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Cash sales are trumping the housing market

When Chris and Diane Finney decided to buy a bank-owned condo in St. Paul, they knew there would be competition.

Their strategy? Offer less -- but offer cash.

While others said they would pay more, they needed to finance the deal. The bank took less and took the cash.

"We were in the driver's seat," Chris Finney said.

In a normal housing market, multiple bids usually lead to higher home prices, and the highest bid wins. But when credit markets are tighter and appraisals are often lower, many sellers will take less to be sure that the deal will get done.

"If I get five offers on a property and the cash offer is darned close to being one of those top offers, I'd take the cash offer any day," said Marshall Saunders, an owner/broker.

In December, 33 percent of all U.S. home sales were cash deals -- a record since the downturn started in 2006, according to Campbell Survey and Inside Mortgage Finance. As a result, home prices can't gain much traction because many sellers won't necessarily accept the highest offer.

For most homebuyers, it's confounding to be rejected because they are financing the deal. For the housing market, it means more downward pressure on prices despite tight supplies and rising demand.

"It's a real sign of what's going on," said Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance. "All things being equal, cash wins."

The volume of cash deals is offsetting other positive trends in the market that should be leading to higher prices. The number of houses on the market has fallen to an eight-year low, and sales are up double digits. At the same time, home prices continue to fall.

At least a third of all homes sales last year involved an investor, Cecala said, and they often pay cash.

Multiple offers are becoming common on foreclosures and short sales, which represented half of all home sales last year. And there's no sign that listings of financially distressed properties will abate anytime soon. The National Association of Realtors said last that distressed homes accounted for 35 percent of existing-home sales in January

Those distressed sales not only put a drag on prices, but they also make it very difficult for appraisers to find comparable sales to support higher prices on traditional listings. When a lender can't get an appraisal that's equal to the purchase price, the buyer and seller need to make up the difference, or the deal falls apart and the property goes back on the market.

"Banks tend to be much more motivated to sell quickly because they have holding and carrying costs," Cecala said. "All that puts downward pressure on prices."

John McWhite, a sales agent with Minnesota-based Coldwell Banker Burnet, said he recently worked with a client who made a full-price cash offer of $65,000 on a Minneapolis condo. It was one of three offers, but not the highest. But because it was cash and guaranteed to close, it was the winning bid. "That happens quite a bit," he said.

In that case, McWhite's client tried to buy the condo when it was a short sale, but the bank didn't approve the deal in time to avoid foreclosure. His client ended up getting the property for significantly less.

Still, buyers need to remember that there's a limit to how low a seller will go, Saunders said. Not every seller is going to favor cash deals the same way.

The cash strategy doesn't work all the time. An outrageously low cash offer can easily offend a seller, especially one who has an emotional attachment to a house.