Housing Market Update, “Are we out of the woods yet?”
The march of good news continues for housing. Existing home sales jumped 7.2% between June and July — the largest increase in over a decade and the fastest pace in nearly two years — according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Prices are down 15% compared to last year. A combination of cheap distressed properties, seasonal trends, low interest rates, and tax credits for first-time buyers is working its magic. But a number of issues have me worried that instead of an end to this epic housing nightmare — we are about to enter a new stage. The first problem is that the current buying trends are by no means normal with a large percentage of sales focused on foreclosures, short-sales, or other forced transactions rooted in financial distress. According to a survey by Inside Mortgage Finance, only 10% of overall sales are coming from what could be considered a normal sales process. It’s no wonder, with the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reporting Thursday that more than one in eight mortgage holders are in some stage of delinquency or foreclosure. RealtyTrac reported that July foreclosures jumped 7% compared to June. In a situation like this, with the impetus on the seller to unload quickly, prices will naturally gravitate lower. This brings us to the second issue: The change in focus from subprime borrowers unable to refinance loans because of falling home values to prime borrowers unable to pay their bills because of job loss. According to the MBA survey, 58% of new foreclosure starts originated in the well-to-do prime loan category, up from 44% last year. Meanwhile, subprime borrowers were responsible for only 33% of foreclosures, down from 49% last year. As foreclosures affect a larger and larger swath of the population, it will only add to the number of properties on the market. The third problem is the looming wave of loan resets in 2010 and 2011. As you can see in the chart above, a large number of prime, Alt-A, and Option ARM borrowers will be facing the prospect of higher payments just as the housing market digests the fallout from the subprime problem of 2007 and 2008. Notice the pleasant dip in reset activity for 2009. Plus, should the economy actually start recovering, the Federal Reserve could be forced to raise interest rates during this period. And finally, we have the inventory issue. Despite the uptick in sales, the inventory of existing homes for sale actually increased 7.3% to 4.1 million last month. I have talked about a “shadow inventory” of homes owned by people just waiting for a smidgen of good news to list their homes. Now we see the dynamic in action: Lawrence Yun, the NAR’s chief economist, said the increase was the result of “some held back inventory coming back to the market.” It’s also worth mentioning the crisis of confidence that is set to develop as the peak buying season ends and prices reaccelerate their downward slide. In its latest survey, Zillow found that a full 81% of homeowners believe their home won’t fall in value over the next six months. Adding to the perception that people are losing touch with reality, only 60% believed the value of their home had fallen over the last year; when 83% of all homes actually lost value during that time.