Flip or Flop? The state of house flipping in northern Michigan’s record-breaking real estate market

Does the concept of house flipping still exist in a chaotic real estate market?

For the better part of a decade, the idea of buying a fixer-upper, renovating it and selling it quickly for a huge profit has seemed like a premiere example of the American dream. In Traverse City, a number of players got involved in that very game a few years ago – and made good money doing it.

But that was then and this is now. The HGTV haze of the late-2010s ultimately faded to market explosions of the pandemic era, and those trends have changed the nature of real estate investing in significant ways. Will house flipping bounce back, or is it a fad of the (relatively recent) past?

Defined simply, house flipping is the act of purchasing a home (be it a single-family house, a condo, or some other form of residential real estate) and quickly reselling it for a profit. In most cases, this process involves buying a less-immediately attractive property (typically termed a fixer-upper) and renovating or improving it so that the home can command a higher price on the market.

Broadly, investing in residential real estate – whether by flipping houses, purchasing homes and renting them to long-term tenants, or buying properties and converting them into short-term rentals – has been a popular money-making strategy as of late. In the fourth quarter of 2021 alone, a whopping 18.4% of the homes sold in the United States were bought by investors, per the real estate brokerage firm Redfin. That figure marked a quarterly record for investment buys in the American housing market, as well as a significant year-over-year increase from the 12.6% of homes that sold to investors in Q4 2021.

A lot of factors led to the current housing investment trend. A robust pre-pandemic economy, low interest rates, rising home values, the growing popularity of Airbnb, a shake-up in the workforce during COVID-19 that led to a mass exodus of professionals from cities – and a mass arrival of those same individuals in areas like northern Michigan.

Another piece of the housing investment puzzle was the popularity of home improvement TV in the latter half of the 2010s. In 2016, HGTV was the third most-watched network on cable television, according to culture website Vulture. Key HGTV programs like “Property Brothers,” “Love It or List It,” “Flip or Flop,” “Fixer Upper,” and “House Hunters” popularized home renovations and made the work look doable for anyone.

In turn, house flipping as a trend picked up steam throughout the second half of the decade – activity that has actually continued into the 2020s. Last year, ATTOM Data Solutions – a market-leading provider of real estate and property data – reported that 323,465 single-family homes or condos had been flipped in the U.S. throughout 2021, up 26% from 2020. In fact, last year’s number was the highest level of home-flipping activity seen in the U.S. since 2006.

That increase in house flipping comes with a caveat. Per the ATTOM report, while more investors might have been buying and selling houses quickly in 2021, those investors also weren’t making as much money. Gross profit margins on home flips last year were at their lowest point in more than 10 years.

A look around the local housing market – or, at least, what the market looked like up until about a month ago – might explain why home flippers aren’t making the money they once were. A historic seller’s market – characterized by sky-high prices, bidding wars, and way-above-asking-price sales – has made it more difficult for a buyer to get a good deal on any home – even a beat-up, seen-better-days fixer-upper.

In addition, a shortage of construction labor, a fraught supply chain and inflationary trends have all increased the cost of home improvements significantly. Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics and its Producer Price Index, prices for construction materials not only hit their highest point on record in June 2022, but are also up 49.37% from where they were in June 2020. Those increases cut into a flipper’s profit margins and make the expense, hard work and overall risk of the process harder to justify.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the northern Michigan players who once dove into the home-flipping market have mostly gotten out of the game.

Flamont

Take Sam Flamont, a realtor with The Mitten Group, which is a Traverse City real estate team brokered by eXp Realty. In April 2017, when TCBN sister publication Northern Express profiled some of the area’s house flippers, Flamont was prominently featured, telling the Express about how he was drawn to house flipping through his capacity as a real estate agent. His first flips were collaborations with clients, whom he helped navigate the buy-sell process. Then he started flipping homes himself. Now, Flamont is saying that market shifts and tough price points have essentially put an end to the practice – at least for now.

“There isn’t much flipping these days,” Flamont told the TCBN, noting that the practice “slowed down after COVID hit, when prices just took off.”

“We are working on developments these days,” Flamont added.

Eastside One

Flamont and The Mitten Group are using real estate development both as an investment strategy and as a way of addressing the growing housing shortage in northern Michigan. Last year, they purchased 80 acres of land south of Traverse City, off Rusch Road. A real estate development at the site will eventually yield as many as 125 homes. Flamont and his team are also behind several other projects in and around Traverse City, including a new condominium development near East Bay Park called Eastside One.

Another former flipper is Mary Morrison-Collins, who owned and operated a business called Fix and Flip throughout much of the 2010s. Working with her husband, Jim Collins, and her son, Mark Morrison, Morrison-Collins got her start in the flipping business by purchasing a neighbor’s house that had gone into foreclosure, fixing it up and selling it. That project led to others, and by 2016, the family team was doing Fix and Flip full time.

Fast-forward to 2022 and Fix and Flip has run its course – at least as an actual business operation. The company’s last social media activity dates back to October 2017, and Morrison-Collins actually started a completely new career path in 2019. She is now the founder and owner of Helping Hands of Northern Michigan, an organization that provides guardian, conservator and trustee services throughout the Grand Traverse region.

For Morrison-Collins, leaving the home flipping business had nothing to do with the twists and turns in the real estate market and everything to do with the twists and turns of life.

“Our story is fairly straightforward: My husband got old,” Morrison-Collins joked. A retired auto mechanic with some experience building houses, Jim was the member of the Fix and Flip team with the construction, plumbing and electrical skills. Mary, meanwhile, brought a sales background to the table.

“Business was going very well (when they stopped),” she said. “However, my husband is 11 years older than I am, and decided at 65 he wanted to retire.”

That’s not to say that the family has entirely given up doing home improvement work, or that getting a good deal on a fixer-upper and rehabilitating it into something more impressive has become an entirely impossible task. Morrison-Collins said that the family recently purchased a foreclosure for their son, and is planning to handle the renovation work themselves – just like the old days. But the days of buying and flipping houses as a full-time business venture is in the past for this team.

Will the trend of flipping come back to northern Michigan? A slowdown in the local market could be the first step toward that eventuality. There were 279 home sales in the five-county region in June, down from 339 in June 2021. Nationwide, there are signs that the housing market is cooling off, such as declining numbers of new home construction (home starts fell 2% in June, according to the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development) and price-slashing (more than a quarter of the homes on the market have cut their prices, according to real estate analytics firm Altos Research). Those metrics indicate that the market might be headed back to a more normal state, which could change some of the dynamics around buying and selling.

Then again, if tough price points are the main obstacle to real estate flipping, then northern Michigan might be a long way from normal. Despite declining sales volumes, the average price for a sale in the five-county region in June was $505,214 – a new record for the area, and a big increase over the June 2021 average of $419,579.

Comments

comments