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April 1, 2020, 4:14 p.m. EDT

These housing markets are in danger of a coronavirus-related recession

Housing counties that could be most at risk in the worsening financial crisis

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By Clare Trapasso

Ethan Miller
Las Vegas Strip has been closed due to the the statewide closure of nonessential businesses.

Just about everyone has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic—and the crisis, according to most experts, is only beginning to play out in many parts of the U.S. America now has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world. And beyond the devastating human toll, an economic one is looming. The unemployment numbers are staggering, and the economy appears to be headed for a recession, if it’s not already in one.

That’s bound to affect just about every housing market in the country, some worse than others. But which are the most vulnerable? The realtor.com® data team found the counties that could be most at risk in the worsening financial crisis.

Tourism and vacation-home hot spots could be affected more than others, at least initially. These places that depend on visitors to frequent local hotels, restaurants, and attractions to keep their local economies afloat are starting to see big job losses. And when local economies suffer and people aren’t working, housing markets hurt.

“The biggest initial coronavirus hit will be felt in the tourism and hospitality industries,” says realtor.com Chief Economist Danielle Hale. These are the same places where folks tend to buy vacation homes.

“Second-home markets tend to be hit a bit harder in a recession. ... When people are cutting back, that’s where they’ll cut back,” says Hale.

The luxury home market is also expected to feel the pain.

“Luxury buyers [typically] have a lot of their money in the stock market, and the stock market has taken a huge hit,” says Ali Wolf, chief economist at Meyers Research, a national real estate consultancy. “They’re saying, ‘Let’s wait. Let’s ride this thing out.’ Buying a luxury, new home right now is something that can wait.”

Popular retiree destinations may also experience a slowdown. Older Americans, who are more vulnerable to the virus, are increasingly reluctant (or unable) to visit potential forever homes in warmer-weather states. Many of these retirees and soon-to-be retirees hail from the Northeast, the epicenter of the crisis, and the Midwest. And most already have homes, so moving to a retirement community or a sunny, new locale isn’t urgent—it can be put off until the crisis has passed.

But real estate professionals are optimistic that these near-term vulnerable markets, like the rest of the nation, will likely bounce back once the virus is contained.

“Most housing markets in the country will take a significant short-term hit due to COVID-19,” says Wolf. “[But] ultimately the housing market is going to come back.”

To come up with our list, we looked at the counties with the highest percentage of workers in the industries that are most likely to be affected by this coronavirus-fueled crisis. These included a wide range of tourism, hospitality, retail, and other face-to-face fields, ranging from personal fitness, restaurant, and performing arts workers to those employed at car dealerships, casinos, and cruise lines. The data came from the 2017 County Business Patterns data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The manufacturing industry was not included in our analysis. We counted only the counties with at least 100,000 workers and included one county per state to add some geographic diversity to our list.

Vulnerable counties

The most vulnerable county was Horry County, SC, home to Myrtle Beach, with a median county home list price of $239,050 as of February, according to the most recent realtor.com data. It was followed by Clark County, NV, where Las Vegas is located, with a median county list price of $329,050; Atlantic County, NJ (Atlantic City), at $250,050; Orange County, FL (Orlando), at $359,950; and Orleans Parish, LA (New Orleans), at $349,050.

Rounding out the top 10 were Honolulu County, HI, at $636,050; New London County, CT (Mystic), at $287,550; Monterey County, CA (Carmel-by-the-Sea), at $1,173,050; Chatham County, GA (Savannah), at $325,050; and Prince William County, VA (Washington, DC, suburbs), at $480,050.

We broke out the different trends affecting these markets, and took a deeper dive into each. All of the places on our list fall into more than one of these buckets; a few of them fall into each of them.

1. Popular second-home destinations are beginning to slow

All of the counties on our list, most of them on the water, are popular with tourists and vacation home buyers for a reason. They tend to offer lots of natural beauty, plenty of local, unique attractions, and a plethora of places to grab a bite and a drink. And those are the same things that make them more vulnerable to a downturn.

After the housing bust that triggered the Great Recession, home values in resort areas plunged about 25% to 50% depending on where they were located, Jack McCabe of McCabe Research & Consulting, previously told realtor.com. Meanwhile, nationally home prices fell only 17.5% from 2006 to 2011, according to McCabe’s analysis.

Myrtle Beach, in the most vulnerable county of our analysis, could take a double hit since it’s both a popular vacation home market as well as a major lure for retirees. (Median home prices in Horry County, at $239,050, are the lowest of our list.) About two-thirds of sales in the area are vacation and investment homes. And those sales slowed in mid-March after President Donald Trump first addressed the nation on the pandemic, says Laura Crowther, CEO of the Coastal Carolinas Association of Realtors®, based in Myrtle Beach.

Many second-home buyers come from out of state, and now they can’t physically travel to South Carolina to view properties.

But Crowther is seeing an increase in virtual tours of Myrtle Beach listings, and for now, locals are still buying properties, buoying the market.

“It’s a very difficult time right now for Myrtle Beach and other areas like it,” says Robert Salvino, director of the Grant Center for Real Estate and Economics at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC. “Transactions will decline. There’s simply a real difficulty showing and looking at homes.”

The area, like all of the others in our analysis, relies on lots of visitors to eat at its restaurants, stay at its hotels, and visit its attractions—basically pump money into its economy.

Some of these markets were also badly affected by last decade’s housing bust. Single-family home sale prices in the Myrtle Beach metro area peaked at $242,310 in July 2006, according to multiple listing service data provided by Salvino. Prices bottomed out to $160,000 in November 2012. They’ve since rose to $241,900 for the full year of 2019—still short of the previous high nearly 14 years ago.

“Second-home markets are the first to be affected” by a recession, says Salvino. “People are going to hold off on buying until they know they’re secure and prioritize affording the first home.”

The crisis is also likely to hurt the short-term rentals market, like Airbnb. Investors may hold off on buying properties in tourist areas until the crisis passes.

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