As Manhattan real estate enters the fall busy season, it bears asking: What does the market look like today, and where is it headed? After recovery from the pandemic lows last year, the market appears poised for further gains. There are four primary points that we can look at that suggest Manhattan may be at an inflection point: Inventory, demand, market “feel,” and price action.
1. Inventory issues
From November 2020 through August 2021, Manhattan experienced a sustained net deficit of new inventory when considering contracts signed and listings removed from the market. The fresh wave of listings that hit the market post-Labor Day should reverse this squeeze temporarily. However, with demand remaining at elevated levels, any reversal may be temporary. Today’s buyers may have a window of opportunity to find and negotiate on a home before the next wave of contract action hits in early October.
2. Elevated demand
Busy seasons in real estate begin with sellers and end with buyers — new listings come on the market, and several weeks later, signed contracts take them off.
As the first month of the busy fall season, September usually sees high listing activity but low contract activity because buyers have not had enough time to get deals done. As a result, the pending sales number for September tends to hover between 2,000 and 3,000 units. However, September 2021 showed over 4,500 units in contract, clearly demonstrating how far above historical norms recent deal volume has been, and hinting that activity will remain at elevated levels toward the end of the year.
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3. Market “feel”
A look at the ratio of pending sales to active listings quantifies how the market “feels,” and provides a window into the market’s pulse.
As the ratio rises, sellers gain leverage, and as it falls, buyers gain leverage. This real-time gauge is separate from price action, which usually takes several months to fully manifest. The chart below illustrates what the Manhattan real estate market felt like since it reached its peak in mid-2015. Notice how the leverage slowly and steadily shifted from sellers to buyers culminating in a deep buyer’s market during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, and then quickly reverted to a strong seller’s market in 2021 as demand began eclipsing supply. Even though it’s still a seller’s market, the post-Labor Day influx of listings pushed the ratio down in September, suggesting that buyers have more leverage now than the last several months.
4. Price action
Manhattan has vast spectrums of price points and property types, which makes tracking price action tricky. The old standby, median sales price, is a broad look across all sales and is more a function of the size and type of properties sold. Price per square foot yields a more linear view, but most of Manhattan’s housing stock are co-ops with no verifiable data on apartment size.
On the other hand, condos offer a recorded and measurable unit size. Unfortunately, new development condo prices tend to skew far higher than average. Removing new developments from the mix leaves resale condo price per square foot as a more precise way of looking at market-wide price action, especially when measured by the month of contract signing.
In the chart below, the general price trend since 2003 is visible. The dashed lines represent pre-pandemic resistance and support levels, and roughly outline the channel Manhattan price action was trading in at that time. Notably, Manhattan prices have slowly fallen since 2015, and even dipped below the bottom support level, suggesting an oversold market. The recovery in activity has started to reverse this course, and, at present, the general price trend is back in its channel, albeit on the low-end. With demand remaining high in the near term, current price levels may appear as a relative value when viewed over the longer term. On the contrary, should market conditions deteriorate, the recently crossed support line may serve as resistance.
Buyers have more choices
The Manhattan market is well into its recovery from the pandemic lows experienced during the middle of last year. A recent influx of new inventory has eased supply pressures. Still, with liquidity running at a very high level, an environment of lower supply may appear during the next active season. Prices should continue to trend upwards as the bounce off COVID lows continues, and the pipeline of signed deals over the frenetic summer months closes.
Sellers may be confused that prices are only back to 2019 levels while the market activity in the streets feels more like 2015 or 2016 levels, but the data is clear: We have only recovered 2020’s “COVID discount.” There is a way to go before prices start notching new highs.
As Manhattan real estate begins the fall busy season, time will tell if this recovery cycle has enough buyers in reserve to keep progressing or if a pause is in the works. Either way, today’s buyers have more choice than they have had in several months, with prices seemingly headed higher.