So, assuming that John Talbott in his book Sell Now! has established his case for an actual and vulnerable real estate bubble and regardless of his reasoning as so what has caused it, where is all of this going?

If you own residential property, maybe even if you don't, you may want to sit down.

Talbott sees the bubble not so much bursting as unraveling and he sees it happening on a number of fronts. He sees the biggest threat as adjustable rate and interest only mortgages coming home to roost. He projects that $1 trillion in adjustable rate loans will be up for adjustment in 2007 and that homebuyers who could not qualify for a fixed rate of 5.5 percent in 2005 will certainly be unable to qualify at 7 or 8 percent a year or three later. Therefore, many holders of adjustable rate mortgages will be unable to make their reconfigured payments, unable to refinance and will have to sell. As more and more houses come on the market prices will begin to drop and it may not be possible to sell the property at enough to pay off the mortgage particularly if the debtor bought with a low down payment loan (and many who are scrambling to qualify for a house do just that.) Therefore, there will be a snowball effect as houses stay on the market longer, buyers pull back to see what might happen, and the inventory is be further expanded by homes that are either given back to the bank by borrowers in order to prevent foreclosure or are taken by the lender through legal action.



So, with a glut of houses on the market, prices fall even further. Adding to this is the author's perception that real estate is not subject to the usual requirements of supply and demand. That is, he perceives the housing market as being capable of instantaneously switching from a buyer's to a seller's market literally overnight with prices changing accordingly even if no properties have actually changed hands. Inventories can move in a matter of days from a two to three month supply to a six or eight month supply if new houses already in the pipeline are completed while sales slow and sellers need to get out or decide to cash out. Add to this the number of investors who have gotten into markets where rentals do not support housing prices and will be waiting to anxious to bail the minute prices start to decline.

So the market is caput. Houses aren't selling, prices are dropping, inventories are going through the roof. How bad can it get? Really scary stories and very dire predictions sell books and Talbott, remember, writes best sellers.

First of all, he believes that without the housing boom the economy would have actually contracted over the last five years. Instead it has relied on two foundations - housing and government (military) spending - to expand. As the boom ends he predicts that about one million real estate agents will immediately become unemployed followed by another million mortgage bankers, appraisers, title lawyers and mortgage support personnel. Next will be construction, not only new home but also the renovation business as owners lose the motivation to improve homes that have declined in value below the original purchase price. This sector has an immediate impact on building suppliers and manufacturers and so on and on. He expects that this impact on the economy will be national and very possibly global.

Talbott predicts a staggering decline in average home prices by city over the next five to seven years, which would cover the market (and his credibility) until 2013. He derives this prediction from home prices in 1997 adjusted for inflation to 2005 dollars and then shows the price decline necessary to return to those adjusted 1997 figures before "most of this nonsense started." In fairness, he does not state that prices will actually erode to this extent but that this is the real price decline required to return to the 1997 price level which he views as normal.

The big losers, as might be expected, are those communities that have been the big winners over the last nine years. The top 14 communities are in California starting with Santa Barbara, San Diego, and Salinas where Talbott states that prices must decline 58 to nearly 60 percent to return to 1997 levels. Massachusetts, New York, and Florida are also presumed to be poised for big declines. Of about 130 metropolitan areas for which he provides data, nearly half must see average prices drop by over 15 percent to reach those earlier levels.

To apply this analysis to your own home, estimate what its market value was in 1997 and multiply that number by 1.212 to convert to 2005 dollars and adjust for inflation. Subtract this amount from your homes estimated current value and divide the difference by the current value.

However, Talbott is quick to point out that even those communities that have not seen skyrocketing prices could suffer and just because a metropolitan area has only seen a five or six percent increase since 1997 does not mean that prices could not ultimately decline 20 or 30 percent as the entire economy shakes out. He also sees outlying communities, built along the secondary or tertiary circumferential highways that many cities have been building to be among the first and hardest hit. As prices drop closer in (and his book was in press before the recent increase in gas prices) buyers will have less incentive to take on a long commute to compensate for getting more house.

So what is wrong with this picture? A few things jump out and one is his all-round condemnation of the adjustable rate mortgage and his certainty that this product will do much to sink the ship. One thing he fails to take into account is rate caps. Most ARMs can only move 1.75 to 2.5 points at each adjustment. As it seems to be the longer term hybrid mortgages such as the 5/1 or 3/1 that he is concentrating on, (and these are now more popular than the 1-year ARM) another mitigating factor may be that during the stable period many borrower's incomes have improved or will and there will be some increase in equity. Also, hybrid ARMs, some taking as long as seven years to reach a first adjustment, will spread out the effects of rising interest rates and perhaps even carry those homeowners into a new cycle of low rates.

He also doesn't place a high value on the non-investment value of a home. In fact, he seems to view this as a negative. Many homeowners don't view their homes primarily as an investment but as a shelter or even an emotionally charged possession. While everyone loves to talk about the killing they are making in the real estate market, few who are not forced to sell will rush to cash out their profits.

We are certainly not shilling for John Talbott's book. He makes a credible case for a lot of his theories yet some appear to be internally inconsistent (his indictment of Alan Greenspan and the banking industry seem particularly flawed if one is to assume that Greenspan was promoting ARMs to shift risk while at the same time placing banks in a critical situation should the market collapse.) However, if you wish to read the book in its entirety, here is the publisher's information:

Sell Now! The End of the Housing Bubble; John R. Talbott, 2005, St. Martins Press. The cover price is $14.95 but it is available at discount booksellers for $9.95.