The Wall Street Journal today says the housing market nationally is bottoming out, the essential first step before it can start rising again. But the Journal is a little pessimistic that the upward bounce is coming any time soon. It says the market could drag along the bottom for a while, thanks in part to the uncertainty over how banks’ “shadow inventory” will be handled over the next few years and the continuing trouble borrowers are facing getting financing.
“There are more signs than there were a year ago that housing isn’t getting any worse,” the paper says, “and that it may slowly be getting better.”
But how slowly? The Journal says prices nationally are still falling. It cites February data from CoreLogic that prices fell 2 percent from a year earlier. Recent Case-Shiller data also show prices continuing to fall. NAR data, which draws directly from MLS data, differs from these two data sets. In February it showed prices with a slight, 0.3 percent gain, and in March with a more substantial 2.5 percent gain. These figures take into account distressed sales, which comprise about a third of all existing-home sales today and have a dampening effect on prices, so price gains would be higher if these sales were taken out of the data.
Time will tell which data set is more accurate. Several months will need to go by before we can look back and see what’s actually happening today with prices, but in any case, NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun is optimistic about what the market will look like later this year.
First, distressed homes are getting snapped up by bargain hunters, both investors and owner -occupants. That softens the impact that banks’ shadow inventory will have on markets in the months ahead as more properties are released. Second, inventory levels are down to six months, which historically has been the level at which prices stabilize.
To be sure, inventories have been down to six months only for a short amount of time, so it’s too soon to say there’s a trend here. But if inventories stay down at this level for several more months, the stage could be set for better news on prices.
One point made by the Journal that is certainly the case is the continuing trouble borrowers are having getting loans. As the paper says, banks are maintaining tight credit standards in part because of their concerns that Fannie Mae and other secondary market entities will make them buy back any loans that go bad. So, their standards are ratcheted up, and that’s causing even creditworthy borrowers headaches.
It’s safe to say that, until the difficulty of getting financing eases back to a more normal level, even today’s brightening picture can’t be taken for granted, and the Journal’s concerns about a prolonged stay at the bottom could prove true.