A Full Housing Recovery

Can we finally say that America has recovered from the housing crisis of the last decade? The answer is yes as measured by one major indicator.

The recently released Case-Shiller National Housing Index for September 2016 finally crept over the July 2006 peak value of 184.62, the last value before the slide in home prices that bottomed out in February 2012. Given that prices fell for over 5-1/2 years for a total plunge of 27%, it’s no surprise that it has taken over four years to climb out of the hole — and technically, since the index is not inflation-adjusted, we are still 16% below the peak in real values.

Even so, the new index value represents an important psychological threshold for the housing market. Does it represent one for you personally? That depends on how much you are directly affected, whether you are entering the market or trying to make the best of your recent gains.

We’ve Recovered. So What?

Granted, a full recovery isn’t good news for everybody. If you were so far underwater on your home (owing more than your home was worth) that you suffered a foreclosure during the downturn, the housing recovery is too late to help you. In fact, it harms you by making it more difficult for you to re-enter the market.

The recovery has also been uneven along geographical and economic fault lines. Certain areas of the country with pre-recession housing booms (such as Las Vegas, Phoenix and Miami) suffered greater declines in home prices and therefore had more ground to make up.

Meanwhile, the recovery has been generally tilted toward wealthier homeowners and metropolitan areas. For reference, information from Zillow shows that at the end of 2015, median home values throughout urban areas were within 0.6% of the 2006 peak while median rural and suburban home values were 6% and 7% below the peak respectively.

Even within areas of greater recovery, there is a differential between lower-end starter homes and expensive higher-end homes. In the 100 largest metropolitan areas, Trulia reports that starter-home prices have rebounded to peak value in only 34% of the markets while high-end homes reached the peak in 56% of the markets.

That’s an important statistic. Starter homes play a vital role in the housing market. Those wishing to enter the market must have a supply of affordable homes available, while those wishing to upgrade must have a sufficient market of new homeowners available to buy their existing home.

Both supply and demand have been improving, but slowly. First-time homebuyers made up a 34% share of the purchases, the highest rate in over four years but well below the historical average of near 40%. The supply of existing homes is currently at a 5.2-month inventory, an increase of 0.6 percentage points over July’s low mark but below the 6-month inventory indicative of a balanced market. It will take a delicate balance to keep those trends moving forward as we enter a new year and a new presidential administration.

For several years now, pundits have proclaimed that mortgage interest rates will rise and you should buy now to take advantage of historically low rates. However, rates have stayed remarkably low despite the predictions. Why should you believe differently today?

Eventually these predictions will be right, as the Federal Reserve has been keeping rates artificially low to provide economic stimulus. President-elect Trump’s stated intention to cut taxes and invest in infrastructure should bring on sufficient inflationary pressures to spur the Fed to raise interest rates more often, and perhaps in larger increments — assuming that Trump follows through.

Some anticipatory increases have already begun. According to the St. Louis Fed, the 30-year fixed mortgage rate is on a sharp post-election rise, from 3.57% on November 10th to 4.08% on December 1st. However, even if Trump follows through on his stimulus promises, it will take time to put them into effect.

During that time, it’s possible that home prices will stabilize as supply problems ease. Typically, it’s not sustainable for home prices to rise faster than incomes, as they have been recently — people are simply priced out of the market. Should prices stabilize, that leaves aspiring homeowners with a good window of opportunity to buy, albeit a narrow one.

The Takeaway

The rise in home prices, combined with an expected rise in interest rates and a continuing shortage suggests a tight home market, but you may be able to position yourself to make the best of such a market.

If you are planning to get into the housing market, most signs suggest that you should do it sooner rather than later — but don’t stretch your resources too thin by overextending on a loan or buying a larger house than you can realistically afford. The same logic applies if you are selling your existing home in order to upgrade, especially if your current home is in the valued starter-home market.

Meanwhile, if you are one of the 12% of mortgage holders who are still underwater, you’re rooting for home prices to continue rising in order to eventually refinance while rates are still low. Stay current on home prices and rates in your area to take advantage as soon as you can.

Finally, remember the real estate mantra: location, location, location. Home prices in your area and price range may vary greatly from the national average, either to your advantage or detriment. To take maximum advantage, research and understand your local real estate market, keep track of available homes and rates — and keep your credit clean and debt low in order to get the best rate when you do decide to act.

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