My Space: Rise in Manhattan property sales

The city's major brokerage firms reported that prices in 4Q2009 in the Manhattan property market had decreased from a year ago while sales had risen. I expect this trend to continue into early 2010.

Prudential Douglas Elliman and Miller Samuel reported that the median sales price of an apartment in 4Q2009 was US$810,000 (RM2.7 million), down 10% compared to a year ago. There were 2,473 transactions, up 8.4% compared to last year, and 11% compared to last quarter. The activity is more than double the 1,195 transactions in 1Q2009. Average price psf was US$1,176, flat compared to a year ago. Brown Harris Stevens and Halstead, both owned by Terra Holdings, reported median price of US$800,000, 9% lower than a year ago. There were 2,519 sales, 9% higher than a year ago.

All reports showed reductions in asking prices, as the Manhattan property market is going through a correction. The average price psf is US$1,176, according to the Elliman/Miller Samuel report. Since these reports lag about three months, they basically show what buyers and sellers agreed upon last fall.

In real time, the asking price psf is US$800 in the new development condo buildings. These prices reflect what the market is willing to pay and have resulted in a lot of transactions. However, these lowered prices, in line with market expectations, are only going to be reported in 1Q2010. Expect prices to drop further when the 1Q report for 2010 comes out.

Lowered prices is the key reason resulting in higher transaction volume. Now that we are in winter, a dead season for real estate, it's surprising to see properties snapped up rapidly by buyers, including foreigners coming here on property shopping sprees. Out of three properties a recent client from Malaysia was considering just two weeks ago, two already have accepted offers over the Christmas/New Year holiday period.

Low interest rates is another reason driving transaction volume. The US Federal Reserve (Fed) has kept mortgage rates artificially low by buying up more than US$1 trillion in mortgage-backed securities. However, the buying is expected to end as early as 1Q2010. When this buying ends, rates are expected to rise by up to 0.75 points from its current levels. Interest rates have already been rising over the past weeks. Savvy buyers who understand this are trying to take advantage of the current low rates while the Fed is still manipulating the bond market on the back end.

The expiration of the first-time homebuyer credit extension in April is another reason why transaction volume in 1Q should be higher.

Foreign buyers are becoming key players once again. They often pay in cash and hence are not affected by US interest rates. Further, they are mostly investment or pied-a-terre buyers and are not even aware of the homebuyer credit.

Foreigners are familiar with decreased prices of Manhattan property. Brokers have seen a surge in interest from foreigners, especially from China and India, who are trying to take advantage of the US recession to acquire a piece of Manhattan.

Malaysian high-net-worth individuals, traditionally more comfortable with Australia, Hong Kong and London, are now coming to Manhattan as well.

In summary, Manhattan real estate prices decreased from 20% to 25% relative to peak. In context, this is much lower than the declines of the stock market in 2008 or the declines of property prices at similarly large cities during this housing crisis.

Prices will decrease further in the next report because there is a three-month lag time in these reports. But transactions, driven by lower prices and foreign-buyer interest, will continue surging as the market bottoms. This could make Manhattan the least volatile, although the most expensive, housing market in the US.

Tan Wei Min is a real estate broker and investor who focuses on investment property in Manhattan, New York. He can be reached at [email protected]

This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 788, Jan 11-17, 2010.

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