Soaring home prices and sales have brought Colorado Springs its share of attention as one of the nation's top housing markets, but a new study suggests those spikes could be problematic and should serve as a warning of a potential housing slowdown.
A third-quarter Health of Housing Markets report this week from Nationwide Economics, the forecasting and information-gathering arm of Nationwide Insurance, rated Colorado Springs as the nation's sixth weakest-performing housing market — 395th out of 400 areas in the study. The report is based on second-quarter data.
"We agree: Colorado Springs is one of the hottest markets in the country," said Nationwide senior economist Ben Ayers. "It's (had) very strong house price gains, very strong demand. ... But the way we looked at things is that it's been hot, but it's probably too hot."
Nationwide's ranking is in sharp contrast to several real estate industry reports and publications over the last few years, which have identified the Springs as one of the nation's hottest housing markets.
For example, first-quarter home prices this year in Colorado Springs climbed twice as fast as the rest of the nation, according to the National Association of Realtors. In March, online real estate services company Realtor.com ranked the Springs as No. 1 for housing in the U.S. and a few weeks ago tabbed the Security-Widefield area south of town as the country's hottest ZIP code.
Just this week, a report by Zillow, another online real estate service, listed Colorado Springs as No. 6 among mid-sized cities to watch because of their strong housing markets.
On the local level, the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors latest report showed that median prices hit a record high of $380,000 in August, while average prices also set a record of $435,922. August home sales, meanwhile, were at their second highest total on record.
But it's that same furious pace of Colorado Springs' housing market that prompted Nationwide Economics to wave a red flag, Ayers said.
The economists who authored Nationwide's report examine indicators and characteristics for each housing market that might differ from what real estate industry groups and publications look at, he said. Among them: payroll growth, unemployment rates, the number of households being formed and mortgage delinquency rates.
Nationwide economists also look closely at prices, and particularly whether they're stronger than what they've been traditionally in a given market, Ayers said. They also compare home prices and incomes to gauge how affordable a market might be, he said.
Colorado Springs' bottom-of-the-pack rating in Nationwide's report was caused mainly by a lack of affordability, Ayers said. Incomes aren't necessarily keeping pace with the ability of buyers to purchase homes, which are getting more and more expensive.
"We rate Colorado Springs as, unfortunately, one of the least affordable markets in the country," Ayers said, pointing to double-digit or near double-digit price growth for the last four to six years.
As a result, some buyers will be priced out of the market and might even have to move to other areas to afford a home, which could leave Colorado Springs poised for a slowdown in housing activity, he said.
"When housing prices are going up 8% on average over the past couple of years and incomes are only growing 3% to 4% ... you get to a point where you're certainly going to get concerned about people being able to afford houses in that market," Ayers said.
He added that Nationwide's report isn't predicting a housing downturn in the Springs, but that the city's market is at greater risk for a pullback than many areas in the study.
Nationwide's concerns about the local market aren't new; several real estate agents have expressed fears that many people — especially first-time buyers — are being priced out of the Springs, especially if they're looking for dwindling numbers of $350,000-and-under homes.
Multiple offers and bidding wars have been common in recent years. And buyers often have to make an offer that exceeds a seller's asking price if they hope to strike a deal.
Also, a Gazette story last year examined how many buyers increasingly have looked south to purchase homes in Pueblo, where prices are tens of thousands of dollars less than in the Springs.
Historically low mortgage rates have helped many buyers afford a home even as prices rise, said Joe Clement, broker-owner of Re/Max Properties in Colorado Springs.
Still, Clement said, "we are a challenging market."
His brokerage recently represented a seller whose home was listed at $350,000. It had 24 showings and received eight purchase offers — all of which were above the $350,000 asking price, Clement said.
"I don't know where it's going to end up," he said of the Springs market. "It's nuts. But there are so many people that want a house, they need a house. And they've had bad luck getting a house."