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Subprime Spillover

Out of necessity, much of the national media's coverage of the country's deepening foreclosure crisis takes a big-picture view, focusing on broad economic trends, maneuvering on Wall Street and the federal government's cleanup efforts. But behind those reports lie the stories of individual home and business owners coping with losses or assessing their chances of weathering the downturn. Likewise, brokers and developers working in commercial real estate in the hardest hit cities have to wonder whether their markets have hit bottom yet and, if not, how much farther they have to fall. If retail follows rooftops, as the adage goes, what happens when those rooftops are on foreclosed homes?

As it stands, the rash of foreclosures shows no sign of slowing yet. From February to March, foreclosure filings rose 5 percent across the country to a total of 234,685, according to RealtyTrac. That's a 57 percent hike from a year before. Overall, estimates of total foreclosures by the end of 2008 range as high as two million to three million homes.

Complicating matters is the fact that home prices are still falling. The average single-family home in a U.S. metro area sold for $206,200 in the fourth quarter of 2007. Prices were down 2.7 percent year over year — the largest drop on record according to the National Association of Realtors. According to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index, nationwide home prices are down 18 percent from their 2006 peak. As a result, an estimated nine million homeowners are now in negative equity situations — they owe more for their mortgages than their houses are worth.

Figures from the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development show that 471,000 new houses were on the market at the end of February — a 9.8-month supply at the current pace of home sales. And 4.1 million existing homes were up for sale at the end of March, according to the National Association of Realtors, a 9.9-month supply.

But the damage has not been spread equally. Some markets have been particularly hard hit by the crisis. So what's the view from the bottom? It turns out, it is not exactly the same.

Detroit, Las Vegas and Stockton, Calif., are three very different markets. But they do have one thing in common. They are cities where foreclosure rates have climbed precipitously high, according to national tallies of bank repossessions and default and auction notices. And the retail markets in each city are feeling the aftereffects of the residential crisis. Yet the symptoms of the crisis cropping up in each city's commercial real estate market are far from uniform. They vary according to how these cities had fared before the foreclosure crisis, their relative strengths and weaknesses in retail offerings, and other macroeconomic drivers.

Conversations with brokers and developers find diverging stories behind the financial headlines, but a shared tendency to focus on the positive and a sense that opportunities can be found in even the most difficult of circumstances. Many view the correction in the housing market as a necessary return to normal — one that requires a little extra salesmanship but that can be overcome. “What can you do?” asks Barry Landau, a broker in Detroit. “You can curl up in a ball and die. Or you can make phone calls.”

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