Rising Interest Rates & Bay Area Housing Affordability

Changes in interest rates affect local, national and international economies in a bewildering variety of positive and negative ways depending on the segment, and there is vehement disagreement as to what rate or rate movement is best, or most dangerous, for whom.


As of Friday, November 18, mortgage interest rates have jumped about 15% since the election, with many economists and analysts predicting more to come in the not too distant future. Federal Reserve Bank Chair Janet Yellen recently suggested that the Fed is close to lifting its benchmark interest rate. However, predicting interest rate changes; what factors might arise to cause movements up or down; as well as the direction, scale and speed of changes; is enormously difficult. Witness the thousands of incorrect expert predictions over the past 10 years. For that matter, rates actually went downafter the Fed last raised rates in December 2015.

This report will focus on a single issue: Increases in interest rates raise the ongoing cost of housing and reduce housing affordability (unless there is a concurrent drop in prices). In the Bay Area, already experiencing significant social and economic ramifications from the high cost of housing at a time of historically low interest rates, this is a big concern, including how it might affect our real estate markets.

The degree of the effect of any interest rate changes will, of course, depend on what actually occurs at what speed, which is beyond our ability to predict. The possible scenarios in this report do not imply any predictions on our part. The first charts below provide some useful context.

Bay Area Home Price & Affordability Trends by County

From 2012 through Q3 2016, Bay Area home prices in most counties soared to new peaks. Affordability percentages dropped dramatically since 2012, but without quite reaching the lows of 2006-2007.

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In this report, affordability is calculated, under the C.A.R. Housing Affordability Index methodology, using 3 main criteria: 1) the county median house sales price, 2) the prevailing mortgage interest rate, and 3) county household income distribution percentages.

Long-Term Interest Rate Movements

The drop in interest rates from 2007, the last peak of market before the 2008 crash, through early November 2016 has been incredible. And the rates prevailing prior to the 2008 crash, in the 6% range, were themselves quite low by prior historical standards. The average annual rate from 1990 through 2007 was 7.4%. Just prior to the recent 2016 election, rates were between 3.5% and 3.6% (with an all-time low of 3.3% hit in 2013). The chart at the top of this report illustrates the sudden post-election pop in rates to 4.125% (11/18/16).

Interest Rate & San Francisco Median Price Changes since 2007

Home prices and interest rates dropped precipitately after the financial markets crisis of September 2008. Once the real estate recovery began in 2012, home prices skyrocketed while interest rates generally continued to bump along at or near all-time lows.

In effect, the big reductions in interest rates subsidized much of the surge in Bay Area home prices: Since the last peak of the market prior to the 2008 crash, to just before the 2016 presidential election, the interest rate for 30-year, conforming, fixed-rate home loans, fell about 43%, from roughly 6.3% to 3.6%.According to the S&P Case-Shiller Home Price Index, overall Bay Area home prices have appreciated approximately 82% since 2012, though, please note, appreciation rates vary widely by specific location and home-price segment. The above chart shows SF median price changes only.

The decline in interest rates was not the only or even the primary factor in the appreciation of Bay Area home prices. The massive increase in employment, much of it high-paid, and the resultant surge in population (without a parallel increase in housing supply), along with the local explosion of new wealth from our high-tech boom, were the primary factors. Still, there is no arguing that plunging interest rates made increasing home prices much more affordable.

These interest rate rise scenarios below do not imply predictions on our part: A top interest rate scenario of 6.3% was chosen simply because that was the rate in 2007, the peak of the last cycle.

Short-Term Interest Rate Movements since December 2015
The same chart that began this report

Post-election increase: Short-term spike
or beginning of a longer-term ascent?

Monthly Housing Cost Scenarios
Illustrated Using the San Francisco Median House Price

Approximate monthly principal, interest, taxes and insurance costs for the purchase of a Q3 2016, median-priced San Francisco house at $1,300,000, using an 80%, 30-year fixed rate loan, at a number of interest rate scenarios.

As seen below, the 15% increase in interest rate from 11/10/16 to 11/18/16 added almost $4000 to the annual housing cost of purchasing a $1,300,000 home. If the rate goes to 4.5%, the increase is about $6700, and if it goes up to 5%, the additional annual cost of housing is over $10,000. Illustrating how declining interest rates help subsidize increasing home prices, the Q3 2016 SF median home price was 45% higher than the previous peak price in 2007, however the increase in monthly housing costs (PITI) was only 14% higher than in 2007 due the big drop in mortgage rates.

Minimum Qualifying Household Income

The below chart tracks approximate household income needed to qualify for the purchase of a Q3 2016, median-priced San Francisco house at $1,300,000, using an 80%, 30-year fixed rate loan, per associated PITI costs, at various interest rates.

As interest rates increase, household income requirements increase. Before the election, buyers needed an approximate income of $251,000 to qualify for financing their purchase of a median priced SF house, with a 20% down-payment. By Friday, November 18, the income requirement increased by $13,000. And if the interest rate goes up to 5% (and again, we are not saying it will), an additional $35,000 in annual income would be required.

Housing Affordability Trends for San Francisco

If housing costs increase, then housing affordability declines. In Q3 2016, the percentage of San Francisco households who could afford to purchase a median priced house, at 14%, was 6 points higher than the all-time low of 8% in Q3 2007. The recent interest rate increase through 11/18/16 drops that another percentage point. If additional rate increases occur, then, all things being equal, San Francisco will continue to move closer to the historic low hit at the peak of the last market cycle. And, of course, the affordability percentages of other Bay Area counties will also drop. (San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin have the 3 lowest percentages in the state, and must be in the running for lowest percentages in the country.)

To what exact degree interest rate changes would affect local real estate markets is unknown. Much would depend on the scale and speed of change as well as other economic trends in the Bay Area – such as high-tech hiring and IPOs coming to market – as well as macro-economic trends in the nation. But it could include a slowing of transaction activity and new construction projects, possible adjustments to home prices, or the continued pushing of buyers from more expensive areas to less expensive ones (including, possibly, those outside the Bay Area). High housing costs are not an easy problem to fix, and increasing interest rates, if they continue, are unlikely to help.
All the statistics and numbers used in this analysis are based on data deemed reliable but should be considered approximations and generalities, most useful in illustrating comparative values and broad trend lines. By definition, half of the homes sold cost less than the median sales price, and greater percentages of households could afford their purchase. Also other property types such as condos are typically significantly less expensive than houses, so they would be more affordable as well. Our gratitude to the California Association of Realtors, and in particular, its analyst Azad Amir-Ghassemi, for all their work on the Housing Affordability Index (HAI). For analyses and scenarios after Q3 2016, the numbers reflect our best estimates based upon our understanding of the CAR HAI methodology, and/or housing cost calculators. None of the interest rate increase scenarios included imply any predictions on our part that such increases will occur. Anyone contemplating purchasing a home with financing should confer with a qualified loan agent and their own financial planners. This report was written in good faith, but may contain errors and is subject to revision.

© 2016 Paragon Real Estate Group