Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble
The red-hot housing market's spawned a new breed of bloggers who gleefully await a crash
KEVIN CHONG | May 29, 2006
Every day Matthew Klippenstein, a 30-year-old fuel-cell engineer, goes online to wait for the sky to fall on the housing market. "House prices make me angry," he says. Although he and his wife earn well above the average household income in Vancouver, they've decided to continue renting. "We'd rather be able to enjoy our lives and be able to afford to have kids."
Klippenstein watches local housing prices on the site RealtyLink(www.realtylink.org). He feels prices are inflated, and bases this view on information he's gleaned from blogs forecasting a drop, and on the logic of Canadian financial gurus like Eric Sprott, who writes a monthly investment column on his site, www.sprott.com. Klippenstein thinks the market will correct itself in the next 18 months. "When the bubble bursts," he says, "there will be a lot of people who got swept up in a speculative fever, who'll lose a lot of money."
With the spike in prices, real estate has become a topic -- like religion or politics -- that's no longer safe for polite conversation. Talking about houses or condos can instantly divide a room between the homeowners who bought at the right time and whose swollen property values make them wealthy on paper and smug in person, and the unhappy renters who've been shut out of the market.
And so, these days, frustrated real-estate obsessives have retreated to the anonymity of the Internet. They go to blogs with names like Bubble Meter and The Boy in The Big Housing Bubble that discuss and post links to news articles, economic data, and other blogs in the "bubblesphere" that support their view. Many cover specific markets: the Calgary Contrarian(calgary-housing-bubble.blogspot.com), for instance, or Toronto Real Estate(realestatejunkies.blogspot.com), which monitors that city's "dangerous supply-side overhang" of condos.
As with politics, the real-estate blogosphere is a place for people who feel deceived by the "mainstream media." "I got tired of the grinning chimps on local media boasting about million-dollar condos," says Alan Ashton, a 40-year-old single parent who regularly visits his local "bubble blog," the Vancouver Housing Market Blog(van-housing.blogspot. com). Ashton, who rents, recalls sharing his views once on a pro-investment real-estate website. "I got positively roasted by bullish real-estate types. Any suggestion I made that affordability was becoming a problem was met with outright hostility."
"There's a fair amount of emotion when you're talking to people who would like to buy a home but aren't willing to commit financial suicide to do it," says Timothy Ellis, author of the blog Seattle Bubble(seattlebubble.blogspot.com). "And that emotion was a large factor in creating the bubble itself."
Real-estate voyeurism isn't quite as developed in Canada as it is in the U.S., where sites like www.Zillow.com and www.realestateabc.com reveal recent sale prices on almost any U.S. address you enter. Basing their calculations on public records, they offer an estimate of the home's current value, its square footage and year of construction, and even include a satellite photo of the area. The sites have rapidly become a form of real-estate porn, hooking renters and homeowners alike.
In Canada, bubble-watchers -- youngish and predominantly male -- instead rally around the blogs. According to Zai Yu, a 31-year-old software developer, the readers "are professional, literate in financial esoterica, rational and probably a bit geeky." It's safe to say most rent. And they don't mind that many of the bloggers keep their identities private. In fact, the anonymity confirms the sense that one is ostracized for being anything but wildly optimistic about the market.
Blog authors all air the same economic arguments: the fundamentals are off(in many hot markets, a condo can't be rented for its monthly mortgage payment); speculators are artificially driving up prices; and supply will soon overwhelm demand. Meanwhile, they kill time by pointing out -- with equal parts amazement and disgust -- the astronomical prices. Last year, the Vancouver blog ran a photo of a decrepit house in the Downtown Eastside(list price: $270,000)with this caption: "Notice the bars on the windows. 976 square feet. Just try to remind your kids not to touch the needles on the front yard."
Their view may be catching on. "I have a co-worker who sold his condo last year," says Klippenstein. "He put all the money in silver bars. I think silver has almost doubled since then."
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