Brighter Days Ahead for the Housing Market

By: Allan Heller ~ October 19, 2007

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To help undecided Buyers formulate their purchasing plans, the following October 10, 2007 article from the National Association of Realtors® Research Department is presented in its entirety.

The Forecast

Waiting Room
by Lawrence Yun, Vice President, NAR Research

Several positive developments in the credit market will pave the way for improving housing market conditions going into 2008. The worst of the credit crunch concerns we saw in August are clearly over. A bold move by the Federal Reserve in cutting the federal funds rate by 50 basis points helped liquidity. Even more importantly, the Fed’s action bolstered the confidence of financial investors that the Fed will not permit a freezing of credit in the marketplace. Consequently, markets have settled down and mortgage rates are now more favorable compared to those in August.

But it’s interesting to note that credit in the conforming loan market (those loans under $417,000 and those that meet the guidelines of Government Sponsored Enterprises like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae) has been widely available throughout the recent crisis. It was the jumbo loan market that was particularly hard hit, with the spread over conforming loans rising to over 150 basis points, rather than the historic average of 20 to 30 basis points. The spread as of early October (as this is being written) was down to 70 basis points – still not back to normal, but at least it is moving in the right direction. Many home buyers in the high-cost regions who have been frozen out of jumbo loans will now be able to return to the market.

And the subprime market? Well, we certainly don’t expect the level of subprime lending to return to where it had been a year ago. That is a good thing. While some subprime loans make sense, the vast majority of subprime borrowers likely did not know what they were getting into. Low-and-moderate income families will (and should) now look to safer FHA loans. These loans carry much more favorable interest rates and they have the infrastructure already setup for counseling and loss mitigation.

Taking Inventory

Though the credit problems appear to be over, there is an overhang that looms large that could hamper the recovery of the housing market. Inventory is high – very high. There were a record 4.58 million homes on the market at the end of August. That’s a 10 month supply. But the number of total listings appear to be topping out. A significant portion of the existing supply of homes is old inventory that has been sitting for several months due to lower sales activity. If one looks only at the fresh listings, a total of 596,000 existing homes came on to the market in August. That is the lowest number of fresh listings for the month of August in eight years. The typical number of new listings reaching market over each of those eight years had been 720,000. Also keep in mind that many people still live in the homes that are listed for sale. These people are home sellers as well as home buyers – except for those probably few who want to move into renting. From a supply and demand point of view, it is a wash.

The bigger concern over inventory is with newly constructed homes because they are vacant. For builders, carrying a vacant home is an expensive proposition and, hence, they will be forced to provide more incentives and price cutting to attract buyers. Interestingly, the inventory of newly constructed homes has been falling for the past five months thanks to major cut backs in construction by homebuilders. Inventory looks to be further shaved based on trends from single-family housing starts (down 43% in August from two years ago) and single-family housing permits (down 46%).

If in fact the inventory has maxed-out, then the downward pressure on home prices may not be as severe. After all, while we currently have high inventory, home price declines have actually been in the modest single-digits for the country as a whole. And some areas report price increases. In the latest NAR survey of metropolitan area home prices (through the second quarter of this year), more than half of the metro areas in the nation posted price gains – despite the high inventory.

Brighter Days Ahead

One principal reason underlying those price gains or minimal price losses is our fundamentally sound economy. The unemployment rate is low at under 5%. Job gains continue with 110,000 additions in September on top of 89,000 job gain in August. (The initial read of August job creation showed a net loss before being revised to that 89,000 positive figure.) Over four million net new jobs have been created in the past 24 months — the time period since home sales began to decline. Recall, the last cycle when inventory rose to comparably similar heights was back in the early 1980s and early 1990s, both corresponding to years of job cuts. The current high-inventory condition is unique in that respect and untested in history.

Based on record stock market valuation and strongly rising exports, and the fact that most of the negatives of housing have already occurred, the economy will grow a bit faster next year. More active economic activity will not necessarily mean a higher inflation. In fact, inflation is projected to decelerate – from 2.8% this year to 2.4% in 2008. That is good news because inflation will be the key in holding down rates on 30-year mortgages. The Fed interest rate cut helped with adjustable rates, home equity loans, and in lessening the burden on re-setting rates. But the Fed does not have direct control over 30-year rates. Rather it is the expectations for inflation that truly impact those rates. With inflation coming under better control, mortgage rates will remain low.

Housing figures for September and October look to be weak (we’ll see those numbers well into late November), and they will reflect the lingering impact of the August credit crunch. However, the recovery is underway. 2008 will be better than 2007.

Copyright National Association of REALTORS®, Reprinted from REALTOR.org with permission.