Londa Mull isn't your typical couch surfer.
“I'm technically homeless, and I chose this,” she said with a smile.
After her four adult children moved out, Mull, a 50-year-old former real estate broker's assistant, began looking for a smaller home in July 2016. She sold her Centennial home in February, but still hasn't found a house, condominium or townhome that meets her needs, so for now, she's staying with friends and sleeping on sofas.
An empty nester with money and time to spend, Mull realizes she has advantages over most buyers looking for a single-family home. With little to choose from and prices that have skyrocketed in recent years, the Denver metro housing market can be daunting.
Mull feels sorry for families trying to buy a starter house.
“I had a young couple in the Thornton area a year ago,” she said. “We would spend an entire Saturday every week and write offers four or five at a time" but always got outbid.
The couple found a home, after looking at 65 houses, submitting 25 offers and going above their agreed price range.
Mull said she'll use Airbnb — an online marketplace that connects people to living accommodations — to avoid wearing out her welcome if she doesn't find a place soon. And she isn't too optimistic.
“The problem is there isn't that much out there,” she said, but “when I found a place I liked, of course it sold like that,” she said, snapping her fingers.
`There's nothing out there'
A February study by consumer services website Bankrate.com found that Colorado is the eighth-hardest state in the nation for first-time home buyers. Prices are up and inventory is down — way down.
Listings of single-family homes and condominiums in the metro area hit an all-time low in February of 3,878 units, according to a report released March 3 by the Denver Metro Association of Realtors.
A January report from DMAR showed Denver County's inventory of single-family homes plummeted, down 44.9 percent from 2016. In Jefferson County, available single-family homes dropped by 38.9 percent, and Arapahoe and Adams counties saw decreases of 34.2 and 32.1 percent, respectively. Douglas County's inventory decreased 27.8 percent.
Sandi Zimmerman, a Castle Rock Realtor, doesn't need to see the numbers to know available homes are lacking.
“There's nothing out there,” she said.
Zimmerman has had success finding homes for clients over the last couple of years, but it wasn't easy. One family she worked with throughout most of last year wrote seven contracts before closing.
“Be ready and be patient — those are really the two things you have to do,” she said. “This process could take six months.”
Prices are rising, wages aren't
Patrick Holwell, workforce economist for Arapahoe/Douglas Works, said there's a gap between home prices and incomes in the region, and that gap is widening.
“People who aspire to own a home are looking at it going steadily out of their reach,” Holwell said. “Their income isn't growing as fast as home prices.”
In January, the median sales price of a single-family home in the metro area was $380,000, up 10 percent from a year ago, according to DMAR.
According to data Holwell compiled from the U.S. Census Bureau, a growing number of potential buyers across the region can't afford a new home.
Prices are out of range for at least 205,000 households in Denver. In Jefferson County, a minimum of 150,891households are stuck where they are. At least 98,903 Adams County households and 134,818 Arapahoe County households are priced out, while Douglas County had at least 50,714 households not making enough to buy a home.
Robert Smith, Lakewood's economic development director, said the cost burden of owning or renting in today's market has consequences that ripple through the local economy. More income spent on rent or mortgage payments means less money for eating out, shopping and other discretionary spending.
"Cost burden affects not only an individual household’s quality of life," Smith said via email. It "also affects the business community that depends on their spending."
Another strain on the household budget is money spent on gas and bus fare.
"Households that do buy in this market are forced either to enter a cost-burdened situation or find less expensive housing farther from their place of work," Smith said, "which in turn leads to greater spending on transportation."
Bubble or balance?
Memories of the housing market crash of 2008 are still on the minds of real estate agents, officials and homeowners. Most avoid using the word “bubble,” but rising home values and readily-available mortgage loans are nonetheless raising some eyebrows.
Aside from preventing first-time buyers from owning a home, Smith said there are other potential downsides to a housing market in which home prices continually escalate. The worst of these, he said, would be an inevitable shortage of labor, a perennial problem in Colorado's mountain resorts.
Still, he isn't worried about a collapse.
“All markets will rise and fall,” Smith said. “It is tempting to look back a decade ago, then view the current rising housing market and fear a bursting bubble will not be far behind.”
The market goes through 10-year cycles of low availability and high prices, Smith said, but a crash like 2008's only happens “once in several decades.” He said the region is in its seventh year of the 10-year cycle, and apartment vacancy rates are increasing, indicating the market will level out.
Zimmerman agrees that the area is in the seventh year of a cycle, but after 38 years in the real estate business, she's not as confident in the outcome.
“This is my third time of seeing this,” she said, “I wish I had a crystal ball… I don't know how much longer this is going to last.”
An annual uptick in permits for new homes, easy availability of loans and the cyclical nature of the real estate business give caution to her optimism.
“Normally, about the end of seven years you're seeing that it's going to stop or plateau or start to come back down,” she said. “What goes up must come down.”