Cash still reigns in real estate market

Growing trend complicates matters for buyers who count on financing

Almost half of home buyers in September paid cash, an increase of about 20 percent compared with last year, according to RealtyTrac.
Almost half of home buyers in September paid cash, an increase of about 20 percent compared with last year, according to RealtyTrac.

MINNEAPOLIS — Money talks, but cash shouts in the real estate market.

An unprecedented number of home buyers are forgoing a mortgage. Nearly half of all U.S. buyers during September paid cash, compared with 30 percent last year, according to RealtyTrac.

“Cash is king,” said Dave Delgado, co-owner of a medical supply company in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. He recently paid cash for a couple of suburban rental houses. “It’s hard to say how the stock market will do, so we feel more confident and comfortable in the real estate market.”

Mr. Delgado and other investors are spending billions on real estate, signaling a deepening confidence in the housing recovery and a steadfast belief that demand for rentals will remain strong. For Mr. Delgado, purchasing real estate with cash also helps to diversify his investment portfolio.

Yet the cash trend is creating unwelcome competition for those who can’t afford to buy a home without financing. With low appraisals still scuttling deals and mortgage approvals more difficult to come by, sellers often favor cash buyers even if they don’t have the highest offer. This leaves sellers with less profit, can hold back home prices, and puts buyers back on the house hunt.

“The housing market continues to skew in favor of investors, particularly deep-pocketed institutional investors, and other buyers paying with cash,” said Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac.

Though home sales are on the rise, mortgage originations have fallen, in part because more buyers are paying cash. Last month, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage announced a fourth round of layoffs, citing a falloff in mortgage originations. Nationwide, the Mortgage Bankers Association expects a 32 percent decline in mortgage originations in 2014, suggesting that more layoffs are on the horizon.

Home values are also at risk, as cash offers often go for less than ones made with the backing of a mortgage.

For sellers, it’s a simple decision: Go with a cash offer that’s sure to close instead of a bid that could end up falling through if the appraisal isn’t high enough. Jeremy Rupp, a full-time real estate investor and frequent cash buyer, said most sellers are willing to take a quick-close cash offer over one that has a financing or inspection contingency.

“It gives us a way bigger competitive advantage,” he said. “Trade a little bit of profit for the certainty of a closing.”

Mr. Rupp and his partners plan to buy at least 40 houses this year. Some will be fixed up and resold while others will become rentals. In most cases, using cash allows him to pay less than the asking price, then after the deal closes, he gets a mortgage on the home to free up more cash to keep buying.

A recent report by Goldman Sachs said cash deals have represented more than half of all sales during the past 18 months, with giant private-equity firms accounting for a growing share of cash deals.

In September, the number of institutional investors nationwide rose to a new high, accounting for 14 percent of all sales, RealtyTrac said. That includes entities that have acquired at least 10 or more properties during the past 12 months.

Mr. Blomquist said that while cash purchases have peaked in some markets, other areas could see an increase. That’s because large investors are likely to seek new ground as they exhaust options in other parts of the country.

These private equity firms, hedge funds, and real estate investment trusts, or REITs, have funneled an estimated $20 billion into the housing market, acquiring more than 200,000 houses intended for rentals.