by Lawrence Yun, NAR Chief Economist Copyright National Association of REALTORS®, Reprinted from REALTOR.org with permission
Though the national headlines have been pounding out the news of a housing market meltdown, implosion, and collapse, all markets are not equal. In NAR’s latest metro price survey, roughly half of the country experienced a price increase. Upstate New York is one example. While folks in the area have been kicking through the snow, home prices in the final quarter of 2007 rose 9% in Buffalo, 8% in Rochester, and a whopping 15% in Binghamton. The Texas market has been also doing its two-step dance with Corpus Christi, Austin, and San Antonio experiencing price gains of 6%, 6%, 8%, respectively. Not to be outdone, Amarillo home prices soared 11% higher.
And yes, there were some areas that weren’t dancing. Price declines are occurring no doubt, and quite notably in some coastal states and in markets with a high prevalence of subprime loans. Prices fell 13% in Cape Coral, 14% in Detroit, and 19% in Sacramento.
Significant Variations Across Markets
What the data clearly illuminates is that there are significant variations across markets. As real estate practitioners know very well, there are further measurable differences across neighborhoods within a metro market. No doubt there are some people under great financial stress. Subprime products that should never have entered the marketplace have wreaked havoc on many communities around the country. Homeowners unable to meet payments are losing their homes and falling home values have cut the equity of those homeowners who make their mortgage payments on time. Investors taking a walk may not feel the same financial squeeze but they are getting hit on credit scores – that is, many investors using low documentation loans bought multiple properties and are now simply walking away from those properties in declining markets. The calculus was simple – heads I win and tails I don’t lose. Prices rise, get the profit. Prices decline, then walk away – and let the lenders take the loss.
As I travel around the country speaking with many REALTORS®, I hear their side of the state of housing. Now, anecdotal information should always be read with caution. However, what does it mean when several REALTORS® in Columbus, Ohio say they have never seen such an upturn in foot traffic in open houses after the New Year? One of them said he had over 30 visitors in January, when just a few months earlier he had about only one or two onlookers. A similar buzz was in evidence during my recent visits to Maryland, Virginia, and Arizona. What was lacking from the buzz was the actual eagerness to sign contracts. Buyers were looking — but unwilling to commit. In other words, weakened confidence is evidently holding back buyers.
All markets are unequal in other ways. Consider a Microsoft engineer in Seattle with a great salary and a top-notch credit score. A good-sized home in an upper-middle class neighborhood is priced at about $800,000. A jumbo loan is required. But a jumbo loan in the current environment is very expensive. Fortunately, relief is on the way. Congress and the White House have realized the unequal treatment of loans to some consumers and have now decided to raise the loan limits on FHA and GSE loans (albeit temporarily). As a result, by late spring, home sales on higher-priced homes will pick up.
As for the economy, it will be close, but we will skirt recession. Job gains of around one million can be expected for all of 2008, though that would be down from the 2-million annual average gains over the past two years. Affordability will improve as well – NAR’s housing affordability index is expected to rise from 113 in 2007 to 129 in 2008. Job gains and rising affordability conditions are the right combination to induce buyers into the marketplace.
The current market cycle is unique because of significant local market variations. It is also unique because of buyer psychology factors – in spite of pent-up demand and improving affordability conditions. Our forecast is, therefore, more uncertain. Having said that, home sales in the second half of 2008 will be notably higher than in the first half of the year.
Finally, let me paraphrase Warren Buffet’s investment philosophy: when everyone is greedy, be scared; and when everyone is scared, be brave. Now, I am not an investment counselor and I do not encourage people to buy simply based on this logic. Rather, if people have the financial capacity and are looking for a home for the long haul, the fear factor should be put aside. Current situations in many local markets present a golden opportunity in attaining the American Dream with historically low interest rates.