Gene J. Puskar/AP
A sold sign stands outside a home in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., in June. New home sales in July were at record lows, but now almost one-third of purchases are paid in cash — compared to less than 10 percent before the housing bubble burst.
A sold sign stands outside a home in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., in June. New home sales in July were at record lows, but now almost one-third of purchases are paid in cash — compared to less than 10 percent before the housing bubble burst. Gene J. Puskar/AP
It was a bleak week for anyone looking for signs that the housing market is recovering. New home sales in July were at the weakest levels since the government began keeping records 47 years ago. Existing home sales weren't much better.
But in all that news, there's a number that jumps out: Almost one-third of the home sales were in all-cash deals. Before the housing bust, less than 10 percent of sales were in all cash, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Who buys houses with a big stack of cash? Often, people like Craig Fuhr. He's been investing in real estate around Maryland for the past seven years. The license plate on his SUV defines his style of investing. It reads: "flippin."
At a time when the housing market is so anemic that it threatens to send the economy back into a recession, Fuhr is a reminder that there are still people who make money investing in real estate.
And they tend to be very serious about it.
Turning $63,000 Into $250,000
Fuhr paid $63,000 in cash for a boarded-up, four-bedroom house on Diller Avenue in the Beverly Hills neighborhood of Baltimore. It's a pretty neighborhood with lots of big trees and houses from the 1920s, but it's no Southern California.
Craig Fuhr, a real estate investor, stands outside of a home he bought to renovate and resell. Even with the housing market down, Fuhr feels confident in his purchases — he'll even pay in all cash.
Craig Fuhr, a real estate investor, stands outside of a home he bought to renovate and resell. Even with the housing market down, Fuhr feels confident in his purchases — he'll even pay in all cash. Brett Neely/NPR
Inside, there's debris everywhere from where Fuhr's contractors have ripped out drywall. Once the place is fixed up, Fuhr thinks he and his investors may be able to get $250,000 for it.
Potential rewards like these are drawing investors into the real estate market right now, says Kenneth Wenhold of the real estate research firm Metrostudy.
"When you're putting all cash into a particular transaction, it's an indication that you believe that this is a good price for this home," Wenhold says, "and [that] you don't think it's going to depreciate more, and you're willing to bet a considerable amount of money that it's going to start to appreciate again."
In cities across the country, there are investors like Fuhr taking advantage of depressed housing prices to snap up dozens of properties on the cheap. When they're not flipping those houses, they're turning them into rentals.
Cash Is King When There's No Credit
Cash sales have become a big part of the market because banks are issuing fewer mortgages. House flippers like Fuhr could once rely on bank loans to finance their deals. But no longer, Fuhr says. Now he has a group of investors who bankroll him.
"The big hurdle that everyone has these days is just finding the money to purchase and rehab. You know, not everybody has $150,000 sitting around, and the problem is ... that no banks right now are lending," he says.
Fuhr got into the real estate business at a time when banks lent to anyone with a pulse.
"You could do every single thing wrong and still make money. You could purchase the house for way too much. You could take way too long to rehab it. You could rehab it poorly and still sell it on the back end and make money," he says.
A lot of house flippers got burned by the bubble — but Fuhr's still flipping.
"You know, if you've been doing this as long as we have, you know that you make your money when you purchase the house — not when you sell it," he says.
With banks still unloading their huge portfolios of foreclosed properties, houses remain very cheap these days.
Fuhr says he may spend close to $100,000 renovating the home he bought for $63,000. Even if the house doesn't fetch the $250,000 he thinks it will, Fuhr isn't worried.
"The market could literally correct itself $50- or $60,000, and we would still break even."
Which means even if housing prices stay weak, investors like Fuhr could have plenty of chances to keep making money.