Positive Signs Abound for Housing

thumbs_upThe first quarter of 2012 was the best first quarter for real estate in five years, and pending contracts suggest that the second quarter of 2012 will be the best second quarter in five years, NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun said this morning at the Residential Economic Update during the NAR Midyear Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo.

Moreover, he said the second half of this year could be even better than the first, in part because of continued increases in rental costs and record affordability of homes. "Renters are getting squeezed, and they don’t want to rent anymore," Yun explained. "This could be the year we see the release of pent-up demand."

Home prices have been skipping along the bottom for about a year now, Yun said, a trend that has drawn investors into the market. These investors have helped housing through a couple of difficult years and partly mitigated the dysfunctional mortgage market.

"Right now is the time to buy low," he said. "Investors are coming in to take advantage. Second homes started to recover nicely last year because of investors."

However, home values are poised for a rebound as more traditional buyers move back into the market, Yun said. In fact, this has already started to happen in areas such as Phoenix and Miami, which have seen year-over-year (March 2011 to March 2012) double-digit percentage increases in home prices.

As real estate improves, consumer psychology around home ownership will change, he added. Coupled with the recent — if relatively modest — job growth and stock market gains, conditions are right for a sustained housing recovery.

Future Challenges

Nonetheless, there are issues that could restrain a turnaround in housing. Mortgages are still too hard to come by, the shadow inventory — while declining — remains historically high, and price inflation is rising "above the Fed’s comfort level," Yun said.

To address that last problem, the Federal Reserve will likely raise rates in 2013 and 2014. Yet Yun contends a modest rise in interest rates wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for the housing market. That’s because an increase in rates would cause financial institutions to focus their mortgage servicing departments on purchase loans instead of refis.

The biggest challenge, though, remains the murky political and regulatory environment, particularly the repeated threats from legislators and policymakers to alter or eliminate the mortgage interest deduction. Additionally, the country is racing toward a "fiscal cliff" on Jan. 1, 2013, the date by which a compromise federal budget must be approved. If this is delayed, there will be automatic government spending cuts, which would probably create a fallout effect in the financial markets.

U.S. Migration Patterns

In a presentation preceding Yun’s, Fed Economist Raven Molloy went over data that showed migration within the United States had fallen across practically all demographic categories since the 1980s. This has significant implications for real estate, as a decline in the number of people moving around within the country can translate into a decline in home-purchase activity.

There were no sharp moves downward in internal migration during the recession, which suggests the trend is not connected to the housing market or macro-economic cycles, Molloy said. If this was the case, migration would likely increase in the next few years as the job market improves and household formation picks up. Instead, it could remain flat or fall as the economy recovers.

In his presentation, Yun said this trend, which doesn’t have a clear source, is a problematic development.

"It’s troubling," he said. "We want to have a very dynamic society where people can move up and trade up."

— Brian Summerfield, REALTOR® Magazine

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