The Housing Chronicles Blog: The brighter side of falling housing prices

Friday, April 25, 2008

The brighter side of falling housing prices

Due to falling prices in many markets, homes are becoming more affordable, allowing people long in hiding from rising prices to venture out again into the marketplace. From a story in the Wall Street Journal:

And now for the heartwarming side of the housing bust: It's helping some people buy homes that they couldn't afford a couple of years ago...

Still, many potential buyers are holding out for better deals. The Wall Street Journal's quarterly survey of housing-market conditions in 28 major metro areas points to continued downward pressure on prices in much of the country.

As usual, there is huge variation from town to town. In most of the country, inventories of unsold homes are no longer growing quickly, as they did in 2006 and 2007, but remain huge. The supply has shrunk modestly in Boston and Denver over the past year. But the number of for-sale signs continues to rise swiftly in the Portland, Ore.; Seattle; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; San Francisco; and Washington areas.

The biggest gluts are in Florida. In the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, the supply of single-family homes and condominiums is enough to last 34 months at the average sales rate of the past year. That months-supply figure is about 21 in Orlando, 18 in Tampa and Las Vegas, 17 in Detroit and 14 in Phoenix. A six-month inventory is generally considered a rough balance between supply and demand.

For condos alone in Miami-Dade County, the supply would last 45 months at the current sales rate.

Prices are coming down fast. Real-estate data company estimates that the median value for all homes in the 12 months ended March 31 fell 25% in the Las Vegas metro area, 19% in Miami and Orlando, and 16% in Phoenix. The typical value is still rising modestly in a few places, including the metro areas of Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C., Dallas and Houston. One hitch for house hunters, though, is that mortgage lenders have become much more restrictive with loans...

During the boom, home prices rose far faster than incomes. Home prices as measured by the S&P/Case-Shiller national index shot up 74% in the six years through 2006, while median household income rose 15%. (Neither figure is adjusted for inflation.) Now prices in many areas are adjusting back toward more affordable levels, a process that could take several years.

In an analysis of 330 metro areas in last year's fourth quarter, National City Corp., a banking concern, and Global Insight, an economic research firm, found that home prices were sharply overvalued in relation to household income and other factors in 21 metro areas, down from a peak of 58 metro areas in the second quarter of 2006.

Economists at the two firms look at home prices in relation to household income and other variables, including population density (an indication of how much land is available) and past differences in prices caused by factors like climate and schools. They then classify as "overvalued" metro areas where home prices are more than 33% above a level that could be explained by fundamental drivers of housing costs. Among areas where this analysis finds that home prices are still too high are Bend, Ore., Atlantic City, N.J., Miami, Honolulu and Portland, Ore.

In most of the country, "we're getting a return to normalcy" in the relation between home prices and incomes, says Richard DeKaser, chief economist at National City. But, he adds, prices may overshoot on the down side.

Economists at Goldman Sachs say home prices are likely to level off by late 2009. They also point to improving affordability. Goldman's chief U.S. economist, Jan Hatzius, says the share of a typical family's income needed to pay mortgage payments on a median-priced home averaged about 17.5% from 1993 to 2003, before jumping to 26% in 2006. The figure now has fallen to 20% and is likely to keep declining as home prices fall.

Mr. Hatzius estimates that average U.S. home prices have fallen 15% since the second quarter of 2006 and projects they will fall an additional 10% before stabilizing late next year. But he also sees a risk that home prices will fall further, particularly if the foreclosure problem proves worse than already expected.

Goldman estimates that foreclosures will add 1 million to 1.5 million homes to the for-sale market this year, compared with less than half a million a year before 2007.

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