Real Estate Rumblings

Oil crash proof? Houston's real estate market refuses to falter, looks bulletproof — home sales rise again

Oil crash proof? Houston's real estate market refuses to falter or die

house for sale sold sign
Houston home sales continue to stand strong even as the oil industry crashes. Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

Home sales in Houston have not yet succumbed to the much-feared onslaught from a crashing energy industry.

In fact, home sales are actually up slightly in the first part of 2015, according to the Houston Association of Realtors.

At the end of the first quarter, 14,805 single-family homes were sold, up slightly from the 14,734 sold in the comparable first three months of 2014.

“At the first of the year we were all very cautious. We were nervous about the impact of low oil prices on the real estate market,” says Houston realty broker Amy Bernstein of Bernstein Realty.

But so far this year, the housing market has kept churning ahead on a good pace.

 When sales are keeping pace with 2014, that’s saying something. Last year was record-setting — the biggest year for home sales ever.  

In March, 6,232 single-family homes were sold in the Houston area, up 3.8 percent from the 6,005 homes sold in March of last year, the Realtor association reports.

And when sales are keeping pace with 2014, that’s saying something. Last year was record-setting — the biggest year for home sales ever. The Realtors association reported more than 75,000 single-family homes were sold last year, the highest annual sales total in Houston’s real estate history and home prices hit record highs, too.

Several years of very strong job gains and population growth (Houston led the nation in population increases in 2014), heated the area real estate market to a high boil. The market was also boosted by exceptionally low mortgage rates, with 30-year interest rates below 4 percent.

But a sharp decline in oil prices means the economy will not be as strong in 2015 in Houston — the Energy Capital of the World — and oil companies have announced layoffs and spending cuts.

The price of West Texas Intermediate crude has fallen from a high of $107 a barrel last summer to around $50 a barrel today.

Already, the downturn in energy has impacted the local residential market somewhat, Bernstein says. “We are seeing fewer oil company transferees move to Houston.”

But for the most part, the local housing market is proceeding with 2015 like it is almost bulletproof.

Bulletproof Houston?

As the spring buying season kicks into high gear, a whopping 6,004 sales are listed as “pending,” meaning they will likely be closed deals in the next month or so. It is one of the highest monthly pending totals ever reported by the association and a 30 percent increase over March 2014.

Inventory is remains tight with a 2.8-months supply of homes for sale, the association reports. That means it could be difficult for many buyers to locate homes in the price range and in the neighborhood they want, in many instances. Low inventory supports higher prices also.

The median home price in Houston was $208,000 in March, up almost 9 percent from $191,000 in March of 2014, the Realtor association reports.

Single-family home sales had declined in February, the first decline in six months. That had led some to believe that Houston’s housing market was finally running out of gas.

“It was great to have sales back in the black in March after February’s decline, but in order to satisfy the long-term needs of the Houston housing market, we need to see substantive growth in inventory levels, which remain at record lows,” says HAR Chair Nancy Furst with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Anderson Properties. “It could take the remainder of this year to begin approaching what we consider a ‘balanced market,’ which is typically a five- to six-month supply of homes."

On a national basis, the current supply of homes for stands at a more robust 4.6-months supply. (Months of inventory is the estimated time it would take to deplete the current inventory of homes for-sale based on the previous 12 months of sales.)

 Single-family home sales had declined in February, the first decline in six months. 

When the Houston market slowed after the recession, the inventory in Houston reached almost eight months of supply at times in 2010 and 2011.

Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, says more robust home building is the key to getting the housing inventory back into balance.

Houston has been leading the nation in new home construction in recent years, according to John Burns Consulting, but the pace of building has not relieved the market of its tight inventory situation.

But unless home building jumps up sharply or home buying comes to an abrupt halt, the days of tight inventory in Houston are going to remain in place for most of 2015.

Ralph Bivins, editor of Realty News Report, is a former president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors.