‘Unusual, To Say The Least:’ Your Stories Of Jax's Craziest Housing Market Since 2008

May 5, 2021

Jane Lockett is 73, and her husband is 79. They’re renting in Ponte Vedra Beach right now, while they look to buy a house with bedrooms on the ground floor.

“We found a place, liked it, thought about it over the weekend, and when I called on Monday to say ‘yeah we want it, we’ll put some money down,’ they said they had sold it over the weekend.”

Lockett is not alone. When WJCT News put out a call for your stories about buying, selling and renting homes in one of the hottest housing markets in recent memory, we were overwhelmed with your responses. 

“I was lucky to have bought my house for $260k about 6 years ago,” wrote Reddit user Dcabines in Sandalwood. “Zillow estimates it to be worth $420k today and some of my neighbors have sold for more than that. I get spam calls from house buyers constantly.”

Market researcher Andrew Carney, 38, thought his comfortable salary would set him up nicely to buy in Fernandina Beach, where he’s been renting for about seven years. “But as I’ve saved and saved and saved, the price of houses increases exponentially,” he said. “There were homes that were for sale two years ago for $350,000 that are now almost $700,000. My savings can’t keep up with the price increases.” 

According to housing analyst Redfin, the value of homes in the Jacksonville metropolitan area rose by more than 20% between February 2020 and February 2021. 

“The market here has been very unusual, to say the least,” said Traditions Realty owner and head broker Sally Suslak, “Mainly because there is no inventory.” 

In a typical housing market, Suslak said, there would be enough houses on the market at any given time to satisfy six months of demand. Today, it’s about a third of that. 

“There are 10,000 real estate agents in the Northeast Florida MLS, and I believe last month there were like 3,000 listings,” Suslak said. MLS refers to the Multiple Listings Service, a tool used by realtors. 

“Housing inventory has been falling for the last nine years,” said Nadia Evangelou, senior economist and director of forecasting at the National Association of Realtors. “In the meantime, housing demand has been continually rising, especially since 2016, widening the gap between supply and demand, and putting upward pressure on home prices.” 

Why Is This Happening? 

There are several reasons why housing supply is low, prices are high, and prospective homeowners are finding it difficult to buy. 

First, interest rates are low, so monthly mortgage payments will likely be lower than they might have been otherwise. Evangelou points out that only matters if you happen to have a good credit score, saying those with low scores will pay higher rates - if they qualify at all. 

Second, real estate investors are buying up homes. An estimated 17% of single-family homes in Jacksonville are owned by investors, which is slightly higher than the national average of 15%. 

“These poor people are competing with [investors] who are coming in and paying cash,” Jacksonville realtor Suslak said. 

According to Suslak, first-time homebuyers tend to need more financial help than investors or people who are already homeowners. That means they may not make competitive offers and end up losing out to other buyers. 

Investors often rent those homes out, meaning fewer people have the option to buy a house and begin building their wealth. Investors may also be willing to buy homes that need significant repairs, since they can count on reliable rental income to cover the upfront costs. 

Third, Suslak says the pandemic has slowed down the construction of new homes, while lumber shortages in the U.S. and Canada have driven up the cost of building. 

What About Renters? 

According to market research firm RentPath, Jacksonville ranked 12th nationwide for the increases in the cost of rent as of April this year.  

Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,260, up more than 13% from a year ago; average rent for a two-bedroom is $1,428, up 10%. That means our rents are rising faster in Jacksonville than in Tampa, Charlotte, N.C., and Nashville, Tenn., cities that Jacksonville has viewed as its economic competitors in the past. 

“My lease is up in November and I’m scared,” wrote Reddit user Greeneyedgirl407 in response to WJCT News’ callout. “The unit I currently pay $850 for is now $1,400-plus if you are a new resident.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic began last March, housing experts have warned that millions of families could face eviction as many lost work, lost hours or stayed home out of fear for their health. 

That’s in part because so many people, nationwide and here in Florida, are considered rent-burdened — that is, they pay more than 30% of their income in rent each month, making it difficult to afford basic necessities or save for emergencies. 

In Florida, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, a person would need to make $24.11 a hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment. The minimum wage is $8.56 a hour; the average wage for a renter is $17.28.

On Wednesday, a federal judge vacated an eviction moratorium, meaning that a wave of evictions that experts have been predicting may soon be upon us. 

Dawn Gilman, the CEO of the Jacksonville nonprofit Changing Homelessness, said the end of the moratorium was both good and bad, depending on your perspective. 

“People can get evicted, so that’s bad. But if you’re a small landlord that’s been struggling to make your mortgage, then you consider it good.”

Changing Homelessness helps low-income people find apartments, often with private landlords who may have a handful of properties throughout the community. Those kinds of private landlords may be willing to work with someone who has an arrest record, or a history of evictions, or is in a precarious unemployment situation. 

“If they can’t keep those properties, they often get bought out,” Gilman said. When the new landlord is a national corporation, they’re less likely to take a risk on a less-than-perfect tenant. 

Gilman said much of the pressure on the rental market is a result of the bottleneck in the real-estate market. 

“People who are renting who maybe would have purchased their first home, that home that was $150,000, 18 months ago, is $200,000, $220,000 now, and they may get into a bidding war. So they’re not moving. Once they move, that opens up where they were living.” But if that first-time homebuyer can’t buy, their apartment doesn’t become available, reducing the supply of rental units and causing those costs to rise as well. 

Jaxsons shared their frustrations in the rental bottleneck on our social media callout. “With wages so low, and the prices of homes increasing, it's like the finish line keeps being moved further and further away,” wrote user Technocatmom. “Oh, and our rent just increased with nothing improving.”

“Same boat,” said Ccallard0722. “I feel like I’ll never be able to buy my own home and be doomed to pay $1200-$1500 a month in rent for the rest of my life.”

Are We In For Another Crash? 

Jane Lockett, the Ponte Vedra Beach renter who missed out on a home when she thought about it over the weekend, finally was able to put money down on a new home that’s being built this summer. It took longer than she hoped, but she feels satisfied with the purchase: The home is in an area where nearby amenities are likely to keep the home’s value stable, even if the market deflates a bit. 

“I’m really worried about the market, because I get the same feeling I did when the real estate market went through the bubble,” she said. “I’m worried about young people getting into a housing market and going into another crash.” 

The National Association of Realtors’ Evangelou is not so concerned, for a couple of reasons. 

Homebuyers aren’t buying homes with low-quality mortgages like they were leading up to 2007. Stricter standards put into place because of the Great Recession mean that mortgages are more secure than ever, Evangelou said.

Rather, Evangelou said, these skyrocketing prices are because of natural market forces: supply and demand. 

“Jacksonville, Florida is one of the top 10 metro areas with the most single-family home permits issued in the last 12 months, ending in March,” she said. 

Jacksonville is issued 14,304 permits for new single-family homes between March, 2020 and March 2021. “This means that 14,000 single-family homes have been added, or they will be available very soon in the market,” Evangelou said. 

Evangelou could not say whether 14,000 new homes is enough to even out the market, but it’s a good start. 

“I can’t say if it will be this year or next year, but things will normalize,” said Traditions Realty’s Suslak. “And hopefully it’s going to be easier for first-time homebuyers, like all the millennials out there, to buy a home, because it’s an excellent way to build wealth.”  

Contact Sydney Boles at sboles@wjct.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.