Monday, May 5, 2008

What $4 gas means to Saline real estate

When the gas pump turns off automatically at $50 while filling your tank, you know that gas prices are REALLY high. But, what does that mean for Saline Real Estate?

Most of the articles about the price of gas are based upon an implicit assumption: that the price of gas is only temporarily as high as it is. This is not the case. Gas isn't going to get significantly cheaper than today. As a matter of fact, it’s a better bet that the price ten years from now will be much higher. It's a matter of supply and demand. Two billion people in China and India are joining the consumer society, and they want our standard of living. There was a recent article in the AP headlined Gas guzzlers a hit in China, where car sales are booming.

But while sport utility vehicle sales in the U.S. are tumbling, automakers are finding that for China's newly prosperous car buyers, bigger is still better. So General Motors Corp. has made the Escalade a star of its Chinese auto-show display, and is eager to get it on the market there. "If you look at the fastest-growing market segments in China, there are two - SUVs and luxury cars," said Joseph Y.H. Liu, GM China's vice president for sales and marketing.

It isn't a matter of price gouging by the oil companies, or even by OPEC. The real bottleneck is in refining capacity. Oh, there's only a finite supply of oil and eventually it will all be gone. But right now, the things limiting supply are how fast we can get it out of the ground, and how fast it can be refined to a usable form. It doesn't matter how much water is in the lake if you need more supply faster than the pipes can carry it.

Suburban and rural real estate (like around Saline) grew on cheap gas. Five years ago, gas was $1.40 per gallon. A car that gets 20 mph can go 70 miles on $5 worth of $1.40 gas. With gas in Saline now over $3.60 per gallon, things aren't nearly so rosy. Instead of 70 miles, that $5 will only barely take you marathon distance (26.3 miles), and it's going to get worse. At $5 per gallon, the consumer with a job in downtown Detroit who lives in Saline (40 miles) has gone from spending roughly $1400 per year on gas for their commute (five years ago) to $3600 per year on gas now, to possibly $5000 per year (when gas hits $5 per gallon). That difference of $3600 is $300 per month right out of the family budget. In most cases, two spouses are driving separately, which means that difference goes to $600 per month, or more than $7200 per year right out of their after tax income. It’s only a matter of time before already-stingy mortgage lenders figure out a way to account for a borrower’s reduced ability to re-pay a mortgage. When mortage-ability is an issue, you know that home prices will be negatively affected.

Saline isn't the furthest of Detroit's bedroom communities, by any means. I know people who commute from Tecumseh to Southfield each day. Many commutes are over 100 miles, plus all the people from even further afield (for instance, Saline to Lansing). Despite greatly augmented gas mileage, hybrids aren't going to offset this increase and even if they were, people would be adding the cost of at least one new car in order to do so. I don't know if you've looked recently, but hybrids aren't economy-car priced.

With this effectively raising the cost of living further from the job, one of two things will need to happen: Either the places where the jobs are will have to relocate to the suburbs (where their workers can afford to live), or people will have to start finding places to live closer to their jobs. The older communities closer in have long been less attractive than new developments further out (like, in Saline), but raise the price of making that trip enough, and the macroeconomic reality will force people to start thinking more in terms of shortening the commute, even if it means they have to settle for a 1200 square foot house built in 1950 instead of a new 2600 square foot one way out in Saline. People are willing to make sacrifices when it's mostly time out of their day, but when it's a continuing drain on the wallet that means little Billy can have an 8x8 bedroom and food, clothes, and a college fund, or a 15x12 bedroom and none of the others, you can expect more people to start choosing the former.

What this means is that suburban bedroom communities (like Saline) become less valuable, while older communities closer in to the job centers become more valuable. For those who may not realize what I'm saying, the closer it is to places where people work, the more valuable it will become. This factor has always been present, and the cost to commute has always been part of the cost of the property, no matter how many people pretended it wasn't. It will become a more important component as time goes by and gas prices rise further. The further people have to drive to work every day, the less a given area will be worth. The people who work there won't have these costs, of course, but most of the skilled trades that get substantial paychecks have to work in the main job centers, and there aren't as many of those in Saline or Manchester as there are in the central areas of Detroit and Ann Arbor. Corporate facilities are where they are, and if you can't afford to commute, you're either not going to work there or not going to live here.

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