Hurricane Maria exacerbated problems for Puerto Rico’s already-struggling real estate market — creating opportunities and pitfalls alike for would-be home buyers.
The storm, which devastated much of the Caribbean last fall, caused home prices to drop 15%, to an average median home price of $116,750, according a recent report from real-estate website Point2 Homes. In some areas though, the storm left the housing market in even more dire straits.
In the town of Humacao, the median home price fell from $250,000 in 2016 to just $97,250 as of March. A similar situation can be seen in other popular parts of the territory, including the capital of San Juan, where prices have dropped nearly 50% over the past two years.
“With the devastation there, it’s going to take as long as the recovery from the Great Recession or possibly even longer for a market like that to recover,” said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at real-estate data provider Attom Data Solutions.
Home prices could very well continue to track downward across Puerto Rico in the months, or even years, to come. A major natural disaster like Hurricane Maria can trigger a vicious cycle in a housing market that depresses prices, Blomquist said.
Homeowners may find it difficult to afford monthly mortgage payments. Meanwhile, other owners may sell their homes to escape the disaster-stricken area. Those homes, combined with the foreclosed properties, drive home prices down.
Puerto Rico is already well into this cycle: Hurricane Maria resulted in an extra 57,000 mortgages going into delinquency, according to a February report from real-estate data provider Black Knight.
Some housing markets fare this cycle better and recover more quickly. The housing market in Houston took a hit following the flooding produced by Hurricane Harvey last August, but the market has already rebounded, said Danielle Hale, chief economist with Realtor.com.
Why low prices might be here to stay in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico’s recovery from Maria will look a lot different from Houston’s post-Harvey rebound. Prior to the storm, Houston had a thriving local economy — and it still does, adding 84,500 jobs between April 2017 and April 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Puerto Rico, meanwhile, was suffering from a major economic crisis that had already caused home prices to fall as residents moved elsewhere in search of better opportunities. “We weren’t looking at a very resilient market before the hurricane,” Hale said.
Indeed, investors were gobbling up swaths of Puerto Rican real estate and distressed mortgages before the storm. Now, it’s unclear if these low prices will attract enough interest from investors. “There is going to be some patience involved on the part of the buyer,” Blomquist said.
There are other factors holding back house prices and sales activity as a result of the island’s financial crisis. Owner-occupants may encounter more difficulty getting a home loan, said James Westfall, broker and owner of Island West Properties, a real estate firm located in Rincon, a town on Puerto Rico’s western coast. “The banks are now a little more hesitant to pull the trigger,” Westfall said.
Buyers need to know what they’re getting into
Not every part of Puerto Rico is facing the same difficulties. The median home price in Rincon, in the western part of the island, fell 4.3% between 2016 and 2018, according to Point2 Homes.
Rincon is known for its surfing and the local economy benefits from the resulting tourist industry, Westfall said. “Investors may be more comfortable going into a town that has that kind of mix,” Westfall said.
Wherever the home is, a prospective buyer should take insurance into account when in the buying process. There are still big challenges to take into account. The cost of insurance in disaster-stricken Puerto Rico could rise, which would offset any dip in pre-hurricane prices.
Whatever deal a buyer might think they have, buyers should enlist a local expert to steer them away from damaged properties and to ensure the home is properly inspected, especially if they hail from the mainland U.S.
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