Speculation in Residential Real Estate

Speculation in residential real estate has been a contributing factor. During 2006, 22% of homes purchased (1.65 million units) were for investment purposes, with an additional 14% (1.07 million units) purchased as vacation homes. During 2005, these figures were 28% and 12%, respectively. In other words, a record level of nearly 40% of homes purchases were not intended as primary residences. David Lereah, NAR's chief economist at the time, stated that the 2006 decline in investment buying was expected: "Speculators left the market in 2006, which caused investment sales to fall much faster than the primary market."

While homes had not traditionally been treated as investments, this behavior changed during the housing boom. For example, one company estimated that as many as 85% of condominium properties purchased in Miami were for investment purposes. Media widely reported condominiums being purchased while under construction, then being "flipped" (sold) for a profit without the seller ever having lived in them. Some mortgage companies identified risks inherent in this activity as early as 2005, after identifying investors assuming highly leveraged positions in multiple properties.

Economist Robert Shiller argues that speculative bubbles are fueled by "contagious optimism, seemingly impervious to facts, that often takes hold when prices are rising. Bubbles are primarily social phenomena; until we understand and address the psychology that fuels them, they're going to keep forming." Keynesian economist Hyman Minsky described three types of speculative borrowing that contribute to rising debt and an eventual collapse of asset values:

* The "hedge borrower," who expects to make debt payments from cash flows from other investments;
* The "speculative borrower," who borrows believing that he can service the interest on his loan, but who must continually roll over the principal into new investments;
* The "Ponzi borrower," who relies on the appreciation of the value of his assets to refinance or pay off his debt, while being unable to repay the original loan.

Speculative borrowing has been cited as a contributing factor to the subprime mortgage crisis.

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