From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Home Prices Decline — Why?

with one comment

Our neighbors down the street, zillow.com, just released a report showing that home prices nationally fell by 3% in the first quarter, or a total of 8.2% from March, 2010. The cumulative national average decline from the market peak (June, 2006) is 29.5%, and this quarter’s decline was the worst since 2008.

By the way — and this may seem totally obvious — but one of the biggest reasons people buy homes is because they are expected to go up in value, not down. Hence, a home is expected to be a storer of value and a hedge against inflation, not a dissipating asset. A buyer in June, 2006, would have reasonably expected his or her home to increase in value by 5% or so per year. For example, as Zillow’s chart shows, even back in the 1990’s, a home bought in 1996 (where their chart begins) went up by a total of about 20% by 1999 — slightly over 5% per year compounded. In five years, 5% compounded annually totals about 28%. Hence, not only are homes going down, they are totally contra to expectations by a total (28% plus 29%) of nearly 60%.

It sounds trivially obvious, but bankers also expected that. It’s one of the reasons why they fearlessly (and yes, foolishly) made loans to anyone who could sign their name (or make a “X”) back in the bygone days, because if the loan went sour (and they KNEW some of them would), they could always dump the collateral for more than they had in it. “Heads, we win. Tails, we don’t lose.”

CNBC had a nice piece on this topic this morning, featuring (among others), Dr. Susan Wachter, of U. Penn, who we’ve had the pleasure of knowing for many years. All of the talking heads agreed that banks won’t loan money today unless they’re absolutely sure of creditworthiness of the borrower. Hence, fewer people can borrow today, so fewer homes can get sold. Values decline due to lack of demand (pretty simple ECON 101 stuff happening here) and, as Prof. Wachter put it, the spiral will continue downward until an equilibrium is reached.

I’ve opined about that equilibrium in this column for quite some time. There is some significant albeit anecdotal evidence to suggest that the equilibrium home ownership rate will constitute the floor in all of this — probably somewhere around 64%, which is where we were back in “normal” times of the late 1980’s to mid-1990’s. I wish we had more data, but systemically declining housing markets don’t happen very often.

Written by johnkilpatrick

May 9, 2011 at 9:20 am

One Response

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  1. The best thing that could happen to US housing prices would be a jobs recovery – put back into the market all those folks that have doubled up on housing or put off a purchase because of economic worries. And that would reduce the apparent excess housing inventory, get the housing sector back to creating jobs. The decline in US housing starts from 2.5 million to less than a half million has a lot to do with high employment rates and lack of demand. Government’s solutions of today are government’s problems of tomorrow…

    Larry Dybvig

    May 10, 2011 at 8:04 am


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