The housing slowdown caused by the coronavirus could deliver the sharpest shocks to real estate markets in New Jersey, Illinois and Florida.
That’s according to an analysis by ATTOM Data Solutions. The provider of property data studied housing markets in 483 U.S. counties and looked for signs of weakness based on housing affordability, the share of homes where owners owe more than their homes are worth and foreclosure rates.
Those metrics serve as “major distress indicators,” and they highlight the areas of the country that already were vulnerable heading into the coronavirus downturn, says Todd Teta, chief product officer at ATTOM.
As housing demand weakens and struggling borrowers stop making mortgage payments, the areas singled out by ATTOM face a heightened risk of foreclosures and falling property values – although for now, most lenders are refraining from initiating foreclosure proceedings.
The Garden State fares poorly in ATTOM ‘s analysis. New Jersey locales make up six of the nine most vulnerable counties and 10 of the 20 counties with the gloomiest outlook.
The analysis considered only economic factors, not public health data, so Teta says he didn’t factor in the high number of coronavirus cases in New Jersey. The state ranks second to only New York in confirmed cases of coronavirus and deaths from COVID-19.
An unequal housing boom
In the nation’s strongest housing markets, home values have rallied far past their peaks set during the housing boom of 2005 to 2007. That’s not the case for much of New Jersey, however.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic struck, New Jersey’s housing market was struggling, says Jeffrey Otteau of Otteau Group, an appraisal firm in Matawan, New Jersey. The state’s housing market still hasn’t fully recovered from the last global financial crisis.
“New Jersey has been one of the worst-performing states in terms of home price recovery coming out of the Great Recession,” Otteau says. “You have very thin equity levels, and you still have negative equity. And you layer on top of that the COVID-19 recession.”
Among the economic headwinds, New Jersey’s steep taxes and high cost of living have hampered job growth and population growth.
“New Jersey has more outbound migration than inbound migration,” Otteau says. “People and jobs are both leaving, in stark numbers.”
In one small upside for New Jersey’s housing market, the coronavirus crisis has spurred some residents of New York City to look for homes in the suburbs, he says.
Not everyone agrees with the dire assessment.
“We are a healthy state,” says Angela Sicoli, president of the New Jersey Realtors and owner of Century 21 Award Agency in Nutley. “We were in an upswing prior to the pandemic.”
The 10 most vulnerable counties
The national housing market was strong going into the pandemic. A typical homebuyer needed to devote a reasonable 31 percent of income to afford a median-priced home. Less than 14 percent of homeowners were underwater, meaning more was owed on the mortgage than the house is worth. And just 0.08 percent of American homes were in foreclosure, a historic low.
But all real estate is local, as the saying goes. ATTOM says housing markets in these counties showed the strongest signs of stress heading into the coronavirus crisis:
- Sussex County, New Jersey: This area along the Pennsylvania border has a population of 140,000. More than a quarter of homeowners were “underwater” – meaning they owed more than their homes were worth – at the end of 2019. And the foreclosure rate was 0.3 percent, compared to a national total of less than 0.1 percent.
- Warren County, New Jersey: Warren County is located along the Pennsylvania border and is adjacent to Sussex County. Fully 28 percent of homeowners were underwater, and the county’s foreclosure rate also was 0.3 percent. However, its affordability picture is slightly more favorable than Sussex County’s.
- Charles County, Maryland: In this county south of Washington, D.C., affordability poses a problem. A typical buyer needed to spend nearly 43 percent of income to afford the median-priced home during the first quarter of 2020, according to ATTOM.
- McHenry County, Illinois: In this county northwest of Chicago, nearly 24 percent of homeowners were underwater at the end of 2019, and the foreclosure rate was 0.2 percent. Illinois has mostly missed the economic boom of the past decade, Teta notes. The state’s job growth has been tepid and home values have barely appreciated.
- Rockland County, New York: Homes are eye-wateringly expensive in this suburban county in the New York City metro area. A typical buyer needed to devote a whopping two-thirds of income to afford a home in the first quarter of 2020, when the median price was $406,500.
- Atlantic County, New Jersey: This coastal county is home to Atlantic City, where the tourism economy has been hit hard. More than a third of Atlantic County homeowners were underwater, and the foreclosure rate topped 0.2 percent.
- Passaic County, New Jersey: Affordability is the major challenge for this area just outside of New York City. A typical buyer needed to devote more than half of income to afford the median-priced home during the first quarter of 2020, according to ATTOM.
- Ocean County, New Jersey: This county along the Jersey Shore is another place where affordability poses a high hurdle. Median-income homebuyers needed to devote nearly 45 percent of their income to afford a median-priced home.
- Gloucester County, New Jersey: In this county in suburban Philadelphia, more than 27 percent of homeowners are underwater, and the foreclosure rate is more than 0.3 percent.
- Flagler County, Florida: This small coastal county is situated between Daytona Beach and St. Augustine. Affordability poses the major pain point: A buyer would spend 47 percent of income on a median-priced home.
Not all of New Jersey is in the danger zone. Some Garden State counties were well-positioned heading into the pandemic. For instance, Hudson County ranks No. 349 on ATTOM’s list of 483 counties. Somerset County is No. 217, and Morris County is No. 158.
While just one Florida county made the top 10, there are 10 Florida counties ranked among the 50 most vulnerable housing markets. These include Flagler, Lake, Bay, Clay, Broward, Hernando, Santa Rosa, Osceola, Highlands, and Charlotte counties. Four Illinois counties, in addition to McHenry, also made the top 50: Kane, Will, Tazewell and Lake.
Fast-appreciating housing markets in the western half of the U.S. are mostly absent from ATTOM’s list of vulnerable areas. California has just one county in the top 50. Colorado and Washington state don’t have a single county in the top 300.
That’s because soaring home prices have given homeowners a cushion of equity.
If you’re wondering, ATTOM says the nation’s most solid housing market is Indiana’s Tippecanoe County, home of Purdue University.
What to do if you’re facing housing distress
With many homeowners suddenly out of work, the Federal Housing Finance Agency has opened forbearance programs that allow for missed mortgage payments.
“If you have any level of financial impact from this, I’d certainly research the forbearance programs that are out there,” Teta says. “That’s what they’re there for. These mortgage relief programs are better designed than the ones in the Great Recession.”
The earlier generation of initiatives helped some homeowners but frustrated others.
If you had been pondering a home sale, it would be wise to sit on the sidelines, Teta says.
“Unless you need to sell, I would not right now,” he says. “We’re of the opinion that this is a three- to five-month delay in the selling season. In three to five months, there’s going to be a lot more demand.”
For those shopping for homes, on the other hand, the coronavirus slowdown could offer some bargains. Sellers who have kept their properties on the market could be signaling a willingness to negotiate.
“If you’re a buyer,” Teta says, “there are some potential opportunities out there.”