Housing Affordability: A Possible Good Omen

by Lawrence Yun, NAR Chief Economist

Amid all the media reports on how housing is still “in the tank,” one piece of news seemed to have escaped many of the pundits. Housing affordability could possibly reach an all-time high of near 200 in the second half of this year. That is, a household making the median income would have twice the income necessary to buy a median-priced home in America. To date, NAR’s housing affordability index reached an all-time high of 184 back in early 2009. It was only slightly above 100 during the housing bubble years, meaning that qualifying income barely met the requirements to buy a home even with a 20 percent down payment (if not using teaser-rate, funny/toxic mortgages). Historically over the past 40 years, the average affordability index was 118.

The principal reason for the expected record high housing affordability index reading is the rock bottom mortgage rates of 4.4 percent on a 30-year fixed rate. Add to that modest gains in the average wage rate, which rose 3 percent in 2009 and is up 1.2 percent this year-to-date in spite of the high unemployment rate. Consider now versus then when home prices were at their “bubble” peak in 2006.

Of course, like all things “real estate,” affordability is local as well. There will be considerable local market variations in affordability conditions. Remember that one of the main components of NAR’s affordability index is home prices. Some markets encountered only minimal price declines while others
such as Las Vegas experienced a 60 percent nose dive. Still, on a nationwide basis, the affordability conditions have risen to compelling levels.

However, if a sizable number of people view – rightly or wrongly – that home prices will fall further and raise the affordability levels to even higher levels, then homebuying will continue to remain soft. That will lead to a further build up of inventory and thus hold back a true price recovery. The price decline potential was evident in July’s housing data. Existing-home sales plunged 27 percent to 3.83 million seasonally adjusted annualized units – their lowest level since 1995. Even though there was little change in inventory (with 4 million homes available for sale), the actual months’ supply of inventory rose sharply to 12.5. The sales decline reflected the aftermath of taking the stimulus medicine away. For nearly all of June, homebuyers knew they had to close the deal by the end of June to qualify for the tax credit. Therefore – and naturally – people rushed in to close in June and not wait till July. Qualitative REALTOR® member survey data about recent homebuyers suggest that investors, all-cash buyers, and buyers of expensive homes stayed in the market in July, but first-time buyers did not.

Going forward, home prices may fall, although I doubt in any meaningful way. Even if they do decline, there is no guarantee that affordability conditions will improve. Again, the principal reason for our current exceptionally high affordability conditions is lower mortgage rates. If prices were to fall 10 percent but mortgage rates creep up to 5.4 percent, then the affordability conditions could actually worsen.

As for home sales, there are far fewer people in the pipeline to buy a home in the immediate months after the tax credit expiration. Consequently, expect continuing low sales at least through autumn. But sales should slowly come back because of the high expected affordability conditions. Winter months are generally slow ones for home sales. If sales this coming winter matches up with past “normal” winters, then it would be a good sign that the housing market is getting back on track to normal sales levels. If sales this winter remain 20 to 30 percent lower than normal, then we are looking at trouble with high inventory stuck at a double-digit months’ supply. Remember that the months-supply figure is also impacted by the raw count of homes listed for sale. Since inventory generally declines from summer to winter, the months’ supply will steadily fall, hopefully to 8 or 9 months, and close to the level consistent with continuing price stabilization. For example, inventory fell by 600,000 to 800,000 from July to December in each of the past 3 years. If a similar decline occurs this year and home sales slowly bounce back to 4.5 million (annualized sales) then we can have continuing price stabilization.

A compelling argument can be made about the best affordability conditions, but it will be for naught if consumers lack confidence. Confidence in turn will be directly impacted by the general direction of the economy. Unfortunately, the economic recovery is coming to a virtual halt. GDP growth rates in the past three successive quarters were: 5.0%, 3.7%, and 1.6%. The upcoming GDP growth rates could be even lower figures. (If it turns negative for two straight quarters, then another fresh recession is at hand). At such tepid growth rate the unemployment rate could well reach 10 percent. GDP growth in a post-recessionary environment should be 5 percent or better, not only to start growing but to compensate for the recessionary downfall.

The weak economic expansion means that the job market will continue to look bleak and the unemployment rate could top 10 percent. This does not mean the country is necessary losing jobs on net right now. There have in fact been 763,000 private sector job creations from the beginning of the year to August. The soft economic expansion just means that the job creation pace is too slow to accommodate the rise in the labor force, particularly the recent high school and college graduates looking for work, aside from the need to fully re-hire the near 8 million job losses that occurred in the 2008 and 2009 recession. In a normal good year, there would be 2.5 to 3 million annual private sector job gains.

The homebuyer tax credit appears to have done its job in preventing home price over-correction. NAR prices show stabilizing pattern for the past 12 months while Case-Shiller price data show stabilizing patter for the past 18 months. We’ll still need to wait several more months to get a definitive gauge on price stabilization. At this point, we’ll see how the housing market behaves in the absence of the stimulus medicine. As with any sectors in the economy, it is very unhealthy to be dependent on government help for a long period. Compelling affordability conditions and some job creations are a move in the right direction and we have to just allow some time for these factors to work their way into the system. But an important question that will linger is of when consumer confidence will genuinely return to close on the deal.

For the latest economic forecast insights and analysis, visit http://www.realtor.org/research/economists_outlook.