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Las Vegas homebuyers are bidding up prices in collapsing economy

[LAS VEGAS] Nowhere is the widening gap between real estate and the real economy more apparent than in Las Vegas, where tourism is in ruins, wages are plunging and home prices just keep rocketing higher.

The median price for a single-family house in August jumped almost 10 per cent from a year earlier to US$335,000, according to a report from the Las Vegas Realtors. By comparison, annual price growth in February, the month before Covid 19 emptied out casinos, hotels and restaurants, was 6.7 per cent.

For buyers from high-cost markets in California or New York, drawn by record-low mortgage rates and Nevada's lack of income tax, a wager on a Vegas home looks like a sure thing right now. But in less than a year, those bets could sour as owners resell those properties and send prices falling.

Among large US housing markets, Las Vegas is the riskiest by a wide margin, according to an analysis by CoreLogic, which projects that by next July, prices will be down by 7.8 per cent. So far, values have been pushed up by a shortage of supply, with available listings falling 40 per cent in August from a year earlier.

"A lot of sellers are asking me the same question: How is my neighbour's house going under contract in two days, but I pick up the local newspaper and it's all doom and gloom for the economy?" Shay Stein, a Redfin agent in Las Vegas, wrote in a blog post. "It's because there's so much more demand than supply." Frank Nothaft, chief economist at CoreLogic, forecasts that over the next year, Vegas will no longer have a scarcity of listings. Unemployed homeowners may be forced to sell at distressed prices when the federal mortgage forbearance programme expires for many borrowers in March, Mr Nothaft said. The Vegas area's jobless rate was 16.4 per cent in July, almost four times the level of a year earlier.

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Also, if a vaccine begins to get the virus under control, owners who have been staying put during the pandemic may decide to sell, he said.

Las Vegas prices are increasingly out of line with incomes that were slashed by the pandemic shutdowns, Mr Nothaft said. Still, he doesn't expect the outcome to be as bad as the 2008 crash.

"I expect price declines to be temporary," he said. "They will turn around and start to rise gradually after that."

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