Silicon Valley real estate: The Facebook effect

April 30, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

A barely noticed effect of the social network's IPO is an already hyperventilating local real estate market that's now going bonkers.

By David A. Kaplan, contributor

FORTUNE -- Facebook's looming public offering may mark high water in confidence around Silicon Valley these days. And it is surely is going to make a lot of techies very rich, likely in a few weeks. But there's a smaller, barely noticed effect of the IPO: an already hyperventilating local real estate market that's now going bonkers.

Though the number of actual prospective home buyers with Facebook connections is only a fraction of all buyers in the Valley, their psychological effect on the market is unmistakable. In Palo Alto, in particular -- which Mark Zuckerberg calls home --sellers are either keeping their homes off the market until the IPO or ramping up expectations. For the first quarter of 2012, according to BrokerMetrics, the median price of a single-family P.A. home went up 11%, whereas inventory declined 57%.

One broker, Michael Dreyfus, tells a story. He had a client with a house in Old Palo Alto -- one of the town's best neighborhoods (where Steve Jobs lived) -- and advised the client a few months ago the house would likely sell between $2.8 million and $3 million. Thinking that too conservative, the client priced it at $3.5 million. The unexceptional 3,500-square-foot home sold two months later for nearly $3.9 million. "The locals are all gaga over Facebook and how much their houses are going to be worth," Dreyfus says. "And they're holding their houses off the market."

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That in turns generates an inventory problem, which drives prices up further. "Palo Alto Gold!" declared a post earlier this year on the website of Dreyfus's boutique residential brokerage. "Every real estate agent in town has a long list of buyers and you can almost feel the preparation for a spring frenzy. The hordes of buyers are going to overwhelm our meager supply."

But if the Facebook offering doesn't perform as well as expected -- and this week the company reported revenues were down -- then the housing market could face "a great big crash," according to Dreyfus. If the homeowners who are now waiting put their homes on the market anyway, worried over further declines, the market would go down more. If that happened, it could be the sign that the long-prognosticated bubble in the Valley may finally have appeared -- and burst.

The Facebook effect may be creating another burgeoning phenomenon around the Valley: secret sales. The Multiple Listing Service (MLS) has always been the mainstream way to sell your house in the U.S. But many wealthy homeowners don't want FOR SALE signs up on the front lawns or their addresses in public brokerage listings—or photos online of the master bedroom. So some brokers bypass MLS and use their own contacts to hunt for possible buyers. "Pssst…Have I got a house for you!" reads a recent unironically intended headline in the Palo Alto Weekly, The story comes complete with unprivate photos of that lovely 7,732-square-foot Colonial not far from Zuck's new place ("just under $9 million"!) or the 1929 Mediterranean for $11.5 million just across the street from Jobs's house.

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One estate currently for sale by Dreyfus is on the private market for what he says will be the most expensive ever sold in Palo Alto -- more than a record $15 million. He might want to tell you more about it, but he can't. Even the price is private.

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