because if $200,000 is put down on a purchase there's still a tax break on a mortgage up to $750,000.
"That is how most buyers are viewing it," said Judi Desiderio, chief executive of Town & Country Real Estate in East Hampton, New York, adding accountants are very busy fielding calls from their clients.
Sales have not been uniform, even within the same region. Manhattan had the sharpest overall sales slump from a year ago in January but the biggest gain was nearby Nassau county on Long Island. Both were 27 percent - one negative, the other positive.
NAR in January estimated home prices would likely slide this year by 6.2 percent in New Jersey and 4.8 percent in New York, the biggest declines by state, due to the tax reform.
New York had the highest average deduction of state and local taxes in 2014 at $21,000 per tax payer, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, followed by Connecticut and New Jersey.
But the high-end remains hot and is a seller's market. Never before have there been more eyes on fewer homes, Vivas has said.
A sampling of nationwide U.S. housing data for March show the median listing price was up 8 percent from a year ago, surpassing the 2017 high, and the inventory of available homes for sale was down 8 percent year-over-year, realtor.com said.
If the pattern holds, one in 12 U.S. listings will be above $1 million this summer, a jump from the one in 40 homes listed at that price in February, Vivas said, citing NAR data.
(Reporting by Herbert Lash; Editing by Daniel Bases and Susan Thomas)