It’s One of America’s Most Expensive Cities, and Home Buyers Can’t Get Enough
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It’s One of America’s Most Expensive Cities, and Home Buyers Can’t Get Enough

A metro area on California’s central coast ranked No. 1 in the latest WSJ/Realtor.com Emerging Housing Markets Index

By LIZ LUCKING
Thu, Feb 1, 2024 8:53amGrey Clock 4 min

It’s an area already popular with the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

But now the affluent Santa Maria-Santa Barbara metropolitan area on the Central Coast of California nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean has ranked as the top housing market in the latest Wall Street Journal/Realtor.com Emerging Housing Markets Index, released Wednesday.

It’s a surprise result for the quarterly index, which has, until now, typically seen more affordable cities rank at the top—Topeka, Kansas, took first place in the prior iteration of the report, released in fall, and Lafayette, Indiana, in the summer ranking.

“Santa Maria-Santa Barbara topping the list serves to highlight the division in today’s housing market,” said Danielle Hale, chief economist at Realtor.com. It’s the one and only West Coast market in the top 20, and, with a median listing price of $1.795 million in December, the highest-priced market by more than $1 million.

The top five cities in the index were rounded out by Jefferson City, Missouri, where the median listing price was $302,000 in December; the Canton-Massillon metro area in Ohio ($230,000); Racine, Wisconsin ($334,000); and the Oshkosh-Neenah metro area in Wisconsin ($295,000).

“Many housing markets cooled off after the pandemic’s run-up in prices and inventory-depleting demand,” Hale explained. “The markets that have continued to chug along, and even gain steam, are either priced low enough that buyers can compete, or priced high enough that the typical affordability constraints are not of concern to the market’s buyers.”

The latter is the scenario that’s playing out in Santa Barbara.

The index analyses key housing market data, as well as economic vitality and lifestyle metrics for the largest 300 metropolitan areas in the country to highlight emerging housing markets that offer a high quality of life and are expected to see future home price appreciation. It identifies markets that those considering a home purchase should add to their shortlist—whether the goal is to live in it or rent.

Santa Barbara “offers perhaps the finest lifestyle in the U.S.,” said local agent Luke Ebbin of The Ebbin Group at Compass. “Three-hundred days of sunshine and warm weather, a relaxed pace of living, proximity to uncrowded beaches, mountain hikes, fine food and wine, and incredible cultural offerings more often found in major metropolitan areas.”

However, with that median listing price of $1.79 million—more than four times the national median—the price tag attached to the idyllic locale is well out of range for many would-be buyers.

“Though Santa Barbara is among the highest-priced large housing markets in the U.S., buyers in the area have seen similar trends to buyers in other more affordable markets,” Hale said. “For-sale inventory fell rapidly during the early days of the pandemic, and has not recovered much as demand waned in the area and homeowners chose not to sell.”

As a result, “buyers hoping to snag a median-priced home are facing more competition, which has driven prices higher,” she said.

In December, 71% of homes on the market in the metro were priced at $1 million or higher, up from the same time in 2019, when the metric stood at 62%.

“Buyers who have been eager to purchase here and have been on the sidelines due to low inventory and high interest rates are entering the market as rates decline and more inventory becomes available,” Ebbin said. That “low inventory and high demand are keeping prices elevated.”

It should come as no surprise then that Santa Barbara boasts an affluent population who “are drawn to the area’s lifestyle, amenities and upscale housing options,” said Santa Barbara-based agent Jason Streatfeild of Douglas Elliman.

Santa Barbara has “long been a popular destination for retirees, especially those seeking a mild climate, beautiful scenery and a relaxed coastal lifestyle,” Streatfeild said, noting that many migrate from colder regions of the country, as well as from other parts of California.

Not only charmed by the balmy wealth, individuals from far and wide are equally wooed to the area by its thriving entrepreneurial community, and Santa Barbara’s “robust job market, including opportunities in technology, healthcare, finance and education, attracts professionals from various parts of the country,” Streatfeild said. “Some may relocate from major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York in search of a more balanced and less crowded lifestyle.”

Indeed, out-of-towners appear to be driving demand in the coastal enclave, according to search data from Realtor.com. More than three-quarters (79.5%) of views to Santa Barbara home listings on the site came from outside of the metro in the fourth quarter, with a notable amount of attention coming from the Los Angeles (32.8%) area, according to the index. House hunters from Silicon Valley, Atlanta and New York City were also shopping in the area, according to Realtor.com data.

Meanwhile, Prince Harry and Megan Markle are prime examples that “Santa Barbara’s appeal extends beyond U.S. borders,” Streatfeild said.

The University of California, Santa Barbara, also attracts a global cohort—along with plenty of domestic new residents—who move to the area to pursue higher education.

The Santa Barbara metro area “attracted a sizeable 3.3% of its listing viewership from shoppers outside of the U.S.,” Hale said in the report. “Suggesting that international demand is applying pressure to already high prices.”

For comparison, “the average international viewership share across the 300 ranked markets was less than half (1.4%) the viewership share in Santa Barbara,” she added.



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Hong Kong Takes Drastic Action to Avert Property Slump

The city’s real-estate market has been hurt by high interest rates and mainland China’s economic slowdown

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Hong Kong has taken a bold step to ease a real-estate slump, scrapping a series of property taxes in an effort to turn around a market that is often seen as a proxy for the city’s beleaguered economy.

The government has removed longstanding property taxes that were imposed on nonpermanent residents, those buying a second home, or people reselling a property within two years after buying, Financial Secretary Paul Chan said in his annual budget speech on Wednesday.

The move is an attempt to revive a property market that is still one of the most expensive in the world, but that has been badly shaken by social unrest, the fallout of the government’s strict approach to containing Covid-19 and the slowdown of China’s economy . Hong Kong’s high interest rates, which track U.S. rates due to its currency peg,  have increased the pressure .

The decision to ease the tax burden could encourage more buying from people in mainland China, who have been a driving force in Hong Kong’s property market for years. Chinese tycoons, squeezed by problems at home, have  in some cases become forced sellers  of Hong Kong real estate—dealing major damage to the luxury segment.

Hong Kong’s super luxury homes  have lost more than a quarter of their value  since the middle of 2022.

The additional taxes were introduced in a series of announcements starting in 2010, when the government was focused on cooling down soaring home prices that had made Hong Kong one of the world’s least affordable property markets. They are all in the form of stamp duty, a tax imposed on property sales.

“The relevant measures are no longer necessary amidst the current economic and market conditions,” Chan said.

The tax cuts will lead to more buying and support prices in the coming months, said Eddie Kwok, senior director of valuation and advisory services at CBRE Hong Kong, a property consultant. But in the longer term, the market will remain sensitive to the level of interest rates and developers may still need to lower their prices to attract demand thanks to a stockpile of new homes, he said.

Hong Kong’s authorities had already relaxed rules last year to help revive the market, allowing home buyers to pay less upfront when buying certain properties, and cutting by half the taxes for those buying a second property and for home purchases by foreigners. By the end of 2023, the price index for private homes reached a seven-year low, according to Hong Kong’s Rating and Valuation Department.

The city’s monetary authority relaxed mortgage rules further on Wednesday, allowing potential buyers to borrow more for homes valued at around $4 million.

The shares of Hong Kong’s property developers jumped after the announcement, defying a selloff in the wider market. New World Development , Sun Hung Kai Properties and Henderson Land Development were higher in afternoon trading, clawing back some of their losses from a slide in their stock prices this year.

The city’s budget deficit will widen to about $13 billion in the coming fiscal year, which starts on April 1. That is larger than expected, Chan said. Revenues from land sales and leases, an important source of government income, will fall to about $2.5 billion, about $8.4 billion lower than the original estimate and far lower than the previous year, according to Chan.

The sweeping property measures are part of broader plans by Hong Kong’s government to prop up the city amid competition from Singapore and elsewhere. Stringent pandemic controls and anxieties about Beijing’s political crackdown led to  an exodus of local residents and foreigners  from the Asian financial centre.

But tens of thousands of Chinese nationals have arrived in the past year, the result of Hong Kong  rolling out new visa rules aimed at luring talent in 2022.

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