Monday, March 17, 2008

Milwaukee only ray of data light

Column by Mary Umberger
Chicago Tribune, Real Estate
March 16, 2008

No, that white stuff falling from the sky isn't snow -- it's housing data. A veritable blizzard of the stuff has come my way recently. More sensitive readers, be warned: Generally, it isn't encouraging.

Inventory indigestion

A monthly survey of 29 metropolitan areas around the country suggests that the inventory of homes for sale continues to bloat: The supply at the end of February was up 1.2 percent from a month earlier, ZipRealty said.

Chicago's inventory climbed 2.7 percent in the month, the company said. Though the local market had seen inventory decline slightly through the fall, the end-of-February numbers were nonetheless 17.2 percent higher than those here a year earlier, Zip reported.

Of the 72,842 single-family homes and condos for sale in the Chicago area at the end of last month, about 38 percent had seen price reductions, Zip said.

Fraud alert

If the nation's housing market is slow, mortgage fraud isn't. Last year, about $4 billion of fraudulent doings were identified, up from $1.6 billion in 2006, according to an index from, an online trade journal. Leading the nation was Ohio, followed closely by California. Illinois ranks 7th, though fraud here amounts to about half the levels of Ohio.

Prices, sales still off

The National Association of Realtors revised outlook now expects the median price of an existing home to drop 1.2 percent this year, on top of a 1.4 percent decline in 2007. The trade group expects sales to slide to 5.38 million units this year, from 5.65 million in 2007 and 6.48 million in 2006. Offering a slightly positive spin, though, the group expects 2009 sales to pick up, bettering this year's numbers by 4.2 percent.

Freddie adds its 2 cents

Mortgage financier Freddie Mac has joined the chorus that says home values are falling. Its study of purchase-only transactions in 2007 (excluding refinance data) showed home prices declining about 1 percent for the year. However, its data for the last months of 2007 suggest the slide is gaining momentum: Prices fell 9.3 percent in the fourth quarter, the biggest drop since the third quarter of 1972.

Pass the cheese

While not exactly experiencing a boom, the Milwaukee market appears to be holding its ground, in terms of prices.

Sales were down about 11 percent last year, but prices didn't sink into negative territory, according to one new report. The RPX monthly housing report said Milwaukee was one of just four areas in a survey of 25 where prices -- at least on a per-square-foot basis -- had increased in the last year.

The report said our northern neighbor's residential property prices were up about 5 percent, topping the Wisconsin Association of Realtors' findings that showed Milwaukee County prices up 1.8 percent last year. Chicago's metro prices, on the other hand, declined 4.3 percent in the period, the report said.

Back to the future

Half a century ago, the House of Tomorrow debuted at Disneyland. It was a pod-shaped, all-plastic dwelling with hands-free phones and wall-size TVs. Disney closed the exhibit in 1967. But the House of Tomorrow is coming back: When it opens in May, it will look much like any tract house, but inside, it will feature thermostats that change the temperature when you walk into a room, countertops that figure out what's in your grocery bags and make menu suggestions and walls that continually re-set artwork. Disney says it's all supposed to look "normal" -- no hint of the Jetsons.

Vertical mansion

There's at least one person in the world who would seem to be full-steam-ahead for housing: Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries Ltd. and the wealthiest man in India. Not content to build just a mansion in Mumbai, Ambani is constructing the equivalent of a 60-story building -- all to house his family and a 600-member staff. The vertical mansion, when finished in September, will include a floor set aside for an entertainment center and 50-seat theater, a two-story guest apartment, six stories for parking, four stories of gardens, a health club and pool and three helipads. When they're not at home, the family is likely to be traveling in comfort -- Ambani gave his wife a $60 million Airbus private jet for her birthday in November.


Hear Mary Umberger on WBBM Newsradio 780 at 6:21 p.m. and 10:22 p.m. each Thursday and Friday and 7:20 a.m. each Saturday and Sunday.

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