The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University recently released its annual “State of the Nation’s Housing” study. The report noted a number of interesting trends, including the fact that the nation’s housing markets are showing definitive signs of a turnaround. But one of the things that really caught my attention was the fact that it’s now considerably cheaper to own a home than to rent the same home – something that was unheard of as recently as 2008.

Due to historically low mortgage rates and lower home prices post-recession, affordability levels for purchasing a home are as high as I’ve ever seen in my career.

Conversely, the cost of renting is soaring in many regions, including right here in the Bay Area.San Francisco and Oakland saw the biggest jumps in rent in the United States over the last year, with increases of 14.7 percent and 11.2 percent, respectively, according to Trulia.

Nationwide, apartment vacancy rates fell by another 20 basis points to 4.7% in the second quarter of 2012, according to Reis Reports, the commercial real estate market publication. For two consecutive quarters the national vacancy rate has been below the benchmark 5% level used as a threshold by apartment landlords for rent increases when the market tightens. The graph below shows how rents are rising quickly along with the sharp decline in vacancies. 

“With rents up, home prices sharply down, and mortgage interest rates at record lows, mortgage costs relative to monthly rents haven’t been this favorable since the early 1970s,” said Eric S. Belsky, managing director for the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard.

In its report, Harvard noted that mortgage payments for the median priced home in the U.S. (when calculated in 2011 dollars) is roughly half as much as it was in 1990! The inflation-adjusted mortgage payment has fallen from $1,183 in 1990 to $669 in 2011. This assumes a typical buyer puts 20 percent down on the nation’s median-priced home. Mortgage payments peaked at $1,240 in 2006.

While housing costs have fallen, rent costs have only gone up, especially in metropolitan areas like San Francisco. Nationwide, the payment-to-rent ratio was as high as 1.45 in 1990. (A one to one ratio means the cost would have been the same to rent vs. to buy). That translates into a 45% premium in renting vs. buying in 1990. Today? The study says the ratio has tumbled to 0.77, making mortgage payments 23% less than rent payments for the median priced home.

The National Association of Realtors Affordability Index has been climbing steadily over the years. In 1990 it stood at 108.1 and was as low as 107.7 at the peak of the housing market in 2006. Last year, the index soared all the way to 186.1.

Many potential buyers have gotten the message and they’re the reason that home sales here in the Bay Area have rebounded nicely in the past year or two. The Harvard study says that others who have been sitting on the fence could join them soon as rental costs continue to rise, especially relative to homeownership costs.

“Many would-be buyers have stayed on the sidelines waiting for the job outlook to improve and house prices to stop falling,” Belsky said. “But as markets tighten, these fence-sitters may begin to take advantage of today’s lower home prices and unusually low mortgage rates.”

Here’s the entire Harvard study:

Below is a market-by-market report from our local offices:

North Bay – Despite this being dubbed as the quietest week of real estate during the year, agents have been working steadily putting deals together, saving others and trying to get the job done.  Buyers are still out in full force so Sunday opens are still very well attended.  Multiple offers rule the day, the high-end is still moving and dispute negotiations between buyers and sellers during the sale are fierce! All price ranges have multiple offers, our Petaluma manager notes. Petaluma, unlike parts of Sonoma County, has limited distressed properties. In West Petaluma, five out of 68 for sale are distressed. In East Petaluma 13 of 36 are distressed  (REO or short sale)

San Francisco – There are only two reasons why there is such a shortage of inventory, our Lakeside manager notes: 1) Buyers are snapping up properties as fast as they come on the market and, 2) There are still sellers who feel stuck because of price declines from a few years ago.  However, prices are definitely increasing.  That will impact both reasons.  For now, buyers are still swarming. Our Lombard office manager can’t remember ever reporting 3x as many sales as open houses. Inventory is a huge challenge. Our Market Street office is starting to feel the usual summer slowdown.  Multiple offers are still the order of the day (mostly in the single digits) with one $450K listing receiving 17.

SF Peninsula — There are 60 active and 22 pending sales in Hillsborough at this time. Seasonally, listing activity has slowed, but there have been some very attractive and well-priced “estate” properties coming on the market under $5 million. Hillsborough is truly delivering value when compared to other high-end communities. Our Menlo Park manager says agents and clients are still looking for properties, keeping everyone busy the Fourth of July week.  Offers are being written – a bit less competition but still more than one offer if it is a desirable property.  Every agent is looking for a competitive edge. Many clients are forgoing appraisal contingencies to better their offer as most local buyers have more than 25% down. Agents are prepping their clients that appraisers are not keeping up with value jumps. The Palo Alto market is seasonally quiet.   There’s very low inventory – local tours are light.  Properties are exceeding 35% to 40% over list price.  Well-priced properties are getting multiple offers. Portola Valley had a couple of big sales – $3 mil and $12 mil.  The higher end is gaining some momentum but still limited strength.  PV is very busy. Our local manager notes that it’s amazing what you can get there compared to a 10,000 sq ft lot elsewhere on the Peninsula – wonderful acre-size lots with pretty good houses. People tend to forget PV – agents need to show them the way. The greatest concern in the San Carlos/Redwood City market is lack of inventory. The condo and townhouse market has definitely picked up. Our local office has seen multiple offers on both Redwood Shores condos that it listed. The price of an average home in San Carlos continues to climb. It was a remarkable June for sales in San Mateo. Listings are very difficult to come by, triggering many multiple offers. Listing inventory for single-family homes in six local communities is down 46.06% from last year.  June ratified sales were up 22.14% over last year and June closed transactions were up 45.76%.  62.21% of the homes that closed escrow in June sold for the asking price or more.

East Bay – Berkeley buyers who do not make their best offer the first time are not even getting responses in this hot market, our local manager says. Still some educating to be done by agents – or buyers are doomed to make a series of offers and perhaps not get the home of their dreams. Buyers who change their minds and come back later may not have a chance. Activity continues to be brisk, our Danville manager reports, but she expects things to quiet down due to the holiday. Open houses for eager agents are hard to come by. The market continues to remain as it has been the last several weeks. Inventory in the Lamorinda area is low and most sales are multiple offers with many going into contract over list price. Our Walnut Creek manager says sellers are starting to realize that now may be a good time to sell, thus inventory is increasing slightly.  In East Contra Costa County, where bank owned listing inventory was once the predominate percentage of the market, listings are now either equity or short sales.  Buyers are out there looking and making offers.  Because we still see more buyers than sellers we are experiencing multiple offers on most properties.

Silicon Valley – Price per square foot is up 18 percent year to date in the Los Gatos and Monte Sereno area, our Los Gatos manager reports. In San Jose, our Almaden manager says multiple offers are down from 10-20 per listing to 3-6.  Some buyers are choosing to wait and see, others doing what it takes to grab today’s interest rates and home prices. Our Saratoga manager reports that sales were incredible for the month of June. Sales for the month were 149% of their budgeted level with most of the offers multiple offer situations.

South County – South County has continued to have a shortage of inventory. Gilroy is down to only 66 single-family homes on the market. 33% of those homes are over $1M. Many homes are getting 10+ offers and selling significantly over list price. Many sellers, including banks, are asking for buyer’s to waive their appraisal contingencies. With the shortage of inventory, open houses are hard to come by since homes are not even making it to the weekend. But, those who do land open houses are having incredible opportunities to pick up new buyers and sellers. Walk-ins for floor have increased – with one agent now having 3 new listings from floor time. South County and San Benito County are seller’s markets!

Santa Cruz County – It has been a busy local market recently, finishing up with about 75 sales for June & with couple of higher end homes, which brought the closed average sales price up over $700+ at least for the month.  Sales are up overall in Santa Cruz County and like every other community the lack of inventory continues to create a multiple offer climate, driving prices upward. The upper end market has picked up dramatically and there are several properties over a million in escrow. Our local office had both sides of a $4.2 million home on the ocean.

Monterey County – Looks like the Peninsula inventory is steadily decreasing in the lower price ranges, causing many multiple offer situations—and not just a few offers, but mostly around 5-10.  There are so many buyers in the area determined to buy a home now that prices are more reasonable and mortgage rates unbelievably low, so as soon as a property comes on the market in the lower price range for that area, there’s a mad dash for showings and offers coming in within a day, our local manager reports.  And even in the higher price ranges, there seems to be renewed interest by out-of-the-area buyers looking for second or vacation home. However, many are more careful, value-conscious in their offers than in years’ past.