Some weeks we feel like Sisyphus: We push the boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again.
This is one of those weeks. Home prices, which were pushed higher through the first nine months of 2011, began rolling back in the fourth quarter of 2011. Unfortunately, it appears they are not finished rolling.
The latest price data from CoreLogic certainly isn't encouraging on that front. CoreLogic's home price index shows that home prices fell 4.7 percent in 2011, thus marking the fifth-consecutive yearly drop. The positive takeaway is that when distressed properties are excluded, home prices only dropped 0.9 percent. The unfortunate takeaway is that CoreLogic sees distressed properties exerting their negative influence through 2012.
S&P/Case-Shiller's home price data was equally frustrating. According to Case-Shiller, home prices were down 3.7 percent year-over-year in November, with 18 of the 20 markets its follows posting loses. We can take some solace in knowing that the aggregate data were skewed by an 11.8 percent drop in Atlanta and a 9.1 percent drop in Las Vegas. Remove Atlanta and Las Vegas, and the data suggest a more price-stable market.
It's easy to get discouraged when you think markets have turned for the better, only to discover they continue to back track. We refused to get discouraged, though, because there is always good news to found.
Consider homebuilders. Their sentiment and activity have improved palpably over the past few months. Residential construction spending, in particular, has been on the mend. In fact, the latest data from the Census Bureau show spending increased a robust 3.8 percent month-over-month in December, which helped lift the year-over-year rate into positive territory at 0.7 percent.
Another bit of good news for housing, and for all businesses for that matter, is that the economy continues to produce jobs. Automated Data Processing estimates that 170,000 new jobs were created in January. Over the past few months, payrolls have been growing at a monthly six-digit clip. More people earning a paycheck means more people spending and investing.
More people earning a paycheck also means more people who can qualify for a mortgage. And mortgages have never been cheaper. Rates fell again this past week after the Federal Reserve announced it will hold interest rates low through 2014. If you consider rates on an after-tax basis, you're looking at effective rates as low as 2.75% on a 30-year, fixed-rate loan. That's less than the rate of inflation.
We would argue that for most people it's more remunerative to finance a home at these low rates and then invest the money elsewhere than it is to use the cash to buy a home outright. Even though home prices have eased in the past couple months, we still think leveraging real estate is a smart move for buyers and investors with a long-term outlook.
Release Date and Time
Tues., Feb. 7,3:00 pm , et
$10 Billion (Increase)
Important. Consumer willingness to take on more debt points to improved confidence and greater spending.
Wed., Feb. 8,7:00 am , et
Important. Extended HARP will likely produce a surge in refinance activity in coming months.
Thurs., Feb. 9,8:30 am , et
Moderately Important. A rising sales-to-inventory ratio points to improving 1 st-quarter economic growth.
Fri., Feb. 10,8:30 am , et
$48.7 Billion (Deficit)
Moderately Important. The deficit has been rising on a stronger dollar.
Time for a New Game Plan
The latest news on falling home prices is frustrating because it appears to be a self-fulling prophesy that is difficult to escape: Falling prices generally spur demand, unless more potential buyers expect that prices will continue to fall, then prices keep falling. Unfortunately, more people believe home prices will continue to fall these days.
Falling mortgage prices, specifically rates, are also a negative, in our opinion. First, the prospect of even lower rates impedes potential borrowers and buyers from acting. If there is a good prospect of getting a better rate tomorrow, why act today? Rising rates, or at least the prospect of rising rates, as we've often argued, would get people moving again.
Ultra-low mortgage rates have also homologated the market, meaning everything fits a specific template because most everything is sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Private investors simply can't compete with the government-subsidized loans that dominate the market today. This limits the amount of tailoring that can be done to make each mortgage product best fit the borrower's need.
We understand that mortgage rates are an important variable in home affordability, but affordability isn't as important as clarity on the outlook of the economy. If you are secure in you outlook, half a percentage point won't make much of a difference in your buying or financing decision.
Article courtesy of Patti Wilson, Senior Loan officer, Mutual of Omaha Bank.