Still Betting on a Housing Recovery

If you are a "glass is half-empty type" when it comes to the future of real estate—and judging from my mail bag, a significant percentage of you are—there is a lot to hang your hat on these days.

While housing prices recorded a year-over-year increase in February for the first time since 2006, prices fell 0.9 percent in February, the fifth straight monthly decline.

Mortgages rates, which now average 5.375 percent nationwide, are up more than 50 basis points. To you and me, that means they are more than a half-percent higher than they were just six months ago.

The federal tax credits that gave home buyers up to $8,000 in tax relief—and certainly helped spur sales—expired on Apr. 30 and there is no serious talk in Washington about extending them. (As you will recall, they were supposed to expire last November, but there was a loud and successful cry to continue the credits to help "Main Street" while the economy continued limping along; no such demand arose as the recent deadline approached.)

Does all this mean that the housing market is set to swoon again, or that we can expect the fledgling recovery we have seen in recent months to stall out?

I don't think so.

There is no doubt that the federal tax credit helped, especially for the first-time homebuyers, who often need that extra equity boost to qualify for their home. But I don't think removing the credit can stop the momentum generated from other factors that point to a continuing—if somewhat slow—recovery.

macro reasons for optimism

What other factors? For example, even with interest rates up more than a half of a percentage point above the recent low, home sales volume was up 6.8 percent nationwide from February to March, and up 16.1 percent over last March. Those are both good numbers and very good trends. Notwithstanding that banks are coming off their winter hiatus and dumping more homes on the market this spring, inventories remain near 8 percent. This is a half-point lower than February and one-and-a-half points lower than last March. More good signs.

There has been good macro news as well. It appears that unemployment has peaked and even started a slight reversal. The Dow Jones industrial average recently passed through 11,000, around 85 percent above its year-ago low of 6,500. Add decent news from such other critical sectors as retail sales and an increase in manufacturing inventories, and there's reason for optimism.

Then there is the housing affordability index, the number designed to track how affordable the average home is at any given moment. As I wrote in September, it does this by dividing the average monthly household income by the average income a family would need to qualify for a mortgage. At 176, it is still very attractive, relative to its lows a couple years ago.

While many are still disappointed that home values remain depressed, they seemed to have held despite the foreclosure dumping. Coupled with average wages being up, this remains an incredibly attractive time to buy or trade up.

uptrend will outlive tax credits

Then there's the fact that interest rates are still hovering near historical lows. As I recently wrote, it is certainly worth the time and effort it takes to get a loan.

While I am not saying I think real estate sales are going to go through the roof, I'm optimistic that they will continue to trend up, even without the tax credits.

Due to the nature of my business, I am often able to see things in the residential real estate sector as they are happening. Because most residential real estate statistics are reported weeks after they occur, I often get a sense of how things are trending two to four weeks before the numbers are reported.

As I write this column while we are still in April, my nonscientific radar is telling me that you will see very good residential resale statistics for April. All of the trends I've discussed above will look even better when the April numbers come out.

Still, I know that the real test for this season lies ahead. May and June are traditionally important months and they come on the heels of the tax credits expiration.

I'm optimistic. Are you?

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